Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Curious Case of Rev. C. Christopher Peck, 43

by G. Jack Urso

The Times Union (Albany); August 11, 1993: The Rev. C. Christopher Peck, 43, of Market Street [San Francisco], who formerly served in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, died Sunday at home after a long illness.

He was born in Bennington, Vt. He received a bachelor's degree from Siena College in Loudonville and religious degrees from the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy. He was ordained in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese in 1976.

Locally, he served as associate pastor at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Albany and St. Madeleine Sophie Church in Guilderland.

Contributions may be made to Dignity of San Francisco, 208 Dolores St., San Francisco, CA 94114.

Of Men and Gods

Father Peck was thin man of medium height with a neatly trimmed, but full mustache, and a head of thick, wavy, black hair that curled at the ends. One would almost be tempted to call it a Jewfro were he not a Catholic priest. He had a stern, no-nonsense demeanor, which to dozens of middle school boys was nothing less than a challenge to our integrity as the torch-bearers of centuries of 12 and 13 year old boys whose sole existence in life is to tweak the lion’s tail of the officious.
St. Teresa of Avila in 2008, shortly before its closure in 2009
(New Scotland Avenue Neighborhoods)
St. Teresa of Avila was Father Peck’s first parish after his ordination in 1976. He brought with him the assiduous attention to detail and the letter of the law that likely brought tears of joy to the eyes to the bald-pated miserable old coot Monsignor Hart who led the parish with aloof and distant obliviousness.

Monsignor Hart inspired great fear in me. In the early morning services, dressed in his black cassock, black socks, and black shoes, his feet seemed to disappear into the shadows behind the altar and he appeared to levitate floating from pulpit to reliquary like a scene out of The Exorcist.

The 1970s were a time when aspects of the church services were invaded by more youth-oriented elements. Younger priests in touch with the hippie Jesus-freak zeitgeist brought with them new ideas. The priests’ ceremonial robes took on Earth tones. Community involvement and reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised became higher profile missions. Folk music occasionally replaced the choir. Sermons on contemporary themes became more frequent. Into this mix came the earnest young Father Peck whose ideas were progressive, but his approach eminently conservative.

One of his first changes came to the confessional. Instead of slipping into a cabinet with a dark red velvet curtain for privacy and a screen to protect your anonymity, Father Peck insisted we sit in chairs next to each other and facing in opposite directions sort of like a love seat and make our confession that way.

Weird, am I right?

The up-close and personal approach quickly became loathed by all, particularly by my classmates, most of who were already experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sex, and actually had something to confess. While the booth guaranteed some degree of privacy, this new seating arrangement did not and we were pretty convinced Father Peck would rat us out if given the chance.

Being essentially a nice kid, I struggled for sins to report to Father Peck. After the usual swearing and disobeying my parents, I began to make up sins: breaking a vase, putting scratching powder in a friend’s bed, throwing a football at my sister I was just rattling off scenes from The Brady Bunch. Given Father Peck’s tightly wound nature, I had no doubt that if I confessed I was lying about sinning during confession he would have reached over and slapped the shit out of me.

Another innovation to church services that Father Peck introduced was the ceramic cruets. The cruets are small containers about six inches tall that contain water and wine. During communion, the altar boy’s job was to pour water over the priest’s hands to clean them and then to pour wine into the chalice, which would be magically transformed into the blood of Christ, however symbolic. When we used glass cruets, one could easily tell which held the water or wine.

Unfortunately, there were no markings on the ceramic cruets to tell which was water and which was wine. I asked another altar boy, but he was equally clueless. When it came time for communion, I stood for a moment sniffing each cruet, trying to tell which contained wine while Father Peck glared at me impatiently. Not wanting to delay it any further I went ahead and made my choice the wrong one. I poured wine over Father Peck’s hands and water into the chalice. After the service, a furious Father Peck yelled at me, noting that the act of communion was invalid because of my screw up.

“Well,” I said in my defense, “if God can change wine into the blood of Christ then why can’t he do the same thing with water? I mean, after all, didn’t Christ turn water into wine?”

Father Peck looked at me with complete disbelief that I had the temerity to ask such a question, let alone even think of it.

Knowing I was already in knee deep, I plunged head first into the deep end.

“I think it’s a fair question,” I said with all the wiseassitude of a 13-year-old boy.

Father Peck was not amused. Despite the fact that he did not bother to inform anyone which cruet was which, and the fault entirely his own, I took the fall. He told me to report the next day for “retraining,” and my Sicilian parents insisted least I be seconded to a distant circle of hell. Father Peck lectured me on the smaller points of altar duties I already knew by heart; however, the more I listened to him the more I became convinced that hell would probably be worth it to avoid this douchebag. I went home, told my parents I was done with it, and the next day I dropped off my cassock and surplus with the secretary at the rectory. Except for weddings and funerals, I never stepped foot in a Catholic Church again. That was probably the last time I ever saw Father Peck. It was 1978.

