For A. J. Baselice: Sins of the Father
Father Charles Newman, once head of the largest Catholic high school in Philadelphia, sits in jail after stealing nearly a million dollars. But as one family knows, he committed acts of evil far more chilling than that
WHILE THE FAITHFUL and holy gather in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Art Baselice stands outside, bearing witness in his own way. He isn’t interested in prayers for Bishop Joseph Cistone, who is leaving Philadelphia to run a diocese in Michigan. He isn’t hoping to shake hands with the cardinal and all of the archbishops, who have come together on this summer afternoon for Cistone’s farewell benediction.
Surrounded by a handful of priest abuse victims and their advocates, he holds a sandwich-board sign bearing photos of his son, Arthur Baselice III, and two clerics, Brother Regis Howitz and Father Charles Newman. As a pair of clergymen head into the service, Baselice raises up his billboard. They look over for a moment, then move on. “See what I get?” Art says. “There’s a man of God. He turns his head.”
Back home in South Jersey, the ashes of Art Baselice’s son sit in a marble urn, surrounded by trinkets and photographs, as if part of a funeral that never ends. The man Art holds responsible is Father Charles, the former president of Archbishop Ryan, the largest Catholic high school in the city. With his wife and two children, Art would attend Saturday mass, and walk up the aisle to Father Charles, who would place the Holy Eucharist in their outstretched hands or on their tongues. Art is mostly bald now, and stocky, with the meaty hands of a prizefighter. He rarely smiles, and when he speaks, there’s an edge to his words, like he’s spitting them out — partly the South Philadelphia Italian in him, partly the ex-city cop. But his sharp cadence is mostly a reflection of what he can’t stop thinking about. “He started grooming Arthur the day he met him,” Art says of Father Charles. “Not only Arthur. He groomed us.”
That Father Charles was sent to prison in May for stealing more than $900,000 from his religious order and high school gives Art little comfort. In his mind, there are crimes for which the priest, and the Philadelphia archdiocese, haven’t been punished. His son is dead. So is his faith. As Bishop Cistone and his holy brethren worship inside the cathedral, Art tightens his grip on his sign, trying to make sense of how he — the ex-cop, the devout Catholic, the father — ended up here, and when his healing will begin.
This isn’t a story like so many that have surfaced since 2002, when the Boston Globe’s reports on Catholic clergy abuse tore apart that city’s archdiocese. Since then, tales of pedophile priests have been told by the hundreds, as other cities, including Philadelphia, began to examine the church in a way they once dared not. In 2005, a grand jury investigation launched by district attorney Lynne Abraham culminated in a 418-page report. The revelations it contained were horrifying. One priest molested a fifth-grader inside a confessional booth. Another raped an 11-year-old, then took her to a clinic for an abortion. Sixty-three priests were named in all, and the scores of children they violated would grow up battling addiction, suicidal thoughts and mental illness. But there is another group of victims and survivors — the families whose lives were ruined by depraved men cloaked in priests’ vestments.
Art and Elaine Baselice are among the forgotten collateral damage from Philadelphia’s clergy-abuse scandal. In the early 1970s, the Baselices were like a South Philly fairy tale, two young Catholic kids in love. Art, a Bishop Neumann grad who served in the Air Force, married Elaine, a pretty Maria Goretti alum from the neighborhood. Despite the cost of Catholic education, their kids, Arthur and Ashleigh, would grow up the same way they had, with the discipline and moral guidance of the church. Fortunately, Archbishop Ryan High was less than a mile away from their new home in the Northeast.
Arthur Baselice didn’t stand out among the rest of his freshman class when he arrived at Ryan in 1992. He wasn’t a straight-A student, nor a delinquent, partly thanks to the discipline at home from his father, who had worked hard years in homicide and narcotics. Arthur loved rock music and sports, especially football, playing tight end at Ryan. Still, he was more of a goofball than a macho jock, always quick to crack jokes and laugh. He didn’t seem destined for Princeton or the NFL, but Arthur’s parents were proud. He was a good kid.
Elaine Baselice first met Father Charles at Ryan’s annual mother/son dance during Arthur’s freshman year. The priest approached her and asked if she was Arthur’s mother. “What a fine-looking son you have,” Father Charles said. It was a strange introduction, but dressed in his brown friar robes, with glasses and a round, soft face crowned by thinning hair, he certainly looked harmless enough.
