Agony of Sorrows

In the heart of South St. Louis, a parish loses its priest because of stricter standards on sexual sin

In early February, the Rev. Michael Campbell took the brittle, yellowed palm leaves he had blessed a year ago and burned them into ash. As his parishioners watched, he reminded them of the act's deeper meaning:

Their sins, too, had been burned away.

The next Wednesday, Campbell smudged the ashes on forehead after forehead, pressing gently with his thumb as he murmured prayers of humility and repentance.

Two weeks later, his bishop climbed into Our Lady of Sorrows' pulpit and announced that 13 years ago, Campbell had "sexually abused" someone between the ages of 12 and 18. Because of the archdiocese's new standards -- because of grievous and lurid sins committed by others -- he would be removed from his beloved parish.

His burnt offering had not been forgiven.

He had to pay again.

And now, so did his parish family.


Built to weather centuries, Our Lady of Sorrows is a cathedral-sized Romanesque church. Its foundation runs deep into the red clay of South St. Louis. Its square bell tower rises high above the drift of home cooking and diapers from tiny brick houses along Rhodes. Its bricks are mortared as tightly as the conservative, old-fashioned values of its congregation.

Instead of a steeple, the church has a dome, its weight resting on a row of columns that stretches across the entire front of the building.

Pillars of the church.

Supporting its hierarchy.

Behind the columns wait three sets of oak doors. Open the doors, and here are the people -- 1,895 families such as the Brolemans, who have ordered their family's life around the holy days and seasons of the church, poured their energy into parish events and used church teachings as the compass for every decision.

Doug Broleman is the sort of guy people refer to as the salt of the earth: Friendly and blunt, he's balding and a tad overweight, without a shred of vanity about either. Judy Broleman even lookskind, with blond hair soft against her cheeks and creamy skin that blushes easily.

They have a daughter and two sons, all grown now, and a dog well past his squirrel-chasing prime. They still live in the square brown house, neat as a wren's nest, that they bought 35 years ago.

Doug didn't grow up Catholic, but when he was 8, his mother fell ill and the family on the farm next to theirs helped take care of him.

"They had fish every Friday," he remembers, "and said prayers before meals, and once they brought home a jar of pickled pigs' feet and ate 'em before they realized it was meat."

They were aghast.

They honored every detail of their faith. Yet when their priest came by and said, "Well who's this young man? I haven't seen him at church" -- and the mother explained -- and the priest hinted that they should send Doug home because he wasn't Catholic -- she kicked the priest out.

Thanks to that generosity of spirit, family and Catholicism twined together in Doug's memory.

At 18, he went out on a blind date with a Catholic and married her three years later. They bought their first and last house in the Our Lady of Sorrows parish.

They were shy at first, climbing the steps to this huge church and kneeling alongside South Side German families who'd belonged there for four generations.

But in the way of all good parishes, they were soon pressed into service. Judy ran the parish school of religion. Doug organized Cub Scout dads and moms, teaching them the mysteries of the Pinewood Derby.

Suddenly, the parish didn't feel so big.

In 1975, when Judy's father fell over dead, she called 911 and her rectory.

She did the same when her mother died. Parishioners took off work to sing her mother's favorite, "Ave Maria," at the funeral.

Judy expected this support, but for Doug, it was wondrous. For the second time in his life, he felt loved and welcomed by a large Catholic family.

In 1977, he asked to be baptized.

The next week, he and Judy went on a parish Marriage Encounter. They came back at the start of Holy Week. By Easter, Judy was ready to burst.

She'd fallen in love with her husband all over again.

Three kids and separate work schedules had pried their lives apart. Marriage Encounter taught them "how to fight and how to forgive," she says.

"Before, we'd have an argument and I'd feel so alone," says Judy. "I'd want to talk, and Doug would retreat. But Marriage Encounter reminded us that love is a decision, not only a feeling.

"Marriage wasn't just Doug and me -- it was Doug and me and God."