The Great Catholic Mile

St. Teresa of Avila’s Parish on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, NY, was founded just after World War I as a haven for the burgeoning middle-class. Its buildings included the church, rectory, and elementary school constructed in the 1920s, followed by a middle school in the 1950s, and a convent in the early 1960s. It existed on a stretch of road that ran for several miles, starting from the end closest to the fringe of downtown with Christian Brothers Academy run by the Franciscans. Approximately a half mile up the road was the collection of buildings that comprised St. Teresa’s Parish. About another half-mile further along, across from St. Peter’s Hospital, was the all-girls Mercy High School. A short block after that is the campus of the Catholic Maria College, followed by the church and school buildings of the St. Catherine of Siena parish a few blocks after that. Several miles further up New Scotland, one encountered the all-girls Academy of the Holy Names just across the street from the equally Catholic Christian Youth Organization (CYO) building.

The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was the Golden Age of Middle-Class Catholicism for the families along New Scotland Avenue. Including Public School 19, across from St Teresa’s, a couple thousand students flooded the stretch of road daily. From kindergarten to college, young Catholics were nurtured just a few blocks from their homes.

Eventually, the “white flight” to the newer suburban developments farther outside city limits took its toll on these institutions of faith. Mercy High School closed down in the 1970s. The Christian Youth Organization turned its facility over for police training in the 1980s. Christian Brothers Academy left for the suburbs in the 1990s, and St. Teresa’s closed for good in 2009 when the diocese sold off the church, rectory, convent, and school buildings and merged it with St. Catherine of Siena. The new parish was renamed Mater Cristi and in one stroke the history of both churches came to an end.

Though I no longer ascribe to the tenets of any faith, and despite the periodic disappointments and humiliations of adolescence, I have to admit I felt a little sad when St. Teresa’s closed. While sexual abuse allegations surrounded the Catholic Church in other parishes, it seemed as though this plague passed by St. Teresa’s. When the middle school was torn down and replaced by a Mormon Temple, I felt as though a little pocket of mid-century, post-war innocence was lost.

I was only partially right as I later found out innocence was indeed lost at St. Teresa’s in ways that evoked every parent’s and child’s deepest fears.

A Murder of Crows and Priests

Looking out my apartment window one day as a young man, I noticed a pigeon pecking on the ground in the parking lot. Suddenly two crows appeared out of nowhere, as though drawn to the pigeon’s weakness and vulnerability. They flew circles around the pigeon, who took to flight in an attempt to escape. The crows intercepted the pigeon and broke its neck with a loud CRACK I could hear from the window. The pigeon was dead before it hit the ground. The crows, bored now that their prey was dead, flew off. I thought how well-suited was the grisly name for a group of crows a murder.

While the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals brewed to a rolling boil in the 1990s, I counted myself lucky to have attended St. Teresa’s. Despite the bullying by some nuns and some rich kids, there were enough good nuns and good kids to balance it out. Despite our family dysfunction (as noted in other stories of The Norwood Avenue Chronicles), I had friends who stuck with me and a few good teachers. Nevertheless, the sexual abuse did visit our quiet little corner of Catholicism. Two priests and one janitor all converged on the parish in the late 1970s and early 1980s and preyed upon young boys left under their supervision.

Suspect #1: Gary Mercure, ordained in 1975, was assigned to St. Teresa's parish from 1978 to 1982. In his 20s, he had a youthful look with a mop top of dark hair and wire framed glasses. No fewer than eight young boys were abused and/or raped by Mercure, including two at St. Teresa’s during my time there. Bishop Howard Hubbard moved Mercure around several assignments and he remained a priest in the diocese until stripped of his ordination in 2008. On February 16, 2011, Mercure was sentenced to 20-25 years in jail for the rape of two altar boys under his care in the 1980s.

I recall Mercure very well. He was the only priest who would engage me in long conversations about the size of the universe and other astronomical ephemera. He reluctantly supported my choice of “Romulus” as my confirmation name (I choose it because it was the home planet of the Romulans in Star Trek, but since there was a St. Romulus there was little they could do).  Years later, I recall parishioners speaking about a “nervous breakdown” Mercure had shortly after my graduation from St. Teresa’s. Reportedly, he took some extended "sick time" in the care of his parents, though Bishop Hubbard claims to have known nothing of Mercure's activities [“Rev. Gary J. Mercure—Assignments and Sources of Information”].

