It was the ultimate betrayal - a mother's worst nightmare.

New York Post/March 21, 2002
By Christine Lyons Holzwarth

My two youngest children were sexually molested by our dearest family friend, a Roman Catholic priest.

Father Jack Kennington had been a friend of the family for 15 years.

Gentle, funny and low-key, he was always there when we needed help. He sat with me as I cried, going through a divorce.

He stored our furniture in his rectory during a disruptive move. And when I came down with a life-threatening illness, he's the one who took me to the hospital.

Like a dear uncle to my kids, Bridget and Brendan, and the big brother I never had, Father Jack was the person we listed as an emergency contact with the children's schools.

And how we admired him.

My first husband, John, and I met him in 1971, when all three of us were working on a Marriage Encounter - a church-based program. We were struck by his openness and enthusiasm, and through the years, we kept in touch. After my divorce in the early '80s, Farther Jack continued to be a close friend of my family.

He was an activist priest on the Lower East Side, a crusader helping the people organize resistance against the drug dealers who were terrorizing the neighborhood. A kind of pied piper with young people, he organized rallies and got youngsters involved.

My kids made banners and marched with him; I wrote several newspaper stories on community issues he was involved in. People loved and respected him for his ingenuity and stick-to-it-iveness and courage. At the party celebrating his 25th anniversary as a priest, several hundred showed up.

Father Jack worked hard, but sometimes, when he had a bit of time off, he would drop by our apartment and relax for a while, have a bite to eat, play with the kids.

It seemed our place was a refuge. While I cooked dinner, he and the kids would play Monopoly or cards; sometimes, we'd all go to the movies or out to get pizza.

He even went with us a couple of times on vacation to Florida to visit my parents. "Don't forget to bring Father Jack along," friends would say when they'd invite us to a party. They loved his stories and his funny Irish songs.

And when I went on a couple of business trips, he volunteered to stay with the kids. Who better to trust than this gentle priest we had known so long?

Father Jack's greatest joy in life was being a priest. Sometimes, he said Mass in our living room, gathering our friends around the coffee table as he consecrated the host. "Father Jack is so reverent," one woman said. This Mass has been one of the most moving experiences of my life."

Little did I know that this priest who seemed so devout was a cunning and manipulative child molester who was preying on my family all along.

Now I know that we were a classic victim family, tailor-made for being taken advantage of. I was a newly divorced single parent recovering from my second spinal operation during the summer of 1985 when Father Jack offered to spend a week of his vacation with us, helping me take care of the children. As I put sheets and pillows for him on the convertible couch in the living room, I thought, what other man would be so kind to give up his free time to help out a family like this? Only Jack.

Each night after the kids were ready for bed. Father Jack would go into their room and read them a book, talk about their day and help them say their prayers, just as I always did. To help them get to sleep, he gave them each a back rub. What I didn't realize as I lay in the room next to theirs was that those back rubs were evolving into full body massages and sexual manipulations, as my son would later reveal in depositions for his lawsuit.

For Uncle Jack to give a back rub was the most natural thing in the world, so Bridget, 13, and Brendan, 8, never said anything as the massages became more intimate. And when Mom was away and he started playing strip poker with them, they at first thought it was just another game. "It's our secret," Father Jack whispered. They were used to goofing around with him, my son testified.

But as the months went by and the game got more involved, they started to realize what was going on was wrong.

"Let's play cards," Jack would say, and the loser would have to take something off. Invariably, by the end of the game, all three would be stripped naked.

Then Father Jack would hold them and fondle them and try to get Bridget to perform oral sex. Embarrassed and ashamed, the children said nothing.

But Bridget was making nonverbal cries for help. Growing more and more erratic and finally despondent she slept a lot and would wear only black; her grades plummeted; she was accused of making an obscene phone call.

My sensible, once-happy Bridget was hanging around with girls who tried to commit suicide. Each doctor I took her to said she was depressed and gave her some new medication.

Thinking she just needed to get away from the city into a healthier environment, her father and I arranged for her to go to school in Ireland for her junior year. Her older brother, Sean, was attending college in Dublin at the time.

