Sister finds that faith sustains when institutions fail

Amityville Dominican Sr. Sally Butler holds a picture of Carlos Cruz and his wife, Georgine Cruz. Butler raised Carlos Cruz from the time his mother died when he was 12 as if he were her own son. (GSR photo / Dan Stockman)

It's a gorgeous spring day, and the sunshine is pouring into the bedroom of Dominican Sr. Sally Butler's apartment in the Fort Greene neighborhood, brightening the already cheery lavender-painted walls.

Butler's eyes are bright, especially when she talks about how Jesus was a poor working man who lived among the outcasts, a model she has tried to live since moving to the neighborhood in 1968.

"That's what keeps me going," Butler says. "You can meet Christ in many ways. And if that's what a sacrament is — meeting with Christ — then I'm OK. I've never felt deprived. Whatever my faith is, it's very simple."

Butler, 86, can't get out of bed because of spinal stenosis and arthritis. And even if she could, for the past 24 years, she says, she has had to find her connection to Christ outside the church.

Though she has been in religious life for nearly 70 years, Butler is unable to believe in the institutional church anymore. But her faith in God, she says, has never been stronger.

'We were betrayed'

Butler's faith in the church began to crack in 1993.

She was walking through one of the many public-housing projects in Fort Greene when she realized she hadn't seen a woman she knew in church lately, so she stopped in. The woman told Butler she had recently learned that one of the priests at St. Michael-St. Edward parish nearby had molested her son 20 years before.

Butler and two other sisters lived in the parish rectory, where they worked with three priests. The priests had lived there before moving to the rectory at nearby St. Boniface parish, six blocks away, and were still frequent visitors, often staying the night when they were working in that neighborhood.

"I rejected it. It was incomprehensible in 1993," Butler says. "I thought I knew these men so well. I thought only monsters did that sort of thing."

The revelation came with another, even more frightening one: The woman's son, Jerry, had been best friends with Carlos Cruz, who Butler had raised as a son after his mother died in 1973. If the priests had sexually abused Jerry, what might have happened to Cruz, who had lived with Butler in the rectory?

She called Cruz, then 32 years old and living in upstate New York, and as gently as she could, asked him if things had happened with a priest in the rectory when he was a boy. Yes, he said, but he didn't want to talk about it.

"Both of us were very, very tentative," Butler says. "It was like I was trying to open a wound, and both of us were very afraid."

Gradually, the story came out.

"Every morning, this priest would go to church, celebrate Mass, molest a child, then have breakfast with us," Butler says. "How does that happen? I still can't wrap my head around that."

So the next day, when she walked into Mass at St. Michael-St. Edward — where she had lived for more than a decade and attended daily Mass for 25 years — she began to feel as if there was a huge weight pressing down on her heart.

As she entered the pew and knelt to pray, the pressure increased until it became so intense she had to get up and go outside, where the pressure immediately lifted.

"It was a physical reaction that frightened me to death," she says.

That feeling progressed in the months that followed until she could not enter the church at all.

Butler loved the parish, loved its people, loved the people of the neighborhood and the work she did there. But now the very building filled her with guilt and revulsion.

The exterior of the former St. Michael and St. Edward Catholic Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The church was closed in 2011 because of falling attendance and a shortage of priests. (GSR photo /Dan Stockman)

She became so depressed she went home and stayed in bed all day. She quickly found that all the other parishes in the area had a similar effect.

"Betrayed. That's the word," she says. "We came in [to religious life] starry-eyed and gave up just about everything with joy. But we were betrayed."

Still, looking back, she says she regrets nothing.

'We were going to save the world'

After attending a Catholic high school, where there was pressure to make a decision regarding religious life, Butler briefly considered joining the Catholic Worker movement. But the influence of her Dominican teachers won out, and in 1949, at age 19, Butler joined her friends who had entered the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville order the year before.

"I was scared to death," she says. "It was like going into the Marines or something, because it was all or nothing. And I was always afraid they'd catch on that I wasn't good enough."

For years, Butler was a teacher, but in 1968, St. Michael-St. Edward parish hired Butler and two other Dominican sisters to serve its impoverished Fort Greene neighborhood.

They first lived in an apartment in the housing projects, then in 1973 moved into the St. Michael-St. Edward rectory when the three priests moved to St. Boniface.

The sisters helped connect residents to the agencies that were supposed to be helping them, assisted with forms and paperwork, attended community meetings and used their voices to help the neighborhood in disputes with the city.

The three sisters and three priests formed a sort of religious community of their own, sharing meals and taking turns cooking.

"We came in there thinking we were going to save the world," Butler says.

