Restoring faith after a difficult year

Most pupils are back at a city Catholic school shaken by sexual abuse

September 16, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The first week of school began as usual at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Hampden, with excited children arriving with new notebooks, getting to know their new teachers and attending a welcoming Mass in the parish church.

But something unusual took place in the fifth-grade classroom on the second floor, where the Rev. James P. Farmer sprinkled holy water in the room and intoned a blessing on the rows of children seated before him. It was his effort to purge the awful memories of the abuse that had happened there.

St. Thomas was shaken early this year by revelations that its fifth-grade teacher, a popular figure whose son attended the school, fondled at least 11 girls in his classroom and in his home.

A media onslaught followed that found Farmer and his faculty struggling to defend their reputation and the integrity of a parish that has served the community since shortly after the Civil War. At one low point, Farmer, a thoughtful, soft-spoken pastor and former criminal defense attorney, was dismayed to see a local television station briefly and mistakenly identify him as the abuser.

With the start of a new school year, the people of St. Thomas are trying to move on. The teacher, David Czajkowski, received a five-year sentence the day before the children returned. A new group of pupils and teacher occupy his old classroom.

And with the exception of two who moved away, all of the victims have returned to the school in what school staff sees as a vote of confidence.

"It was devastating, just devastating," said Sister Rose Marie Gustatus, principal of St. Thomas School. "But we're starting a new year, and we have to build up that trust again."

By many accounts, St. Thomas Aquinas, a solid red-brick building in the heart of Hampden, is a close-knit community with a dedicated faculty. With most of the teachers veterans of a decade or more, turnover is low. "Our teachers, this tends to be their careers," Farmer said.

That made the revelations of abuse all the more disturbing, because the staff took them personally. A sense of guilt began to creep in: Did they miss some sign, some clue of what was going on?

"We work together as a family," said Gustatus, a Sister of Notre Dame. "The teachers were as upset as I was because we were working together, and nobody picked up on what he was doing."

Amid church scandal

The allegations of child abuse at St. Thomas Aquinas arose in February, as the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which would eventually involve hundreds of priests, was gaining national attention. Czajkowski was suspended from the school Feb. 19 -- and was soon fired and arrested -- after one of his pupils complained that he put his hand under her shirt. As prosecutors and social workers interviewed the girl's classmates, more allegations surfaced.

In May, church officials divulged that a priest who had been quietly living for years in the rectory had admitted to sexually abusing altar boys several years earlier. He was ordered by Cardinal William H. Keeler to move, part of a strict zero-tolerance policy. The Rev. William Q. Simms had been out of the sight of the parish and school, and most parishioners didn't know he lived there, Farmer said.

Czajkowski pleaded guilty in May to three counts of child sexual abuse for fondling female pupils in the fourth and fifth grades between 1999 and last year. He was originally charged with 17 counts of abuse involving 11 pupils, but the remainder were dropped in a plea agreement.

Parents were outraged and vented at a meeting in the church days after the arrest. "It was difficult," Farmer said. "There was tremendous anger and confusion on the part of parents. They wanted to know what happened, and how did it happen."

Some blamed the school for not being more vigilant. But Farmer said the majority were supportive, pointing to a tall stack of cards and letters he received in the aftermath, which he keeps in a glass-covered bookcase.

Supportive parents

Page Stout, a single mother who sends her two children to the school, said she thinks the financial sacrifice is worth it.

"I was shocked," she said. "But it was no reflection on the school or the community. These individuals work in all types of areas, and they don't come with tattoos, and they don't have a certain look to tip you off."

The father of a fifth-grader who was one of Czajkowski's accusers said he thought the school "did the best they probably could do."

"I feel like they did everything in their power to control the situation," said the father, who is not being named to protect the identity of his daughter. "At the same time, there was a lot of news in the paper about the things going on in the church. The timing wasn't great. It just made the church and school go through a harder time than it needed to."

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