Suspect #2: David Bentley, also ordained in 1975, served as a priest at St. Teresa’s from 1977 to 1982. While he is not known, as yet, to have abused any children at St. Teresa’s, beginning in 1973 Bentley and three other priests abused young boys under their charge at the former Albany Home for Children, only about half a mile down the road from St. Teresa's.  Bentley was later accused of sexually abusing three children in the mid-1980s and was defrocked in 1986. Nevertheless, Bishop Hubbard allowed Bentley to serve the church in Africa and later at a parish in Deming, NM. I remember Bentley only slightly and, except for services as an altar boy, had little interaction with him ["Diocesan Cases of Albany"].

Suspect #3: Gene Hubert, school custodian at St. Teresa’s Middle School during the time Mercure and Bentley served as priests, raped several young boys right on school grounds or at his small camp near Paradox Lake, NY. When I read about the abuse decades later I realized I knew many of the victims. Several of them exhibited wild behavior which, in retrospect, is totally understandable though at the time it made me nervous and uncomfortable. I knew Hubert as well and enjoyed his dirty jokes and wicked sense of humor, but was oblivious to his actions. He died in 1997 at age 54, reportedly due to complications caused by AIDS, and before he could be brought to justice [“Two men allege abuse at former St. Teresa of Avila School in 1970s”].

Being totally ignorant of the situation, I feel like I failed my friends. If I had known . . . if only I had known . . .

There is absolutely no evidence that Mercure, Bentley, or Hubert had any knowledge of each others’ activities. Nevertheless, like crows, pedophiles descended upon the school drawn by the innocence, naiveté, and vulnerability of the children, much like those crows were drawn to the pigeon like a murder of crows.
A Passing Sacrifice

Into this mix of insanity came the officious Father Peck with his new ideas. I hasten to add that in all the investigations into sexual abuse at St. Teresa’s never once has his name been mentioned — not once — and I am loath to engage in guilt by association. I wonder, however, how he could have not known of the abuse going on, but it is a mystery that will be left unanswered.

What is known is that Father Peck left St. Teresa’s not long after I did. He transferred to the West Coast and served several parishes, hospitals, and community organizations in California through his death in 1993 after a “long illness.” At the time of his death he lived on Market Street in San Francisco and his obituary noted that those wishing to remember him could do so by making contributions to Dignity of San Francisco.

It would have been a bit difficult before the Internet to find this out, but Dignity of San Francisco is a LGBT advocacy organization and, of course, Market Street is the center of a vibrant gay community. As a reporter who once wrote obituaries, I know that dying of a “long illness” was often code for saying someone died of complications due to HIV/AIDS, though it could have been any number of conditions that caused his death. The combination of where he lived, where he requested donations to be sent, and the mysterious nature of his passing could lead one to suggest that Father Peck was gay. Such speculation, however, is irresponsible, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling nonetheless.

Father Peck spent his final years serving the ill while racked by a terminal disease himself. With two fellow priests and the janitor active as pedophiles, what Father Peck knew and when he knew it is a mystery. We know that he got as far away from St. Teresa’s as he possibly could. If he was gay, he found a place to live in the Mecca of the gay community in San Francisco surrounded by those who shared his struggles. In the end, I like to think of Father Peck’s death as a sacrifice for those children whose innocence was stolen by those who wore the collar — a sort of redemption.

In the absence of quantifiable, empirical evidence we create truths we choose to believe in and hope are real. That is what faith is. This is what heals the wounds that life bares down on us. This is the truth I choose to believe. 

1972 Siena College Yearbook photo
REV. C.C. PECK, 43
PUBLICATION: Times Union, The (Albany, NY)
DATE: August 11, 1993
Page: B13  

The Rev. C. Christopher Peck, 43, of Market Street, who formerly served in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, died Sunday at home after a long illness.

He was born in Bennington, Vt. He received a bachelor's degree from Siena College in Loudonville and religious degrees from the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy. He was ordained in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese in 1976.

Locally, he served as associate pastor at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Albany and St. Madeleine Sophie Church in Guilderland.

Father Peck was chaplain and director of pastoral care at Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa, Calif., from 1987 until 1991 and active in hospital and community organizations. At the time of his death, he volunteered with the Davies Medical Center Institutional Review Board in San Francisco.

Previously, he served at St. John Vianney Parish in San Jose, Calif., until 1984, and in health-care ministry at Humana and Memorial hospitals in San Leandro, Calif. He served at convalescent centers in St. Leander's Parish and was director of pastoral care at St. Leander/Assumption parishes in San Leandro, and for the Office of Hospital Ministries, Diocese of Oakland, Calif.

Father Peck was a member of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and served as chairman of its National Social Concerns Committee. He was also on the team that wrote the Standards of Pastoral Care for St. Joseph Health System, which operates Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa and other hospitals in California and Texas.

Survivors include his parents, Carlton and Bernice McMahon Peck of Schenectady.

A service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Madeleine Sophie Church. Calling hours will be held from 9-11 a.m. in the church before the service.