Father Charles wasn’t a typical priest, though. He’d joined Ryan’s staff in 1978 as a lay teacher in the English department. There, he was drawn to the spirituality of the Franciscans, who lived at the friary on Ryan’s campus and worked at the high school as teachers and administrators. Newman left to join the seminary, and when he returned in 1985, in his mid-30s, he had become Father Charles.
As an adviser for the school theater group and chorus, Father Charles was a talented organist and well-liked. In the hallways, though, he was a disciplinarian. It was his business-like manner, not any schmoozing with the archdiocesan elite, that would ultimately lead to his promotion to principal. He was also appointed treasurer of the friary — not an important job, it seemed, for priests who’d taken vows of poverty, as the Franciscans do.
In his private life, Father Charles was more likely to stay in his bedroom than have a beer at the friary’s Friday happy hours. One friend of his, Brother Regis Howitz, was a custodian at the school. Otherwise, Father Charles didn’t have an obvious social circle. Like a method actor who was always “on,” he maintained a holy aura at all times and was rarely seen wearing anything but his habit. Father Charles seemed to be a man who fully understood the power of the priesthood. So when he began calling Arthur Baselice into closed-door meetings, no one thought to question him about it.
FATHER CHARLES WAS promoted to principal before Arthur’s sophomore year, and though Arthur wasn’t in his class, and wasn’t an actor or a singer, something drew the priest to the boy. In the hallways, Father Charles would call him “Elvis,” a playful reference to Arthur’s sideburns. He summoned Arthur to his office and adjusted his grades to spare him from summer school. The priests at Ryan were revered, and Arthur thought the most respected of them all, his principal, was also becoming his friend.
Arthur later detailed his experience in a court complaint he filed against the archdiocese, as well as in statements to investigators and letters. By his junior year, he was seeing Father Charles every week, first in common rooms at the friary, then upstairs in his bedroom. While Arthur wore the priest’s black socks, Father Newman would sniff his feet and masturbate. In return, he would give Arthur alcohol and $200. After a few months passed, Father Charles pushed his victim further, performing oral sex on him while Arthur wore his socks. Drugs followed, with the priest’s bribes escalating from booze to pot, cocaine and OxyContin. Father Charles made Arthur urinate on him. According to Arthur’s complaint, Brother Regis also abused Arthur — sometimes in the presence of his friend, Father Charles, and other times alone.
Silence, it seemed to Arthur, was his only option. Along with the shame and confusion he felt, there was Father Charles’s warning: If Arthur ever spoke of what happened between them, the priest would kill himself. But as the rituals continued in secrecy, Arthur’s parents began to notice changes in their son. His grades fell. His cheerful attitude soured. He was spending more time with his girlfriend, Noelle Millar, after school. The summer after his junior year, Arthur made a stunning announcement — Noelle was pregnant. Angry and desperate to straighten out their son, the Baselices threw him out of their house and withdrew him from Ryan. Noelle’s parents took him in, and the Baselices thought Arthur was attending public school in the fall. They didn’t realize that Father Charles had told Arthur he would personally cover his tuition at Ryan.
After learning that Arthur was still at the school, his parents brought him home and agreed to let him stay at Ryan. It was a victory for the priest, in more ways than one. He kept Arthur close and drew his parents into the mythology he’d created for himself. They believed he was as concerned for Arthur’s future as they were. Why else would Father Charles visit Arthur and Noelle in the hospital after the birth of their son? Or take Arthur to Colorado for a hockey trip? He even brought Elaine a handbag after a visit to San Francisco. It made it easy to ignore the odd moments, like the time Elaine heard Father Charles say to Arthur, “See you later, stud.”
The sexual torture finally ended in 1996, when Arthur graduated and made up a story he told the priest about contracting a venereal disease. But Father Charles found another way to control his favorite pupil — with money. Arthur said that what began as casual drug use with his priest was spiraling into addiction, first to coke and pills, then eventually to heroin.
