TW: SA, Clergy abuse
This is not my story to tell. I am not well-versed in the subject matter. I am far removed from the events that occured. But it's a story that I need to tell. I'll list my public sources as I go so if you choose to do some more research you can start there.
About a month ago a friend, let's call him Omar, reached out to me to let me know of an amazing opportunity. The folks that had purchased the Whitin Lasell Manor in Whitinsville were opening their doors to creatives - photographers and filmmakers to be precise - to create their works of art. In exchange for this they'd love for the artist to share their works for promotional materials. I was stoked. The Manor is gorgeous. Imagine the Gilded Age. The age of Downtown Abbey. Think "The Cottages" of Newport - with less marble. The Manor boasts 44 rooms and 26 acres of amazingness. The main floor is what really draws ones attention. Giant marble fireplaces, gorgeously tiled flooring, enormous lead-gridded windows, intricate wood carvings. The ballroom does take ones breath away. I was immediately emailed the new owners and soon set up a date for a chat and a tour. I was so curious about the space. I could have spent hours in each room examining the details. I scheduled a day for the shoot and a week later created some really beautiful images. The owners told me to tell every creative I knew about the opportunity. They wanted to support the arts and get the word out. So I did.
When I messaged another friend of mine about the opportunity, let's call them Kelly, I was immediately informed of the history of the place. "...I was abused there". My stomach clenched and my throat closed up. Fuck. I knew Kelly had been abused by priests. But when someone tells you that you don't ask, "...and where exactly was that?" You just listen and wish that you could take the pain your friend has experienced away. So again... Fuck. We talked some more and I made a decision - when I post the images from the session I need to make sure I don't just say, "See these pretty images from this pretty place??? Don't you love them???" I needed to give the information and not let history - a huge piece of true history - die. Yes, the Whitin Lasell Manor was and is a gorgeous piece of architecture. It has a lovely history with it's own set of tragedies, as life does give. You can read about that here.
But what Preservation Massachusetts fails to talk about is what happened after the family sold their home. "The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston owned the property from 1973 to1990 and operated it as the Oakhurst Retreat, a House of Affirmation and rehabilitation for clergy." The Telegram. Unless you actually use the search terms "clergy abuse" you won't find much information about it. As someone who grew up in the next town over and took swim lessons across the street, I had no idea that this place was what it was. As I write this I feel like I remember seeing priests occasionally walking up and down the street, but I'm not sure if that's a real memory or not.
In addition to it being a House of Affirmation, when it was time to sell they refused to sell it to a gay couple. *sigh*
I'm going to add an article here from bishop-accountability.org because to chop it up doesn't do it justice:
"James Fairbanks and Alain Beret saw potential in the property – 44 rooms, 26 acres and community zeal for preservation. The stately though deteriorated mansion in Northbridge, Mass., seemed an ideal location for an inn or a special events.
But despite an offer and a deposit, the seller – the Worcester Diocese of the Catholic Church – backed out of the deal.
The diocese says the deal-breaker was money. The couple claims it was discrimination.
The vacant property at the center of the controversy most recently hosted the Oakhurst Retreat and Conference Center, an office for the church's youth ministry.
Before that, beginning in 1973, the mansion was the site of the House of Affirmation, a retreat for "troubled priests" founded by the Rev. Thomas A. Kane. In a notice in a church-affiliated newsletter from decades ago, Kane announced that the center was at "the service of all priests and religious who are not embarrassed to become a more fulfilled and healthier person."
Treatment, he wrote, could help a troubled priest become an "affirmed person," leaving behind "neurosis, emotional and mental discomfort, alcoholism and addiction, erratic homosexuality, compulsive heterosexual behavior, and other symptoms of unhappiness and confusion."
Over the years, with increased attention and disclosures about child sexual abuse in the priesthood, "troubled priests" would be revealed to mean "pedophile priests." Priests accused of abusing kids were sent to the House of Affirmation in Northbridge for treatment or to hide out.
The House of Affirmation closed in the late 1980s, as Kane was accused of financial improprieties and falsifying a doctoral degree. He was placed on leave after at least one allegation of sexual abuse, which was settled out of court for a church payment of $42,500 to the victim, who said Kane abused him for 11 years, including at the retreat.
The Bishop Accountability Project, which tracks priests accused of sexual abuse, says several other men have settled suits against priests associated with the retreat. One victim, who received a $110,000 settlement from the diocese in 2002, recently called the House a "dirty, dirty place" to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Others have described the facility as a boot camp for pedophiles.
In the Worcester area, the property is associated with the scandalous, not the sacred.
But the property's history begins before the House of Affirmation, and it is a history that the citizens of Northbridge have shown an interest in preserving.
The Chester Whitin Lasell family, which made its fortune in the textile-machine industry, built the mansion in 1890. The property is the last of its kind in the area and voters, at a special town meeting in February, elected to zone it into a historic district.
Beret called the mansion a "grand dame" – though she's in need of more than cosmetic surgery.
The couple reduced their offer from $1 million to $550,000 after learning the extent of repairs needed.
"We expected that we would continue our dance, but the dance partner left the room," Beret said.
The husbands, in a discrimination suit filed on Sept. 10 in Worcester Superior Court, claim the diocese didn't sell because they are gay and, it was assumed, would hold gay weddings on the premises.
Church officials are only commenting through their attorney, who maintains that the seller was concerned about Fairbanks and Beret coming through with the financing. "It wasn't a case of discriminating against gay people. We didn't even know they were gay," attorney James G. Reardon Jr. told The Associated Press.
He said the couple wanted only to buy a fraction of the property, which didn't make sense to the church.
However, an email from the diocese dated June 8 – around the time the real estate bargaining ended – lends support to the couple's claim.
"I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop," Diocese Chancellor Thomas Sullivan allegedly wrote to his real estate agent. "Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we aren't interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they're shaky anyway. So just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the Diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language."
Fairbanks and Beret, who are suing for loss of civil rights and dignity and for emotional distress, said that the subject of gay weddings never came up during discussions about their purchasing the property,
"There was never, ever a discussion about gay marriage," Beret said.
The attorney for the couple, Sergio Carvajal, said regardless of whether the business plan included hosting gay weddings, the church broke a state law that prohibits discrimination in housing.
"It was a facility we were extremely interested in," Fairbanks said. "We have made our life by restoring old buildings."
The opportunity is now lost, he added."
It is reported that the Worcester Diocese is one of a few that have refused to give a list of confirmed pedophile priests. If y'all remember, the list that came out in Pennsylvania in 2018 was extensive. You can read more about that here. The victims need for their abusers to be outed. They need accountability from the church. They need some semblance of validation and recompense. They need their church-going friends, families, and neighbors to believe them.
I try to be an advocate for people. Always. I am a body positive feminist who believes that humans should love their form second and who they are as individuals first and when they consent to being photographed I try to make sure they are comfortable and heard and celebrated.
I am thrilled that the folks at the Whitin Lasell Manor have chosen to make their home an artist space... a space where people can come together and create and inspire. I am thankful that they are working hard to create something beautiful and trusting in a place where demons have lived.
On March 27 I have reserved space at the Manor for another shoot. There are two spots open. There is a $99 booking fee. Digital images and products can be purchased separately. All proceeds will be donated to an organization that helps to combat clergy abuse.
Please message me for details.