My Memories of St. Joseph The Worker
I was in the fourth grade when I attended St. Joseph the Worker in Wheeling (Illinois). My brother and I went to Mark Twain in Wheeling, which was a public school, and my parents decided they wanted us to attend Catholic School. They wanted us to have religion, values, and a better education. Who would have thought that their good intentions would have changed our lives forever but not for the better in which they had intended.
I remember eating lunch in the cafeteria and getting up to throw my garbage away like I thought a good Catholic girl should. I was wrong because, all of a sudden, I remember Ms. Neubauer spanking me across the butt. I did not understand what I did wrong; all I did was throw out my garbage. I remember crying and telling my mom how much I hated it. I know she talked to Ms. Neubauer and was informed that was what the school did to reprimand the children. I also remember her having a wooden paddle; she used that to hit our hands in class. I guess I thought that was what Catholic school was, tough love. I thought that was the worst form of abuse that could have happened in our tiny school. We were all wrong.
Our classrooms were very small; there were only about ten kids in the room so everyone knew everyone. When someone did something wrong, we all knew about it.
I do not remember when Vince McCaffrey was transferred to our parish but, once he was there, we were all excited. All the priests in our parish were older and Vince was young. He seemed to have so much energy and was so enthusiastic about getting all the kids involved in so many activities. It did not seem weird at first that he took such an interest in the boys. He was young and seemed like a cool guy. He insisted on only taking the boys places, the girls just thought that was because it involved camping that maybe we would not be interested. He would also take them to his gym to play sports. Again, we did not think anything of it at the time.
I remember my brother coming home one day and he was very different. Vince had taken him and another boy to the Y. They had all worked up a sweat from playing basketball and Vince told them to take showers. My brother had come home and told me that Vince told the other boy that he would wash his back for him. My brother was confused; he must have been only ten or eleven. I asked if he had asked him to wash his back and he said no. The other boy was so shy, he did not want to say no even if it was wrong. This was a priest. Someone that we were told to trust, someone we told our confessions to every week. Who would have thought that all the priests and our principal were all sexually abusing the boys in our school?
I remember certain boys going to “The Cabin” in Wisconsin what seemed like pretty much every weekend. (I could name them but I am not sure who has come forward as of yet.) I have to say the girls were a little jealous of not being able to go. We still did not understand why we were not invited. From what was said they were going to ski and do other outside activities, which sounded like fun but again the girls of St. Joseph the Worker were NEVER invited.
Now looking back everything makes sense of certain boys’ behavior but, at the time, we just thought they were always in trouble. Many of the boys seemed very angry. I do remember Bob Branguard always having to go to Mr. Rynicki’s office (our principal). Again I know others but I do not know for sure who has come forward and would like to keep their privacy. Bob Branguard and my brother Eddie have brought their stories public.
Boys were always called out of class to go to the rectory also. They said they had to help prepare for mass. Whenever we had mass it was usually led by Vince McCaffery or Father Steel. When the boys did not do what Vince had wanted he had such an angry look on his face. It always turned bright red and looked like it was going to explode.
Donald Rynicki had the same look on his face. I always remember how terrified the altar boys that were pulled out of class to participate in mass looked. The girls laughed and commented on it. We did not understand why they looked so scared. I now know it was because they were molested in the rectory by our priests (James Steel and Vincent McCaffrey) before they had come out of the back.
They looked like statues, unable to move. I vividly remember because one of the boys was also my brother, Eddie Vincent.
I wish so bad that I had known, I have so much guilt inside knowing that not only my only brother but boys I had grown up with were being molested by people that we were told to respect because they were so holy, we were told they were the next thing under God.
They used their ‘power’ to manipulate all who attended St. Joe’s. The parents of our parish respected their priests tremendously. After all, Vincent McCaffrey had started Familyfest in Wheeling in order to raise money for our school and church. It started out small but over just a couple of years grew. Everyone looked forward to it. Who would have thought Vincent McCaffrey led such a double life? While parishioners, Wheeling residents, and family members watched Vince smile, laugh, and put our small school on the map, he was molesting so many boys. He would continually be invited into everyone’s home for Sunday dinners and family get-togethers. This holy priest, this wonderful man that had come into everyone’s lives to improve it, was really there to demolish it.
There were times that my friends and I even decided to question Vince’s behavior along with James Steel and Mr. Rynicki. These men had been put on such a pedestal that who would have ever believed our story? There was never any reason to question them. They were always doing such honorable things.
My parents were going through a lot of problems and Father James O’Malley thought he would help me out by giving me a job at the rectory. He thought my family could use the money since we were having tremendous financial problems. My dad was having a nervous breakdown and my mom was working a couple of jobs to try to support our family while trying to leave him.
At first, I answered the phones and counted the offerings. Then I was told I had to cook for the priests, James O’Malley, James Steel, Vincent McCaffrey and Father Maulcahy (who is now deceased). Before dinner, I would get them drinks, not water or tea but alcohol. I remember thinking that they were so holy and should not be allowed to drink. It never occurred to me that I was twelve and mixing gin and tonics. I made them full dinners and cleaned up after while they rested and watched television.
I recall one incident where my brother was there; not feeling well and Vincent McCaffrey told me to get my brother some Sudafed from this room. They had just come back from the gym and he brought my brother and another boy back to the rectory. He was very exact to tell me where it was. It was in his medicine cabinet. I remember Vince having so much of it and not understanding why. He gave it to the boys to make them drowsy. I remember my brother telling me that night that he had seen pictures of boys in Vince’s room, pictures of boys that were our classmates. I told him that we should tell someone and he was so scared and did not want to. We never really spoke about it again. My brother became very angry. I just thought it was because of what was happening in our home life. It never occurred to me what was happening in our school. Right in front of everyone’s eyes.
There was also a time when one of our students’ father tried to give my brother a job. He had opened a business and thought my brother would like to earn extra cash. When Vincent McCaffrey found out about this he was outraged. My mom could not understand why Vince was so distraught over the job offer. When Vince spoke to the student’s father about the job, he was furious. He made such a scene that it was embarrassing. His face was red and he was yelling so much that spit was coming out of his mouth. He was acting like my brother was his property and that he was not to go and work for someone else. Thank God my brother was strong enough to take the job and get away from Vince. The thought of my brother having to struggle with that makes me livid. He was so young and having to deal with this master manipulator.
When we attended St. Joseph the Worker, we were young and afraid to use our voices because we did not want to disappoint our parents, other teachers, and the church. Now, being an adult, I will do whatever it takes to make sure that justice is served for these so-called men. In my heart, I knew this day would come. I am overcome with such admiration for all the boys who have been so strong to come forward and put these criminals exactly where they belong.
According to the law firm who prosecuted the civil case involving Vincent McCaffrey, prosecutors estimated he had 50 victims and over 1000 abuse cases. One boy he admitted to molesting stated that he had been abused more than 200 times.
Thanks to the brave survivors who came forward to expose sexual predators of children, Vincent McCaffrey is now serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing child pornography.
When McCaffrey was finally removed from parish ministry in 1991, parishioners were told by the Chicago Archdiocese that is was because of “personal reasons” and that he wanted to pursue his education.
Top photo is of Bob Brancato, one of many survivors of the multiple sex-offenders assigned to St. Joseph the Worker parish in Wheeling, Illinois. He is holding up a picture of himself at the age he was abused. When Brancato reported to James Steel that Donald Rynicki was abusing him, Steel didn’t call the cops. Instead, he began abusing him, as well.