No One Would Believe It

This month, Lyn Hill Hayward testified in front of a state legislative committee about clerical child abuse. She would not have found courage to speak out, she says, without her friendship with Walker Percy.



That morning, the writer Walker Percy picked up his telephone receiver and dialed her number next door. "Miss Hill," he said in a conspiratorial tone, "I want you to walk out onto the balcony. Take your Tab outside, look like you're relaxing and tell me what you see."

Lyn Hill put down her paint brush, picked up her usual can of Tab cola and then strolled outside. As she glanced around, she saw, over by the drainage ditch behind the building, a woman peeping at her from behind some bushes. Soon others in town would hear that Percy and Hill had been drinking beer in their studios at 10 that morning.

For five years, starting in 1975, the two rented side-by-side studios in a St. Tammany Art Association building in the heart of old Covington. They soon became close friends and would be until the end of Percy's life. Percy wrote about his young painter friend in essays; he modeled characters after her; he sent messages to her in his novels. He told others that he considered Hill, who was 30 years his junior, to be among "the best and brightest" of her generation, according to Jay Tolson's 1992 biography, Pilgrim in the Ruins. Hill, meanwhile, "had an effect on Percy's thoughts and imagination, an effect that made itself clear in his fiction," Tolson wrote.

Each week for nearly eight years, the two left their studios to meet up with a core group of local artists and writers at the restaurant Bechac's, on Lake Pontchartrain. It was a roundtable that Percy referred to as "Thursday lunch or the weekly meeting of the sons and daughters of the apocalypse."

Eventually, tongues wagged. Tolson recounted the situation during the late 1970s. "For some time," Tolson wrote, "[Percy's] friendship with Lyn Hill had been the subject of village gossip. Predictably, some of the rumors suggested that the friendship was more than a friendship."

Lyn Hill Hayward, in a recent interview, emphasizes that she and Percy were never more than friends. Instead, their deep friendship was rooted in a secret that she revealed to him. He never told a soul about it; she didn't either. "I thought it was no one's business," she says. She now thinks differently.

It was the summer of 1976, Hayward thinks. Percy was writing his novel-in-progress, Lancelot. She was sketching him for a portrait he'd commissioned for the book jacket.

That afternoon, Percy was having trouble with the storyline for one character, Anna. He knew she'd be entering an asylum deaf and mute as the result of a debilitating assault. But he couldn't decide what that assault should be.

"What's the worst thing that could happen to a young girl?" he asked Hayward. He was guessing gang rape.

Hayward disagreed. Most people, she argued, would at least have sympathy for a girl who's been gang-raped. Existing legal avenues -- the police, the courts -- would pursue her aggressors.

Nothing similar exists for a young girl who's been sexually abused by a priest, said Hayward. Instead, the girl is considered "an occasion of sin." She knew this because it had happened to her, she said.

Today, after a year's worth of Catholic Church scandals, Hayward's revelation might seem less surprising. But this was the mid-1970s, and Percy was completely shocked. "I remember the look on his face," Hayward says. "Walker had a way of physically moving back when you said something that startled him. It was as if you had actually hit him."

Percy and his wife, Bunt, had converted to Catholicism as young adults. Their reasons, he said, could be found in all of his writings. Still, "despite his Catholicism, he believed me," says Hayward. He asked about her soul. Then he told her -- "said it then and often" -- that she would survive.

Percy thought for a bit. Surely, he said, what had happened to her was an aberration, too far out even for a fictional work. "No one would believe it," he said.

His disbelief stemmed partly from the Catholic church's concept of priests as alter Christi -- the representation of Christ on earth. Once priests go through the sacrament of ordination, they're considered forever changed, says Hayward. "If a priest came to your house for dinner," she explains, "it was the closest you'd get to having Christ in your house."

A priest is considered a priest for life, regardless of his flaws, she says. Percy held onto that thought. "Walker really wanted to believe in Graham Greene's (flawed) whiskey priest. He would say, 'We're all sons of bitches but God loves us anyway.'"

In Percy's final draft of Lancelot, the character Anna would be gang-raped in the French Quarter and then committed to the same asylum as the protagonist, Lancelot Lamar. "He communicated with the girl by knocking on the wall between them," says Hayward. When Anna does not reply, Lancelot worries that perhaps she did not survive.

"I'm surer of the catastrophe," he says, "than I am of her survival."

From the moment she logs into the SNAP account, Hayward can spot a victim's email message. "The subject line is usually something like 'Is there any help?' or 'My last chance,'" she says. Victims are despondent, something acknowledged by the group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), which ends every meeting with a moment of silence for people who have committed suicide.

