Content Note: Catholic priest sexual abuse, sexual assault
I’ve learned not to say ‘well, it can’t get any worse’ when it comes to genealogy. Knowledge is power and sometimes learning the truth about your ancestors (and living family) can be harmful.
Nonethless, it is truth. It is the story of my life. I have over 20,000 people in my family tree and some of them were not great people. I’ve discovered alcohol abuse, physical abuse, neglect, abandonment, untreated mental health issues, horrific medical diagnoses, etc. I’ve also discovered murderers, rapists and pedophiles.
I grew up with (at least) two serial sexual predators in my life. One was a now-deceased family member and the other was a Catholic priest assigned to our parish in the 1980’s. We lived about 1/3 of a mile away from the church and rectory. He was a creepy man – I’ve shared before that all of the kids knew he was creepy, but who listened to Catholic kids in the 1980s?
He did terrible, awful things. He was removed from ministry and died in 2011 in Clairton. He was protected by a Church hierarchy that still struggles to acknowledge what they did to us, to the Catholic kids. He was protected by our parents and other church adults who couldn’t acknowledge what was done to us and possibly what they themselves experienced as young Catholic kids.
None of this is new.
What is new is the discovery that this pedophile, sexual predator priest is part of a my distant family. I saw the surname pop up while I was researching the family of my cousin’s husband. That family has a pretty interesting Bloomfield story. But lurking on the other side of a family tree or two, I found John W. Wellinger. The bastard managed to lurch his way into my family tree.
The family tree I explored gave no indication that Wellinger was a horrorible human being who committed despicable crimes. It didn’t acknowledge his ties to the Catholic Church. He was just another entry, a date of birth and death and a few simple facts. I might not otherwise have noticed except for my instinctive reaction to the surname.
Because of course he’s part of my family tree. Of course he is. It’s not enough that I have my own sexual predator rapist in my own biological family AND grew up with a sexual predator priest. Of course, it has to turn out that the bastard priest is also part of my family tree. That’s fucked up.
So, how do you acknowledge these horrible human beings in a family tree? I threw out this question on several Facebook group devoted to genealogy and the answers boil down to:
- Just list them like any other person with basic facts. Criminal convictions and incarceration are facts.
- Include links to sources of the crimes (newspaper articles, public records, etc) so that interested researchers can pursue that information.
- Create a note/memo attached to the person with a list of their crimes using a title like “Insert Name Law Encounter Summary” compiling the whole story and linking as a source to individual entries as facts.
- Use an icon in lieu of a photograph of the person as sort of a red flag. Suggestions included a red leaf (merging the person as a leaf on the tree with a red flag) and/or a crime icon. It can also be used in addition to the photo of the person if you wish.
- Do nothing. Don’t include their information. Erase them.
My desire to be precise about this is more than my own rigidity. As I researched Wellinger’s family, I saw that he grew up near the other predator in my family albeit of a different generation. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any tie between their own experiences as victims of abuse?
I acknowledge that it is imperative to be respectful of survivors. Denying something traumatic happened is not respectful. Erasing the story is not respectful. I’m protecting living people even as I write this because I’m not giving my readers all of the facts.
I also know that the impact of trauma effects more than the survivor. The field of epigenetics and trauma is still pretty new, but there is evidence from survivors of the Holocaust to suggest that it can be multigeneration. That doesn’t mean that simply being raised by a parent who experienced or witnesses trauma is the cause. It is much deeper than that. It means that the trauma changes our genetic material. It is both nature and nuture, you might say.
This is obviously not limited to those who are convicted of their crimes. In my situation, Wellinger was not convicted. Neither was the other predator. It gets murkier when your great uncle was a town drunk who beat his wife in the 1930’s, but there’s little in the way of concrete information to go on.
But adding a notation about this piece of the story might help his great-great-grandchildren struggling to understand how alcoholism (or spousal abuse) originated in the story. I’ve unpacked some atrocious stories about my own recent ancestors around both mental illness and substance use, especially alcohol. It certainly shows that it didn’t start with my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents generations.
And it doesn’t end. I have a newly discoverd third cousin imprisoned for multiple accounts of sexual assault against minors. He’s my age.
To be fair, there’s a limit to how much we can know about our ancestors even with criminal justice system documentation. In my case with the priest, I lived it myself so I feel pretty confident making sure the entry is robust. It sickens me, but it is part of my story.
The story of my life.
“Written in these walls are the stories that I can’t explain … Seems to me that when I die these words will be written on my stone … until she’s broke inside”
When I have to put some energy on these awful things, I think of this song. It is a pop tune, but I transpose the lyrics to be me talking to myself about these stories. Call it a coping mechanism if you like. We all need those.
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