Arthur broke up with Noelle and over the next several years seemed to be adrift, struggling with community college, wandering from one odd job to the next. The only constant in his life was the drugs, and though Father Charles had pledged a life of poverty, he managed to fund Arthur’s habit for years with envelopes of cash, sometimes thousands at a time, and checks in Arthur’s name, one of which was for $10,800. When Arthur needed a lift to a local bar where he’d score coke, Father Charles would take him. All of that money could have sent Arthur to rehab, but what if, in his cleansing, the boy exposed his molesters? By Arthur’s account, Father Charles kept him stoned and silent.
Living on his own helped Arthur hide the depth of his addiction from his parents, who thought their son was simply partying too hard. As their concern for Arthur’s health grew, so did their suspicions about the priest. Whenever Arthur was pressed for cash, he always found work thanks to Father Charles — odd jobs around the school or friary. When the family moved to South Jersey, Father Charles came to bless their home. Why was he still so interested in their son? One evening, Art Baselice paid a visit to the friary with that mystery in mind.
Father Charles led him into a dim, wood-paneled meeting room, where the air was thick and stale. “I asked him point-blank — ‘What is your relationship with Arthur?’” Art recalls. “‘Are you giving him money?’ He would never answer my question. And because of my upbringing, the way I’ve been conditioned that a priest is a representative of God, I never pursued it.”
Art knew how to interrogate, thanks to 13 years with the Philadelphia police. This man, though, was a priest — his priest. Art had been baptized, confirmed and married by men like Father Charles. In the spiritual chain of command, Father Charles stood at the top: “It was like asking God a question, and He doesn’t answer.”
Art set aside his role as inquisitor and again became a humble congregant. As he’d done so many times before, he asked Father Charles to offer him penance.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Art said. At the end of his confession, Father Charles said, “Say three Hail Marys for your lovely wife,” and granted him absolution.
ARTHUR AND HIS PARENTS weren’t the only ones whose faith was manipulated by Father Charles. In 2002, the priest was promoted from principal to president of Archbishop Ryan High, which put him in charge of the school’s finances and fund-raising. By now, Arthur was a full-blown heroin addict, and the priest was in the perfect position to bankroll Arthur’s self-destruction. From his first days in the new job, those who worked with Father Charles noticed unusual withdrawals and checks. Like Arthur’s parents, they were initially hesitant to doubt the priest. But after six months, three staffers reported their concerns to Stephen Pawlowski, of the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education. Pawlowski — a layman who was Ryan’s previous president — thought Father Charles was just handling his business differently and deserved some leeway to learn on the job. Six more months of curious activity passed before Pawlowski notified the archdiocese’s finance director of Father Charles’s suspicious transactions.
On November 24, 2003, the archdiocese announced that Father Charles had resigned from Ryan after an internal audit revealed “financial irregularities” at the school. An investigation turned up a five-figure check written to Arthur Baselice, who was then seven years removed from Ryan. A private detective working for the church contacted Arthur and asked about his connection to Father Charles. For the first time, Arthur felt compelled to release what he’d been holding inside for so long. He confessed the abuse to the detective, who in turn spoke with Art Baselice. “Your son,” he said, “needs help.”
Arthur decided to give his parents a letter he’d written years earlier but had kept to himself. The lines run together with the panicked urgency of someone who’s afraid that if he puts his pen down to consider his thoughts, he may never pick it back up again.
Dear Mom and Dad,
First of all I love both of you very much. I was going to tell both of you what set my compulsive behavior off a couple months ago but chickened out afraid of what people would think, but I can not go on living like I am and hurting the ones that love me the most. You wonder why I would rather see a shrink than go to NA or AA, that’s because I need professional help. When I was 17 … I was a desperate young man and I was taken advantage of. … I went to Father Charles for advice, and on numerous occasions he got me drunk and high and taken advantage of me at the time it seemed right I mean I did not know any better. … He is the one who started me drinking and gave me the money to buy drugs so he can have his way with me. I truly believe in my heart one hundred percent he made me the person that I am!
Across three handwritten pages, Arthur’s conflicted feelings toward Father Charles are laid bare. “I feel guilty saying something,” he wrote, “because I think he really cares about me.” On the final page, he changed course: “You always thought I liked Father Charles the truth is that I hate him.”
The Baselices already had their suspicions, but they weren’t prepared for what they were hearing from their son. The priest’s comments and behavior, all of those clues that they’d submerged over the years, suddenly became buoyant.
