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Growing Up in Catholic Orphanages

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 05, 2011 | In Reviews

From all you’ve heard about the Irish Church and abuse problems elsewhere, you might think this is a horror story, but it is not. A man named Edward Rohs, who coordinates mental health services for the New York City Field Office of the New York State Office of Mental Health, has just written a book about growing up in New York City’s Catholic orphanages, which is where he was raised to adulthood. The book, just out from Fordham University Press, is appropriately entitled Raised by the Church.

Rohs’ account combines the history of orphan care with his own experience for the first eighteen years of his life (he was born in 1946), and also later experiences when he returned in various capacities to work in the system. The story is fast-paced, frank and clear about the good, bad and ugly of institutional care. But what strikes the reader is that the good predominates. This is not a story about child abuse, let alone child sexual abuse. It is mostly a story about the selfless efforts of priests, brothers, sisters and lay workers to raise children reasonably well in over-crowded and over-taxed facilities, doing the best they could with very meager resources, and really caring about their kids.

I don’t mean to hide what is bad. In addition to normal institutional problems that can scarcely be avoided—for, after all, it is better to be raised in a loving family with both a mother and a father—Rohs recounts one-and-a-half occasions when he was sexually abused or witnessed sexual abuse. The “half” case is one in which a young layman took a job supervising the recreation periods at one of the orphanages, and proved to be somewhat sadistic, imposing strange punishments which were certainly designed to humiliate, even if they may not have been sexually motivated. Rohs himself is not sure, and eventually this person was judged unsuitable in that role, and was moved to a position as a driver.

The full and certainly obvious case occurred when Rohs was befriended by a visiting brother from another place, a brother who followed up a prolonged period of “buttering up” with an attempt to sexually abuse Rohs one night in the dormitory while Rohs was asleep. Rohs’ alarm was so palpable when he awoke, that the brother fled. On one later approach, the brother was driven off by Rohs’ shouts (which failed to rouse the other sleeping boys). That was the end of it, at least for Rohs, and the visitor eventually went back where he came from.

It is instructive that, in both cases, neither Rohs nor any other child went to an adult to report the problem. As you might expect, this failure to report to an adult is something that abusers rely on. In addition to feeling shame and not wishing to be exposed (another argument, I think, for the natural law), children are intimidated by abusers and they also presume that no one will ever believe them—an assumption which even today is too often justified, and not just regarding sexual abuse.

In any case, the life of Eddie Rohs growing up in the Catholic orphanage system in New York was not dominated by these unfortunate incidents. In general, he gives enormous credit to those who staffed these institutions, and he has kept warm ties with many of them since he “graduated”.

I was sorry to see no significant spirituality in this book. Rohs was raised Catholic in the orphanage system, and he had profound respect for the sisters and brothers who cared for him at various stages. He remained close to one of the earliest nuns to care for him, along with her lay sister who also befriended him, until both died. Yet judging from this book, at least, the system of values he internalized seems ultimately to be drawn more from self-help books than any deep reliance on God or grace.

I am not judging this only by the deafening silence concerning the spiritual life, which one would hope would prove of inestimable value in these cases. The book actually begins with a listing of the author’s own “ten beliefs for success”. Sadly, they are pretty shallow and, ultimately, fairly silly—though some of them might be marginally useful, in a wholly secular way, to someone who is combatting a lack of a sense of self-worth, which may be common among those raised in institutions.

I don’t know if this means Rohs has simply become a model of modern Western manhood, convinced that religion is too private to merit mention, or if it means that none of the religious elements of his institutional upbringing ever blossomed into an interior life. Whatever the case, I was not really looking for spirituality in the book. I was looking for an honest account of what it was like to grow up in the Catholic orphanage system from someone who was motivated neither by a desire for financial gain nor by a thirst for five minutes of fame—from someone who simply wanted to recount his own prolonged first-hand experience with the efforts of the Catholic Church to do something for the many children who were abandoned then, and who are still being abandoned now.

What I was hoping to find, in our lurid age, is exactly what I did find. Rohs has extensive experience with almost every side of the problem of raising abandoned children. He has much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of various systems. But he is also a realist, and that shines through in the single most important fact about this book: Edward Rohs is not angry at the Church which raised him. He is grateful.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 06, 2011 5:09 PM ET USA

    As a coda to this excellent article, I recount a report in the NYTimes based on interviews with two women who had been in the Catholic orphanage, Mt. Loreto in Staten Island. One woman claimed that although her mother tried to kill her as a baby she "knew" that her mother loved her. She went to complain about the nuns, that they used a particular punishment: she was made to eat her own vomit. It seems to me that is an impossibility. The young reporter of NYT had no difficulty believing this.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 05, 2011 9:58 PM ET USA

    I am not sure what is going on either. I have not read the book but the lack of motivation for doing good because we are made by God and made in His image is an epidemic in the weakening of faith. Not only does one hardly ever hear we are temples of the Holy Spirit today but truly living out of a sense of the sacred seems lost. There is Hope and we must pray for God's Grace to overcome. Troubling nonetheless.