Father Jack wrote her a letter of recommendation. But during the week she was supposed to leave, Bridget tried to kill herself.

I found her in the middle of the night on the kitchen floor, lying in vomit from an aspirin overdose.

During the next month, she was in a psychiatric hospital and, an her 16th birthday, Father Jack went with me to visit her. As always, he was kind, low key and solicitous about how she was doing.

After Bridget's suicide attempt, Father Jack continued to visit us regularly, although by this time, he had stopped abusing her.

Bridget, now living with her father, was seldom around when Father Jack came for dinner. And when they did run into each other, she was distant. I chalked it up to annoyed-teenager syndrome. That is, until two weeks before her graduation from high school.

We were sitting on my bed making up the guest list for her graduation party. "Can't forget Uncle Jack," I said, thinking to myself it was strange that he hadn't called in several weeks. He must have been busy fighting drug dealers or something.

"No way will I invite him," she insisted, getting up and walking out of the room.

It took two weeks of prodding to find out that he had molested her for two years from the time she was around 13. Gradually, I learned he had molested her and Brendan in our living room, in their bedroom, in a friend's attic, and on the sand dunes near my parents house in Florida.

In shock, hardly able to keep my voice from shaking, I went to Brendan and asked him if Father Jack had ever touched him in his private areas. Brendan said no. Later, when he decided to testify in depositions, we learned that he had been in denial, his mind blocking out repeated abuse over the two years.

Bridget's psychiatrist in the hospital and my husband's second wife both knew about her abuse shortly after her suicide attempt, but they never told me, refusing to betray her confidence. Father Jack continued to come to our apartment for a year and a half. As I cooked dinner for him and went out with Brendan and him to the movies, he acted as if nothing had ever happened.

Bridget has been in therapy off and on since her suicide attempt at 16. Brendan, suffering from severe migraines, has been in therapy ever since seventh grade. But it's only been since the early '80s that they have been able to deal with the horrendous things that happened to them.

Both are now healing, with the help of each other, therapists and friends. And both have been in programs where they counseled other young people on sexual-abuse matters.

How could I have been so blind - letting my children be molested in the bedroom next to mine? There isn't a night that I don't wake up in a cold sweat asking that question. Maybe it's because I was naive, trusting and always ready to accept the best in other people. Maybe because I so desperately needed a friend.

But I never imagined that Father Jack was anything other than what he appeared to be. And when Bridget started acting strangely, I blamed it on what I thought was obvious: teenage hormones. So did all the other doctors and psychiatrists who treated her.

What else could I have done? I don't know.

Why didn't we bring charges immediately? Although I wanted to, both Bridget and Brendan refused to be involved. Both were suffering from depression and migraines and said they were too shaken emotionally to dredge up the horror of those traumatic years.

I could understand that I didn't want to hurt them anymore - they'd have to have the time they needed to heal. Besides, without their testimony, my allegations would have been dismissed.

Now, finally, Father Jack Kennington is being made accountable for what he did.

In 1993, Bridget and Brendan contacted a lawyer. They felt psychologically strong enough to bring charges.

Since it had been six years since the abuses ended, the statute of limitations in New York state had run out for Bridget. But not for Brendan.

In September 2001, Brendan finally settled his case, which had dragged on for eight years.

And Bridget has found a way to bring her own case, soon, in another state where she was abused, a state with a longer statute of limitations.

Now that Brendan's case is out of the way, Bridget and I are speaking out, trying to help other families open their eyes to pedophile priests who are making a mockery of the Catholic Church.

The Rev. Jack Kennington, who is accused of molesting Bridget and Brendan Lyons, did not return a call seeking comment. He currently is residing at a religious retreat house in Ulster County, N.Y.

Nor did the Rev. Kevin Moley, who is provincial superior for the Redemptorist Fathers order to which Kennington belongs.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said that after filing the suit naming as defendants the priest, the archdiocese and the religious order, "the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the case against the archdiocese without receiving any payment from the archdiocese."

He also said, "The archdiocese did not employ or supervise the priest against whom the allegations were made."

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