In 1970, nearly 18 percent of Brooklyn's 2.5 million people lived below the poverty line, according to Census figures, which at that time was $3,968 in annual income for a family of four. That rate would climb to 24 percent by 1980.

"I'll never forget hearing children say to me, 'Mommy has no food in the house.' You were seeing people evicted, and they have nowhere to go, and no one knows what to do," Butler says. "You were standing with a mother while her son is being taken away in chains. It was horrible."

One of the mothers she met was Ramona Cruz. Cruz had come to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico and would attend Mass at St. Michael-St. Edward when she was able, but by the time Butler knew her, she had cancer and a heart condition. During one hospital stay, she told Butler that if anything should happen to her, Butler should raise her son, Carlos.

Carlos Cruz was already a fixture at the parish, Butler says, and one of the St. Michael-St. Edward priests was especially nice to him, buying him clothes and even taking him on overnight trips.

"He got to stay overnight in a hotel. What little boy in this neighborhood could ever experience that?" Butler says. "He had better clothes, and he was eating better than he ever had in his life."

In 1973, Ramona Cruz died in her apartment. Twelve-year-old Carlos did as his mother had told him: He called Sister Sally, then called for help.

Placing the boy with priests and nuns sounded better than the foster care system to the police, so Butler took Carlos and his bicycle over to his new home in the rectory.

"I thought I was saving him. Looking back, he might have survived better in the system," Butler says. "His rescuer delivered him to hell."

The former St. Michael and St. Edward Catholic Church closed in 2011. (GSR photo /Dan Stockman)

Missed signs and allegations

The guilt Butler felt at what she had unwittingly exposed Cruz to was overwhelming.

"I walked right into traffic. I could not believe I had done this. I put the child into the rectory," Butler says. "I put him from the frying pan into the worst possible fire."

Butler wonders now how she could have missed what was going on, but in retrospect, there were signs all was not right.

"We [sisters] had all come from a teaching background, but there was never any teacher training about abuse at that time [in the 1950s and 1960s], never. It simply never entered our heads," Butler says. "The signs were all there, but we never saw them."

Butler says that as a teen, Cruz was deeply troubled and dabbled in crime, sex and drugs, eventually serving a short sentence for drug possession.

"He had nobody in this world to defend him … not anybody," she says. "He didn't tell me because the priest told him that I wouldn't believe him and threatened him if he told anyone."

After graduating from high school, Cruz moved upstate to live with an older brother. He made the dean's list his first year in community college but flunked out the second. Eventually, he met and married a woman he worked with in a factory, Georgine, and they had five children.

To this day, Butler doesn't know if she would have believed Cruz had he told her of the abuse when he was a boy. She didn't want to believe him when he told her as a man, but by then, she knew the signs, had heard the allegations that Cruz's friends had also been abused, and she and the other sisters found more boys in the area who said they were victims.

"I always pray to God that I wouldn't have done the wrong thing," Butler says. "I am so thankful that I wasn't tested."

Dominican Sr. Georgianna Glose, who has lived and worked with Butler since 1969, said the revelations were a "huge betrayal" for all three of the sisters. It was only their faith in God and the work they were doing that got the sisters through those dark times, she said.

"Even in the years that things were awful, we were doing good stuff," says Glose, who is now executive director of the Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership, which educates residents so they can take control of their lives.

After looking for other possible victims and gathering evidence to prove their case, in 1996, the three sisters went to the Brooklyn Diocese to report what they had learned.

"I thought I would have to convince them because they wouldn't believe me," Butler says.

Butler said the diocese did not inform law enforcement officials of the sisters' allegations, as was common in 1996, and though the diocese promised to act aggressively, she said the sisters felt nothing of substance was done. Butler said the sisters and Cruz were never notified of the actions the diocese took, and the revelations in the years that followed of bishops' actively shielding abusers only reinforced Butler's impression officials had done nothing.

"I don't understand how people can ignore this," Butler says. "I don't understand it. We're talking about the rape of little children."

Two of the three priests implicated by Butler and the sisters have died. Diocese of Brooklyn officials told Global Sisters Report that the third priest implicated in the incident was permanently removed from ministry. GSR has chosen not to name him because no formal charges have been brought against him. He is living in Florida and has no public ministry. He denies the allegations.

In a statement to GSR, Carolyn Erstad, the spokesperson for the Diocese of Brooklyn, called "the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy" a "sickening crime."

"The Church has made documented progress in ensuring the protection of children including the implementation of zero-tolerance policy in which any and all allegations are immediately reported to law enforcement authorities," Erstad said. "We are committed to comprehensive child safety education and safe environment programs. We continue to look for new ways to support and compensate survivors of abuse."

