2010-12-10 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Brother Tom Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Commentary By Mark Dana

Mark Dana is a community activist who has worked with Brother Tom Trager on community projects. Trager was arrested last month for sexual abuse of a boy in his care.

I am writing in response to the “It’s My Turn” column in last week’s Wave by Father Robert Hoatson.

The article is a direct attack on the character of my good friend Brother Thomas Trager of St. John’s Boys Home. Brother Tom, has been ACCUSED of the heinous crime of sexually assaulting a boy in his care. The key word here is “accused.”

Am I, as Father Hoatson suggests, “circling the wagons” in Brother Tom’s defense? Yes and no. Why do I say this? Let me explain. I don’t know the boy who is Brother Tom’s accuser. I don’t know his background, or his name, or his character. I can therefore make no judgments about him one way or another.

However, I have known Brother Tom and considered him a very close friend for over six years. We have worked closely together on several charitable projects as members of the local Rotary Club. I can only judge by my own experience with the man whether or not he would be capable of such behavior. In my opinion, he is not.

However, that does not preclude the fact I may be wrong. (If that is the case, even though it would literally break my heart to do so, I would publicly condemn him just as loudly as I am presently defending him.) I have family members who have been the victims of sexual abuse, and have seen them go through everything that Father Hoatson mentioned in his article. I find it especially heinous when such abuse is at the hands of an authority figure (particularly clergy) towards a child. I am no sympathizer of pedophiles in any way, shape or form. They represent the lowest of the low.

However, the central point completely missing in Father Hoatson’s article is that in this country, we are told to presume someone is INNOCENT until PROVEN guilty in a court of law. There was a reason our founding fathers put the burden of proof on the accuser. Unfortunately, that is not how things work in the real world. Let’s see how this worked out in the case of Father Hoatson and Brother Tom Trager.

In the 2nd column, 3rd paragraph of his article he clearly states, “While there has been NO DETERMINATION of guilt or innocence in this case …” (emphasis mine) he goes on at the end of the same article in the very last paragraph to say that the boy who came forward is “a hero who he fully supports and affirms.” Sounds to me that in his mind’s eye, Brother Tom has already been tried and convicted, and is guilty of the crime with which he is charged.

Yes, in this case a heinous crime has been perpetrated. However, we do not yet know WHO the victim is. There are only two possibilities here. Either this happened, or it did not. If it did, the boy in question is indeed a hero who should be applauded. If that is indeed the case, the full weight of the law should be brought down on Brother Tom for violating his sacred trust and responsibility toward this young man.

But there is also another possibility. There is the very real possibility that NONE of it is true, and in that case, all that boy has done is besmirch the reputation of one of the most upstanding pillars of our community. In so doing he is ruining a man’s reputation, his life’s work, and everything that is dear to him. Is that a “hero”?

Right now, Brother Tom has not had his day in court. He has not had his chance to present a defense. Since this is an ongoing legal matter, he will not (and cannot, on the advice of counsel) discuss it with anyone.

Nobody, other than him and his accuser, knows who is telling the truth. But as I said in my prior posting to the original story on the Wave website, here is exactly what I meant when I said that the mere accusation of something like this is enough to have someone tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and have their life and reputation be ruined, before ANY facts of the matter are known.

And in the present climate, is there a more perfect target than Brother Tom Trager, a man who has spent his entire life as a Catholic clergyman working with troubled youth in a boy’s home? The papers are filled with accounts of misdeeds by Catholic clergy. If I didn’t know the man personally, I may have been guilty of assuming his guilt myself. (I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. This has been a very eye-opening event for me about my own prejudices.). However, for the first time in my life, the accused is someone I know personally for many years. And here is what I know about Brother Tom:

He has been a devoted Marianist Brother for over 50 years. He has personally mentored literally thousands of troubled youth over that span of time, many of whom have become well respected, successful members of society. I have met many of the boys in his care over the years, and none has been in any way uncomfortable in his presence. These kids come from very troubled circumstances. Many are dealing with broken homes, missing or apathetic parents, drug use and gang activity. Brother Tom has dedicated his whole life to getting these boys on a positive life path.

A few years ago I attended his 50th anniversary celebration as a Marianist. At the event there were literally hundreds of the current kids from the St. John’s Boys Home, as well as speaker after speaker, who were alumni of the home. Most of them had basically the same story, “Brother Tom was the single most positive influence in my life. Because of him, I escaped the streets, drug abuse, gangs, a miserable and abusive home situation, got a career, profession, family, etc. etc. I would not be the man I am today without his influence.” Not once in those 50 years has there ever been even a hint of impropriety against him. As a matter of fact, until this story broke, I had never heard ANYONE say ANYTHING remotely negative about him, not even once.

Here is what else I know about Brother Tom. He is one of the most humble, spiritual, and brilliant men I have ever met. I could not imagine any circumstance where someone that smart would be so stupid as to do the things he is accused of anywhere in or near the home where he devoted his entire life’s work. Simply not even a possibility.

Here is what I have seen Brother Tom do: Get up at 3:30 a.m. to take children and their parents to Montefiore or Schneider’s children’s hospitals for lifesaving heart surgery, then sit and comfort the parents all day. Make multiple deliveries to local food banks in the same day when we do our food drives (with the boys from the home, so they could learn the concepts of service and charity). Host guests from other countries in his home for weeks at a time. There are more good works, too numerous to mention. The man has always walked his talk, and is the finest example of a Christian gentleman I have ever met.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has a fine quote on character that is applicable here: “Who you ARE thunders in my ears so loudly, I cannot hear what you SAY.” Brother Tom has proven himself to be a man of impeccable character over and over again to me and many others. Do I believe he is guilty? Not for a nanosecond. Do I know he is not guilty for sure? No. I do not. And neither does Father Hoatson or anybody else, other than his accuser. And that is my entire point:

There are only two possibilities here. Someone is lying, and we don’t know who it is yet. If it is Tom, I will be heartbroken but I will publicly denounce him and hope he gets the maximum sentence allowed under the law.

If it is the accuser who is lying, will Father Hoatson publicly denounce HIM for the murder of a good man’s character? Am I denying the crime? No, because I don’t know one way or the other who the perpetrator is, and which crime was committed, sexual abuse or slander. Am I defending the accused? Yes, Absolutely. Because if someone attacks a friend unjustly, that is my duty as both a friend and an American.

Am I accusing the victim? No, because I don’t know who the victim is. And neither does Father Hoatson.

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