Contributions may be made to Dignity of San Francisco, 208 Dolores St., San Francisco, CA 94114.

Arrangements are by the McVeigh Funeral Home, Albany.

UPDATE July 2018: As discussed below in the comments section, an assiduous Aeolus 13 Umbra reader noted that Father C. Christopher Peck is included in the biography An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan by Christina Boyle. In the book, we learn that Father Peck and Cardinal Dolan were classmates and friends while attending The Pontifical North American College in Rome where they studied for the priesthood.
Then-Father, later Archbishop, Dolan, with who has been identified as Father Peck, and Pope Paul VI (New York Times, March 8, 2013).

Author Christina Boyle reveals in the book:
Peck had taken a leave of absence a few years after their ordination in 1976 and soon fell off the radar completely. Last Dolan knew, Peck had been working in the San Francisco area. However, despite Dolan’s best attempts to find him, Peck had vanished. It took at least five years before Peck resurfaced. He rejoined the priesthood and became a Chaplin at a Catholic hospital but always stayed quiet about where he had been and what he had done. (107)
We know from Father Peck’s obituary (above) in the Times Union, that he “served at St. John Vianney Parish in San Jose, Calif., until 1984.” This suggests that Peck must have left the priesthood shortly after my graduation from St. Teresa’s Middle School in 1979 (about the same time the now-defrocked and imprisoned Gary Mercure at St. Teresa’s may also have taken some time off as well), so his service at St. John Vianney Parish must have been very brief; however, I suspect the obituary may be stretching the truth in a few places.
A later photo of Father Peck.
Source: The Alumni Association of the Pontifical North American College.

More significantly, however, the book, published in 2014, also confirms what I had long suspected and wrote about in the essay above, that Father Peck contracted HIV/AIDS and died of causes related to the infection. One can theorize that based on the available evidence that Peck left the priesthood about 1979/1980 and spent several years exploring his sexuality during which time he may have contracted the disease. In the early 1980s, blood donations were not screened (which is how author Isaac Asimov and tennis great Arthur Ashe contracted HIV), so it is possible Peck got the disease through a transfusion, though there is no evidence at this point of any operations or procedures he may have undergone at the time.
Disturbingly, additional research also establishes that sexual abuse charges were also leveled against the longtime leader of St. Teresa’s of Avila Parish, Monsignor James Hart. In a Dec. 1, 2004, article in The Post Star (Glens Falls, NY), Edmund Zampier, 61, accused Hart and another priest of sexually abusing him in separate incidents in the 1950s. In Hart’s case, the accusation places the abuse in the rectory of St. James Church in North Creek, NY. So many years after the crime is reported to have taken place, long after the statute of limitations has passed, and the case never having been brought to court, there is no way of knowing the truth. If true, however, one wonders what Peck must have thought, surrounded by pedophiles and struggling with his own sexuality. It is little wonder why he got as far away from Albany, NY, as he possibly could.
As it is typical when researching the life of a very private person, one answer often leads to more questions — particularly so in the age before digital footprints recorded everything we do. What we have learned is that Peck left St. Teresa’s, and the priesthood, exactly at the same time students at the school were being abused by the janitor and when two other known pedophile priests were serving. Whatever drove Father Peck away from the church, he nevertheless came back and spent the remainder of his life in service to the sick and terminally ill. While Cardinal Dolan's biography answers one question, mysteries about Father Peck's life remain.
UPDATE July 2021: Since the publication of this essay, comments left below and emailed to me by readers reveal a more nuanced profile of Father Peck than my impressions as a 13 year old. Whereas my recollection portrays a nit-picking authoritarian, other people remember a sincere, earnest, and kind man. While I stand by my impression of him in that situation, the story has evolved in a Rashomon sort-of way with different perspectives revealing a more complex person and those memories are just as valid.
In Father Peck's defense, during his tenure at St. Teresa of Avila's Middle School, my school mates and I were absolute terrors. There were three grades (6-8) with two classes per grade and a total of 150-160 students. In three years we went through four music teachers, three physical education teachers, three English teachers, two math teachers, and two reading teachers. It was the 1970s and, despite our young age, alcohol and marijuana were readily available and pills, such as black beauties, red devils, and Qualudes, were not uncommon. I personally didn't partake, but they seemed to be within fairly easy reach if one had the money. All this, combined with the trauma of the sexual abuse, fueled the dysfunction. I can only have sympathy for the young priest in his first assignment after ordination.
A trusted source who worked in mediation between the church and sexual abuse victims in Albany, NY, confirms what I noted in my essay — that Father Peck's name never once came up in any of the cases. On one hand, this restores some lost faith; on the other hand it deepens the mystery surrounding Father Peck, why he left the church, and why he came back.