Searching for spiritual nourishment

Even when Butler did not have the extreme physical reaction when she tried to attend Mass in the years since the revelations, she was so distracted by all that had happened it left her feeling worse instead of better.

Glose felt the same way for several years.

"It has changed a bit now, and I can certainly join in things in Amityville and it's not a problem, but it depends on who's saying Mass," Glose said. "For me, it's like snow on a TV that's not tuned in properly — there's too much stuff going on to really worship."

It's a situation Amityville Dominican Sr. Ave Clark has seen many times. Clark is a survivor of sexual abuse, a counselor for survivors, and runs the Heart to Heart ministry in Brooklyn, which serves people who need comfort.

After the allegations of abuse, Butler sent Cruz to Clark because she knew of her work with survivors. Clark says she spent hours and hours speaking with Cruz, and despite being haunted by the abuse, she said he had great courage.

Clark has known Butler for decades, and the two have leaned on each other, finding ways for Butler to stay connected to Christ even while outside of the church.

When you cannot find spiritual nourishment in church, Clark says, you find it wherever you can.

A picture of Carols Cruz on the bookshelves of Sr. Sally Butler's apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York. (GSR photo /Dan Stockman)

"[Many] will say, 'Sister, I can't go to church.' It's not a peaceful place for them," Clark says. "Some sit in a garden instead. Some go for a walk. They step away from the concrete and the cement of the church, and they find the heart in other people. … They find it in a person who says, 'You're always welcome here, no matter what.' "

Glose says she found comfort in Scripture and in the prayers of her mother after she learned of abuse in the parish.

"My mother had very strong faith, and she prayed me through everything," Glose said. "If it wasn't for my mother, I would have lost my mind. 'You did the right thing,' she said over and over and over."

Butler says she finds her spiritual strength in the Gospels and in people like Dorothy Day.

"My faith in the Gospel is not shaken, but my faith in the institution is gone," Butler says. "I was going to say I have no respect for the church at all, but then I found ... people in the church who understand. I found priests who understand, some of whom are victims themselves. They're remarkable, and I don't know what I would have done without them."

Those kindred spirits gave her another comfort, as well: being able to do something. Butler co-founded Catholic Whistleblowers, which calls for accountability in the church, in 2012.

Member Bob Hoatson said the group came together to support one another after being isolated for speaking out about abuse in the church. Hoatson had been a priest in New Jersey for 14 years but left the priesthood in 2011 after run-ins with his bishop.

He said he identifies with Butler.

"My faith has never been stronger. My religion has never been weaker," Hoatson says. "My parish has become jail cells and courtrooms and getting victims out of housing projects where they were shooting up. That's church to me now."

Butler and Catholic Whistleblowers have worked for years for a change in New York state law, which has a statute of limitations on when survivors of abuse can file a lawsuit. In New York, victims of child sex abuse have until five years after they turn 18 to come forward.

Activists have worked for more than a decade to change the law, but the Catholic Church has spent millions lobbying against those efforts, saying it would unfairly open the church to allegations from decades ago and cause "catastrophic financial harm."

Recently, the group praised New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan for the New York Archdiocese's new program to compensate victims with claims against clergy sex abusers. The program offers compensation even to those who come forward after the statute of limitations has run out. But they also criticized officials for not releasing the names of clergy with credible claims made against them.

A quilt about family hangs on the wall of Sr. Sally Butler's apartment. (GSR photo /Dan Stockman)

'I go back to the Gospels'

One day in August 2015, Cruz's wife, Georgine, and children drove down to Brooklyn to see Butler.

"At first I thought it was some wonderful surprise. Then I saw they had all been crying," Butler says. Cruz had died of a heart attack, and the family had come to tell his "mother" in person.

"I'm still trying to deal with it," she says. "He turned out to be a very good friend, not just a son. He always guided my work in the projects because he understood what it was to grow up there — his family was just unbelievably poor. He was a combination of a friend, a colleague and a son."

Though she feels the church has largely given up on sex abuse victims, she is not giving up on changing it. She loves the things Pope Francis has said about abuse but says there has been too little action.

"This is my church. If they don't like it, they should leave. I'm not going to leave just because of the hierarchy," Butler says. "But if I stay, I have to try to clean house."

And her faith? She feeds it by reading and praying.

"I go back to the Gospels. I think if I were to write a theological thesis, it would fit in a thimble, because it's just the Gospel message," Butler says. "I'm just trying to live the Gospel as well as I can."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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