Their kids grew tall and branched into their own lives. Judy turned 200 parish volunteers into a miniature Broadway. Doug was house manager, and when the Phantom of the Opera soloist got a little carried away, he just cranked up the smoke machine.

The Rev. Gerard Brennell came to Our Lady of Sorrows and became their close friend -- "to the point where he'd come down here and visit us, get a glass of water, watch the kids play," says Doug. "We were like a pressure-release valve for him, someplace where he could spout his frustrations."

Judy smiles.

"He was a very good man, and he had a very big job to do," she says. "To sit with him as a friend and then hear him celebrate Mass and preach wonderful homilies and just know that everything he said was true because we saw him living it ..."

She breaks off. Brennell's heart failed when he was 48, and they still feel the loss. But the Rev. John Dempsey came, and he was an extraordinary pastor. Then, in 1995, Campbell replaced him and won their hearts.

He was prayerful and funny and kind.

And he moved the angels.

Three tiny stone angels started appearing in different places in the churchyard. Sometimes they ringed an oak tree. In summer, they showed up in Cardinal ball caps. Campbell tended to the smallest details of parish life -- all for the larger purpose.

He had a sweetness about him -- at 9 p.m., when they locked the adoration chapel, he'd excuse himself, saying, "I've got to go put Baby Jesus to bed."

Yet he tackled head-on the cliques and factions that had sprung up among the parish's 88 organizations.

"There was a lot of scrabbling for places to meet and 'who's more important'" says Doug. "Campbell set that friction apart and made us feel more like a community."

Judy says: "He didn't just expect other people to do things, either. He'd get into his T-shirt and shorts and pull weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk. He wanted the church to be immaculate -- to be perfect."

When doctors found a spot on Judy's lung, Campbell didn't just toss out the usual "I'll pray for you" -- he came back every day to make sure his prayers were being answered.

On Sept. 11, he remembered that the Brolemans had a son in the Air Force and another who was a cameraman in Washington, D.C.

"You felt he really cared about you," says Doug. "He had a compassion, first for God and then the parish and then the neighborhood. He was constantly working to get the slumlords out and make this a conservation area. He had a way of being in control of everything but not making you feel like he was above you. Instead of preaching to us, he became a part of us."

Judy: "He was ecstatic to be here. It's the largest parish in the city, the core of this neighborhood. He believed he could make a difference here, and he wanted to be here for many, many years. He talked about it from the pulpit. He made us feel like it was an honor for him to be here to serve us."

Tears stream down her cheeks without warning. Unable to continue, she raises her fingers to her lips, pressing her palms together in prayer.


On Saturday, March 2, the entrance hymn for the 5 p.m. Mass was "From the Depths We Cry to Thee."

The first reading was from Exodus.

And Bishop Timothy Dolan talked about crucifixion.

He said the church was on the cross, and its priests were on the cross, and its people were on the cross.

He assured them that Campbell was not a pedophile.

He read Campbell's letter of apology.


Doug and Judy don't go to 5 o'clock Mass.

Judy sings in the choir for the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. Doug ushers, and sometimes they act as eucharistic ministers.

Saturday night, they were sitting in their TV room, watching the 10 o'clock news.

"When the bell tower of our church came on TV and then they said the name, my mouth dropped open," says Judy. "I kept thinking there must be another Michael Campbell at another Our Lady of Sorrows."

It had never even crossed their mind that Campbell was gay.

"I'm the most naïve person in the world," says Judy ruefully.

Then she gets up and leaves the room.

She returns with the parish yearbook.

"Look at him," she urges, flipping to the pastor's photo.

"What is it the girls say -- 'What a waste'?" chuckles Doug.

They point out his distinguished white hair, indulging the pride Catholics take in a handsome priest: walking proof of a sacrifice worth making.

Doug confides that for years he struggled with people who had "a different sexual preference." Finally he decided that "God didn't make us all alike, and maybe it's God's way of strengthening us in our life, by accepting those differences."