His parents’ anguish only deepened when Arthur moved back home in 2004. Arthur couldn’t hide the abscess on his arm, or his swollen, bloated hands, like those his father had seen on the heroin junkies he used to lock up, and in the halfway houses he still patrolled for the New Jersey parole department.
The Baselices had reached their breaking point. Determined to show the church firsthand what Father Charles had done, they dragged Arthur — colorless and gaunt, sick from withdrawal — into a tense meeting with counselors for the archdiocese. “The only thing I want is my son back the way you got him,” Art Baselice said. “You broke him. I want you to fix him.”
The counselors took detailed notes, then passed the Baselices along to the Franciscans for help. Since Father Charles wasn’t a diocesan priest, they reasoned, he wasn’t the archdiocese’s responsibility. At the Baselice kitchen table a few days later, Arthur and his father met with three Franciscans, including Father Thomas Luczak, the regional head of their order. Before Arthur told them his story, Art excused himself. He couldn’t bear to hear the details of his son’s abuse by a man he’d once shared dinner with in that same room.
The Franciscans agreed to send Arthur to rehab. Less than a week into his stay, Arthur received a $50,000 offer from Luczak in exchange for a waiver of his right to sue. Arthur returned home without signing the agreement. “You know, Dad,” Arthur said one night, “I think Newman wanted me dead. I think he was trying to get rid of me.”
THE BASELICES CONVINCED Arthur to talk to a lawyer. Civil court was their only recourse for justice, since the criminal statute of limitations had already expired; that’s also why no criminal charges were filed in the wake of the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report about priest abuse. Charlie Gallagher, the assistant district attorney who led that investigation — and, later, the one that would send Father Charles to jail for his thefts — wasn’t sure he believed victims who waited a decade or more to come forward with their stories. The grand jury investigation changed his mind. The same patterns of abuse and cover-up that had emerged in other cities were unfolding before his eyes. “Someone coined the phrase ‘soul murder,’” says Gallagher. “These victims I dealt with — their soul was killed, their spirit was killed, their faith was killed.”
Gallagher first met Arthur Baselice after Arthur filed a civil lawsuit in June 2004. He no longer resembled the young man from his high-school football photos. The drugs had cut him down below his normal weight, and there was an emptiness behind his blue eyes, making it hard to tell whether he was seeing what was in front of him or replaying the past. A year later, a state appeals court would dismiss Arthur’s suit and 16 others, not based on merit, but because the complainants came forward too late.
Still, there seemed to be reasons for hope. On the final Wednesday of November 2006, Governor Ed Rendell expanded the state’s criminal statute of limitations for sex crimes and made other changes to the law that were a direct result of the grand jury’s recommendations. It was too late to help Arthur legally, but he seemed to have already turned a corner. After violating probation on a drug possession charge, he completed six months in court-mandated drug rehab and a halfway house. He returned home and held down a job, installing granite countertops. At 28, he was spending time with his son and staying clean. For the first time in a decade, the Baselices had their boy back.
On the night that Rendell signed the sex crimes bill, Arthur ate lasagna with his mother, gave her a kiss, and left the house for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Elaine didn’t know that earlier in the day, her son had called his sponsor. That old feeling was back, and it scared him. No one is sure why Arthur left NA and drove to Camden. Perhaps he was fighting the urge to kill himself, like the time he nearly jumped from a second-story window in a drug-fueled frenzy. Maybe, as he wrote in one of his letters, he’d had another nightmare that he was wearing black socks with Father Charles.
The next morning, a man stirred in a Camden apartment around 4th and Royden streets. He looked over at Arthur, who was on the floor, leaning back against a chair where his hooded sweatshirt, phone and keys sat. His skin was cold to the touch, and his nose and mouth were caked with a foamy fluid. Seeing that Arthur was dead, the man took a shower, called the police from a pay phone, and walked away.
That afternoon, Art Baselice answered his doorbell to find two Camden officers, their faces as grim as the news they carried. He realized his son had died in the same drug-infested neighborhood he combs on his parole beat. “That,” he says, “is what we get for being good Catholics.”
