Mario (Walter) Cimmarrusti: 1931 – 2013

On November 23, 2013, the Franciscan priest responsible for molesting me and hundreds of other boys at St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara during the ’60s quietly passed away in a California hospital at the age of 82. Mario Cimmarrusti committed crimes that made him one of the most notorious perpetrators in the history of the clergy sex-abuse scandal. It’s fair to say that he was detested not only by his victims, their families, and the community at large, but by the majority of his fellow friars, most, if not all, of whom chose to ignore and alienate him during the last years of his life.

Many have argued that Mario got off easy. Over the years since the scandal first came to light in 1992, the Franciscans have paid out millions of dollars in damages to settle civil suits brought by those who suffered abuse at Mario’s hands. But due to the statute of limitations, he never faced criminal charges. Dozens of survivors believe they were cheated by the legal system. The best of what they hoped for was stolen from them by a priest who got away with unspeakable sins. “He should have died behind bars rotting in prison,” one survivor told me. This bitterness has been echoed by many others.

It’s understandable. There was a time when I cherished the safety and comfort my anger offered me, smug in the knowledge that I could openly hate someone like Mario so thoroughly and profoundly. It wasn’t until I entered therapy in 1994 that I recognized the great toll my hatred had taken on my life. The poison I had methodically prepared for Mario over the years had become a deadly concoction I was slowly drinking myself.

I made a conscious decision to examine the question of forgiveness and what it meant to free oneself spiritually. I pursued the concept of forgiveness that arose from a willing choice, one that sustained an ongoing process. I came to understand that forgiving Mario was not about Mario. It was about me. It was something I could ask and do for myself, not for him or anyone else.

Through my work with SafeNet, an organization I cofounded to support everyone’s healing, including the perpetrators, I was fortunate to establish and maintain contact with Mario. Since 2003, and up until his death, he and I exchanged several letters and met privately on six occasions. I felt a sense of purpose. But I think we both felt coming together was an act of compassion for ourselves and each other. When he died in November, he was living less than a hundred miles from me at an assisted living facility in Los Banos, after being transferred there last year from a facility in Missouri.

Once, when I asked him whether or not he had been abused while a student at St. Anthony’s, he denied it but wanted to know why I asked. I told him my research over the years, which included conversations with former seminarians from Mario’s era (the ’30s and ’40s), indicated that boys they knew had been molested by Franciscans who held positions similar to those that Mario would later fill (prefect of discipline, infirmarian, and choir director). He found all this intriguing, but he never said any more about it.

I came to believe that Mario probably suffered the same fate as the rest of us when he, too, was a 14-year-old freshman at St. Anthony’s. None of this excused his behavior or actions. But as I began to understand the trauma I experienced at the seminary, I clearly felt the torment he, too, may have endured there as a young boy. This small realization was an epiphany. My willingness to be present with the person who hurt me had allowed me to transform him from a monster into a human being.

Mario’s psychological state had always been a disaster zone. I believe his own secret wounds had festered for so long that they scarred the core of his memory until he lived almost entirely in a world only he recognized. His constant denials about the crimes he committed left him severely depressed and physically ill for most of his life. He was, for all intents and purposes, locked in a prison of his own construction. And yet, for all his many failings, Mario, like the rest of us, desperately sought to understand what had happened at St. Anthony’s Seminary long ago.

I don’t believe he ever managed to grasp the truth and shake the demons from his life. But every time we sat and talked, he made it clear that he was trying to comprehend what had taken place in his life and in the lives of the boys in his care. He never admitted doing anything wrong, and he always spoke of doing everything to help others. In his shattered state of mind it was inconceivable that he could have done the terrible things attributed to him. But Mario wanted to hear what had happened, not just to me but to others. When he asked me direct questions, I often felt he was trying to square my personal accounts with all the horrible stories he had read about himself in the media.

The closest he ever came to accepting any responsibility was when he acknowledged that listening to my recollections might someday help pry open his own memories. It was the most honest admission he ever made in my presence.

When a friar friend called to inform me of Mario’s death on November 23, I ran the gamut of emotions. At 15, I had become deeply disillusioned about the priesthood as a result of my abuse the year before. I had no way of realizing this at the time or even naming it for what it was. It took years for me to understand that my decision to leave the seminary was fueled by what Mario had taken from me. Now, flipping through my journal from my last year at St. Anthony’s, I came upon the date marked “November 23” and read the following entry: “Tonight I called home and told mom I decided not to return to St. Anthony’s after Christmas vacation. I feel sad but relieved.”

There is a certain measure of faith involved in the healing process. We wrestle every day with the ghosts of our dreams, but it’s the struggle itself that frees us. Perhaps the best of what we hoped for is somewhere in the worst of what we lived.


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