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Art work reveals Jay's suicidal anguish

NCR Staff

Nancy Lemberger spoke in a hushed courtroom here in mid-June about her only son, Jay, telling jurors that he died in 1992 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after enduring 10 years of alleged sexual abuse by Fr. Rudolph "Rudy" Kos.

Jay Lemberger, one of three children, was 9 when his family moved to Richardson, Texas. He was a happy, gifted child who enjoyed bicycling, skateboarding and baseball and served as an altar boy at St. Paul's Catholic Church, his mother said.

"The church was a way of life for us," Lemberger said. When Jay was 11, the family, seeking a more "vibrant" parish, joined All Saints Catholic Church in Richardson.

Jay became an altar boy at All Saints and entered the inner circle of boys who hung around with the popular Fr. Rudy, Lemberger told the jury in a $146.5 million trial pitting 11 plaintiffs against Kos and the Dallas diocese.

Like many other boys in the parish, Jay began to spend a lot of time at the rectory. He would attend altar server classes and then ask to stay, his mother said.

Jay had been having some adjustment problems related to the move to Texas, his mother said, and Kos seemed to be helping. He offered video games and movies, soda and candy, the company of other young boys, outings and overnights and, the parents assumed, support for their family values.

Sometimes Jay would spend the night and, like many other parents whose sons were involved with Kos, Lemberger "envisioned a lot of other boys there, watching videos, falling asleep on the floor in front of the TV," she said. Lemberger said she was touched when Jay, at age 12, presented Kos with a picture he had done in needlepoint for the priest.

After that, though, Lemberger said her son's personality began changing. He entered Jesuit College Preparatory School as a freshman and joined the swim team. The first signs of real trouble came when Jay suddenly left the pool during a meet and was found in another room curled "in the fetal position" on the floor, Lemberger said. He told a counselor he had been having suicidal thoughts. "I couldn't imagine what the problem was," Lemberger said. "I couldn't see anything wrong."

About that time, shoes became an issue for Jay. The Lembergers now know what they believe Jay knew then -- that sexual abuse by Kos began with foot massage. One of the young men testifying in the civil trial said Kos loved clean feet and would fondle and kiss them before using them to masturbate himself, sometimes moving on to heavier sex and often loading up the boys with alcohol and drugs before the abuse began.

Lemberger said she bought new tennis shoes for Jay and that, to her astonishment, he cut out the toes. After that, she refused to buy him another pair. She changed her mind after he was hospitalized for six months for depression following the incident at the swim meet. She took a new pair of shoes to the hospital, and, while she watched, Jay inexplicably "took the shoes and shred them with his bare hands," she said. Kos was a frequent visitor at the hospital, always wanting to talk with Jay alone, she said.

Thinking a smaller community would be better for Jay, Lemberger left her job in architectural design, and the family moved to Nacogdoches, Texas. Jay's relationship with Kos continued, however, even as he saw a counselor at the high school for help with recurring depression and suicidal thoughts that mystified his parents.

In October 1990, two years before Jay's life would end, his parents became worried once when he was late for dinner; again suicidal, he was found waiting by the tracks for a train to come by. Another time, he took an overdose of prescribed medication, his mother said.

Although Jay had been placed in classes for gifted children before meeting Kos, he did poorly in high school. After graduation, he attended a public university for a year and a half while working for his dad. Then a family friend suggested that Jay join him in Denver. The family hoped he might finally conquer his depression there.

For a while, Lemberger said, it appeared he had. He enjoyed working as a nursing assistant in a home for people with Alzheimer's disease and, about two weeks before his death, told his family he wanted to attend nursing school. Lemberger said the family talked with Jay every week or two by phone and had been especially pleased by that last conversation because "he seemed to be thinking about the future."

When the family learned from authorities that their son had shot himself, their first thought was to call Rudy Kos. A short time before the priest was to be sent quietly to New Mexico for treatment after years of alleged sexual abuse of boys, Kos was still the Lembergers' trusted friend. He gave the homily at Jay's funeral.

The Lembergers didn't begin to put together what they now regard as the macabre story of Jay's relationship with Kos until a lawsuit was filed against the priest months after Jay's death in 1992. Now, in the context of allegations that have become public -- corroborating suspicions that the plaintiffs' attorneys say had long circulated among other priests and diocesan officials -- some drawings Jay had made began to make sense. Lemberger said the drawings had been among Jay's belongings in Denver.

In one rendering, a man was seated, legs apart. In another, a young man, bent under the weight of a heavy cross, walked along a path while another man stood by.

In the manner of an artist working to perfect his style and, his parents now believe, of a young man trying to come to grips with his victimization by a man his religious faith suggested he should trust, Jay had sketched, in black and white, from various angles, on large sheets of paper, a pair of feet.

Out of context, those drawings, placed one by one on a large easel by the Lembergers' attorney, Windle Turley, would have seemed innocent enough.

Knowing what they now know, though, the Lembergers expected the jury to find in those drawings the key to their son's troubled adolescence.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997