Across the nation, 4,500 people have now joined 44 local chapters of SNAP, up from 3,000 members just one year ago. Thanks to Hayward and a few others, New Orleans can now claim its own chapter. In some ways, it's surprising that a local chapter wasn't formed years ago. It was in this state in 1985 that New Orleans writer Jason Berry first reported about "priest-recycling," with his stories about priest Gilbert Gauthe published in the Lafayette weekly The Times of Acadiana and chronicled further in his groundbreaking 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation.

The recent barrage of press, starting with the stories coming out of the Boston archdiocese, spurred Hayward and a few others to launch a local SNAP group. She thinks that the past year has been especially hard on victims of priest abuse. "We each thought that we were the only ones," she explains. "Now, not only are there lots of victims, but lots of perpetrators walking the streets today." People who may have forgiven their abuser are now finding that they also have to forgive something bigger -- "the institutional church itself," she says.

And so, Hayward says, as she read report after report about priest abuse, she began to think about her own story -- and about the root of her friendship with Walker Percy. "Silence communicates an absence of disapproval," she says. She needed to speak up.

For 40 years, Hayward says, she had told no one except Percy about her abuse. The reasons behind Hayward's silence have much to do with her upbringing -- within a Catholic family, inside Catholic schools, in the midst of a Catholic city.

Hayward recalls her first day of first grade at St. Francis Cabrini elementary school. Did anyone, Sister Bernadine asked, have a parent who was not Catholic? Hayward's was the only hand in the air. For the rest of the year, she says, the class started out each morning praying that Hayward's father wouldn't go to hell.

Hayward relays her account of events that unfolded during her eighth grade year. That spring, two of her classmates were attacked on the levee, she says. One was paralyzed from a knife in the spine; the other -- Catherine Fehler -- was raped and killed. Fehler's desk sat in front of Hayward's.

The students had heard about the attack soon after it happened. The next day, when they walked in the classroom, Fehler's desk had been removed. But nothing was said until that afternoon, when their teacher stood in front of the class. "Catherine is dead," said the nun. "She brought it on herself. She was seen wearing lipstick and a straight skirt to church Sunday."

"I remember that skirt," says Hayward. "I was envious."

The following day, the story flipped. Father Gerard Frey came into their classroom and announced that Fehler would have an open casket. She had died for her purity, her chastity, he said. Hayward went to the wake and remembers seeing the stab wounds in Fehler's neck.

In recent years, she and some of her classmates have discussed how Fehler's death was handled. "It confused me about what it meant to be a Catholic girl," Hayward says. "One day, you're killed if you're a sexual being. The next day, you're a saint if you would rather die than give in."

A few years ago, Hayward -- trying to come to grasp with that time -- went to the library and looked up The Times-Picayune stories about Fehler on microfiche. In the photograph from the funeral, Hayward is standing next to the coffin. Considering what happened next, she says, that image is unsettling.

The summer after the murder, two things happened in Hayward's household. Her father converted to Catholicism -- and a young Benedictine at St. Joseph's Abbey became close to their family. The priest taught at the abbey during the week and would see Hayward's family each weekend, when he came into town to work for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He walked in and out of the house as if he were family.

Hayward, who had just turned 14, entered the ninth grade that fall and planned to try out for the volleyball team. But on the day of tryouts, she forgot her gym bloomers. After school, she sprinted home to get them.

She dashed into her house -- which was empty, or so she thought -- and ran into her downstairs bedroom. As she was yanking on her bloomers, she says, she looked up and saw the young priest standing in the doorway, staring. His look scared her, so she speed-walked out the other door of her bedroom, which led into the dining room. That's where she says the priest accosted her. She says she can still see his belt buckle in front of her.

"When it was done," she says, "he told me not to tell anyone and he told me to pray for him." There on her knees, she prayed. Then, she says, "I walked back to school, and I made the volleyball team."

Hayward, worried that her father would forgo his new faith, didn't tell anyone until at least a year later. At that point, a mission was visiting her school; in confession, she told the mission priest, who wasn't local and thereby wouldn't know her attacker. The reaction she received is burned in her memory. "The priest told me that until I confessed to being a liar, he would not give me absolution for anything." She never again went to confession.

Her secret ate away at her -- eventually leading to what she now recognizes as anorexia. "My high school years were all a fog," she says. "I didn't smile for years afterward." Instead, she kept close at hand a photograph of herself as a beaming 7-year-old. "I had to know that that child existed," she explains.

In 1977, when the novel Lancelot was published, Lyn Hayward's portrait of Walker Percy wasn't on the book jacket. She hadn't yet applied paint to the canvas.

For Hayward, the puzzle was how "not just to paint the man but the writer." Finally, a year later, the image came to her in a dream. She dashed to the studio, grabbed the oil paints, and began. "I did the painting in 72 hours," she recalls. "I didn't go home. Seventy-two hours and it was finished." Percy hung the painting over his fireplace. Later, it would become the cover for the first edition of Signposts in a Strange Land, a collection of Percy essays.