Judy says, for the third time, "The bishop made it absolutely clear that it was not pedophilia. All we know is, he slipped once, made a mistake, went forward and confessed his mistake, took treatment, went where they told him to go and did what they told him to do."

If she saw him now, she wouldn't even ask him about all this.

"I would just ask him, 'Are you OK?'"

"And we're praying for him," adds Doug.


By Monday, March 4, Campbell had resigned his mayoral appointment to the Housing Authority Board.

He'd put the angels back in their place.

He'd packed and left the rectory.

"The way it was presented, it was like when Judy's dad died," says Doug. "It was like Campbell died instantaneously, like having somebody very close to you just drop over and then having it slammed in your face.

"It was already on the news -- they didn't even let the rest of the parish hear it first," he adds. "How the cameras and newspeople knew to be here at 5 p.m., I have no clue. That was another big slap in the face."

Terry Edelman, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, says they "most certainly did not alert the media." The archdiocese is providing no further information about the incident 13 years ago. Their policy is now zero tolerance. Campbell will never return to pastoral work of any kind.

"Not being Catholic from birth, sometimes I have this mentality that it's a good ol' boys' club like Enron," admits Doug. "'We didn't know what was going on' -- humbug! That's your responsibility, to know what is going on and the proper way to handle it. People are not perfect. Whether they got a steel cap on or a collar on, they're still human. Today's Catholics are more understanding of the world than they used to be."

Doug wishes the archdiocese had told the truth when Campbell arrived. But Judy knows that if he'd confessed at the outset, "it would have taken a long time to get beyond that. There's a lot of established families with straitlaced values. I don't think he could have been as effective."

Yet the response of those conservative parishioners now is surprising everyone.

"The disillusionment we feel isn't with Father Campbell," says Doug. "We are angry with Lindell (the archdiocesan chancery office) for changing their mind, for not handling this as well as they should have.

"Either don't put him back in a parish, or stand by him if you do.

"Don't protect your own butt and let him be the Judas goat."


The week after Campbell's removal felt like months of hard grieving.

Shocking rumors about other priests.

A numb refusal to judge their pastor.

A feeling of everything they cared about being turned inside out for the world to gawk at.

CNN interviewed Dolan, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dug for more secrets in its ongoing "Special Report: Problem Priests."

"We heard they had nine reporters on this story, and only two on 9/11," says Doug. "That, to us, feels like a witch hunt. As our son the cameraman says, 'If it doesn't bleed, it's not news.' They are making this bleed more than what is necessary."

The Brolemans are tired of hearing outsiders say, "If they'd just let the damn priests marry, they wouldn't have these problems."

Pedophiles often are married. Celibacy isn't the source of the problem. At most, celibacy is a cloak that is chosen, too often, by men struggling with their sexuality.

Besides, Doug and Judy can't imagine a priest being a good husband and father and still saying 6:30 a.m. Mass and working through to 10 p.m. with the Legion of Mary, the guitar group and the Brownie troop all tugging at his alb.

In a second meeting on March 7, Dolan encouraged Our Lady of Sorrows to continue with the parish-hall building campaign Campbell launched. They have already raised $1.5 million; they need $2 million before the archdiocese will let them break ground.

"As one parishioner said, our priests come and are reassigned, but we live here," Judy notes. "This is our home."


The Brolemans know Lent as a time of self-discipline and sacrifice.

All the saints are hidden under purple shrouds, concealed until the slow beating of fist against chest, the mea culpas of private penitence, have worked themselves out.

On Good Friday, the altar is stripped, and they relive the Crucifixion.

On Easter Sunday, the altar is massed with lilies, and they celebrate their faith's resurrection.

But this year, the Rev. Gary Wolken, acting as pastor, broke with ritual. Halfway through the 40 days of Lent, he pulled the shrouds from two statues so their presence could be felt.

One was a pietà, in which Mary cradles her son's broken body.

The other was the Holy Family.

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