IN HIS FIFTH-FLOOR office in Center City, Bishop Joseph McFadden, who oversees Catholic education for the archdiocese, is dressed in black, bearing a cross around his neck and a look of heavy concern on his face. The only archdiocesan or Franciscan priest who agreed to speak on the record about clergy abuse and Father Charles, McFadden expresses his sadness for the Baselice family and other victims. He also points to a study that suggests there are more predators in public schools than in Catholic ones. As for what the church has learned after decades of inaction or subterfuge when predatory priests were accused, McFadden says it’s “not only a learning curve for the church. I think it’s a societal learning curve. … We have to listen clearly to children, with a much more discerning ear than before, which I think sometimes we used to dismiss. The church has learned we take this seriously now. So what did the church not do back then? We did what society did. Sometimes we didn’t pay close enough attention.”
And so, 13 years after the passing of Megan’s Law, six years after Boston’s scandal, and four years after the grand jury report that Cardinal Justin Rigali discouraged Catholics from reading, the church refuses to accept responsibility in unequivocal terms. In the wake of Father Charles’s thefts, the archdiocese sued the Franciscans, their longtime partners in faith, for damages, and accepted a $488,631 settlement. Yet it settled only a handful of claims with abuse victims after the grand jury report. No high-ranking church officials stepped down.
Instead, it’s largely business as usual. Consider Joseph Cistone, the bishop whose farewell mass Art Baselice protested this summer. The grand jury report cast him as an enabler who shielded Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, then head of the archdiocese, from firsthand contact with abuse allegations. Monsignor William Lynn, who is named hundreds of times in the report for his flawed investigations of accused priests, now runs a parish in Downingtown. Arthur’s parents were told the church was praying for their healing, and the archdiocese agreed to pay for Arthur’s medication before he died, as well as therapy for Elaine and Ashleigh. But the church’s lobbyists continue to block legislation that would give victims a chance to face their abusers in court.
It’s no wonder the Baselice family feels they were as much betrayed by the church as they were by Father Charles. “I don’t believe anybody in the hierarchy knows what to do,” says victims advocate Father Tom Doyle. “To them, spirituality is obedience to them and to liturgy. I don’t think they understand the damage, nor do they want to understand. They say, ‘Go back to the church. We’ll heal you on our terms.’ You’re asking people to go back to Auschwitz for dinner.”
FATHER CHARLES NEVER stood trial over his relationship with Arthur. At his sentencing hearing for theft, he denied giving drugs to Arthur, claimed they only had sex once (when Arthur was 18), and said the money he gave Arthur was to help pay gambling debts. But in his disjointed remarks, he never explained what happened to the $900,000 he stole. “You’re not telling the truth,” the judge responded. “I don’t even know if you’re admitting to yourself what you really have done.”
Upstairs in the Baselice house, Arthur’s bedroom has been faithfully preserved, like a museum display. His workout schedule and a pack of Marlboros sit on his nightstand. A football jersey hangs on his closet door. It gives Elaine Baselice some small comfort. She can’t bring herself to join Art when he stands in front of archdiocese headquarters with other survivors, holding his sign. This has become his crusade. He knows there are more victims. Arthur told Elaine he once walked in on Father Charles while he was molesting another boy, but refused to give up his fellow victim’s name.
With Father Charles in jail for three years, Art has tried to arrange a meeting with Brother Regis, who is still a Franciscan but restricted from service. “I want to know why he did what he did,” Art says. “Are you happy that my son is no longer with us?” But in September, Art was informed that it wouldn’t be in his best interest to meet with Brother Regis.
Art scours clergy abuse websites and jots down movie quotes about justice and revenge on index cards. If a priest walks into a restaurant where he’s eating, he’ll demand a table far away. Somewhere deeper inside, there’s also the anger he feels toward himself, for being too clouded by faith to save his only son.
His wife sits on the living room floor, leafing through a binder filled with Arthur’s letters. Art walks over to the white urn bearing the boy’s name. “This is what I get to kiss and touch every day,” he says, his jaw beginning to tremble. “It’s not warm. I can’t smell his hair or his cologne. That’s what I got.”
Perhaps their only hope for healing lies in Arthur’s son, whom they see every week. At 14, he loves rock music and football, just like his dad. He’s still too young to understand what his father endured, or how he himself, just by being, may lead his grandparents to salvation in a way no priest or church ever will.