The portrait is a good likeness of Percy in haunting surroundings. To the left of Percy's image are intertwined tree branches that look like human limbs bound with cord. Readers of Esquire saw the work in December 1977, when the magazine published a full-page, full-color photograph of the author in front of Hayward's portrait.

In the accompanying text, Percy wrote: "It was done by an artist friend of mine, Lyn Hill. I like it very much. It shows me -- well, not exactly me, a version of me -- standing in front of what seems to be another framed painting. The background, wrote Percy, is "a dark place ... a kind of desert, a bombed-out place, a place after the end of the world, a no-man's land of blasted trees and barbed wire."

"The desert is just beginning to flower and there is the possibility that there may be survivors after the catastrophe," Percy continued, in the third person. "He, somewhat sardonic and smart-assed as usual, knows it but does not want to give away the secret too easily. So he keeps his own counsel, except for the faintest glimmer in his eye -- of risibility, even hope? -- which says to the viewer: I doubt if you know what's going on, but then again you just might. Do you? Do you understand?"

Ever since Hayward was small, she loved painting. She shrugs. "As Walker would say, 'It's a knack.'" She recalls, as a child in church, being fascinated by the art she saw around her. The Catholic church used art and music to explain the mysteries of religion, she says.

Of course, the church was, for centuries, a patron of masters such as Michelangelo. For Hayward, church and art still go hand in hand.

Percy also looked to the church for inspiration, finding parallels between fiction plots and the Christian idea of man searching and making a flawed journey through life. He once said that his two main sources were Catholic theology and Freudian psychiatry -- "Both start out with the premise that man is born in trouble."

After Hayward was accosted, she felt distanced from the church. That affected her painting. "As an artist," she says, "to be alienated from the church is to be alienated from my cultural heritage."

Percy encouraged her to use her art as a lifeline. "What he wanted me to do was explore this in my work. Because that's what he did," she says. Percy and his immediate family struggled with depression. Hayward believes that, in her, he saw a kindred, albeit also depressive, spirit. And so, in their adjacent studios, they dealt with their despair. "He wrote through his and I painted through mine," she says.

Still, Hayward was not about to enter a church. Percy was insistent about her faith, however, to the point where he did something that would be considered scandalous to many Catholics. One day, after explaining the situation to an elderly priest, he had taken a consecrated wafer out of church -- something strictly forbidden. He brought that wafer to her in a handkerchief, she says, and there, sitting at a table in her studio, they shared communion.

"He said that in the beginning there were no priests and there were no churches, there were only believers meeting in homes," Hayward recalls. "He wanted me to know it was still available to me. He knew that would wake me up."

Before Percy's last book, Thanatos Syndrome, was published, he came to Hayward with a copy of the book in his hand. "He said, 'Miss Hill, there's a message to you in here. But I don't want you to read this until I'm gone.'"

(In the novel, one of the main characters asks, "How are your paintings? How are your horses?" Hayward understood the message. "It told me to get on with life, to enjoy it.")

Percy handed her the book and continued. "I have this image of you as an old woman," he said. "I want you to be an old woman. I want you to grow old. I have this vision of you as an old lady walking across polished wood floors, reaching up to a bookshelf to get this book, knowing that I believe you."

Then, because of his ongoing concern about Hayward's soul, he requested one thing. "He asked me to, when he died, to go to the church early and say the rosary for him," she says. "He said, 'Miss Hill, don't forget there's good here. Don't look at it all as a farce.'"

She hadn't set foot in a church for years, and he knew it. "But I was there early," she says. "I watched the sacristan getting the sanctuary ready. And I said the rosary. I said it over and over for him."

In 1995, Hayward called the priest who, she says, had sexually abused her 35 years earlier. The conversation went like this, she says. "He said, 'Lyn, I should have called you years ago.' I said, 'OK, you do the talking.' He spent the next hour not admitting, not denying."

After she hung up, she says she realized that he no longer stood in the way of her healing. "I thought that call was going to free me," she says. "But he didn't give me that. I heard, on the other end of the phone, a wounded human being. He just kept saying, 'Oh Lyn, oh Lyn. You were so young; you were so young.'"

Hayward still has questions. But she's come to terms with some of it. "He was a victim of a really sick system," she says. Hayward's abuser entered the seminary in the eighth grade, she says, "about the same age I was when he abused me."

The man left the priesthood and moved from Louisiana. This spring, a man who identified himself as that priest answered the telephone at his current residence. When the caller identified herself as a reporter from New Orleans, he hung up.

Hayward is adamant that the church needs to do less protecting of its priests and more apologizing to its victims. Earlier this month, she and other SNAP members testified in front of a state legislative committee, asking that clergy be required to report suspected child abuse to the police. The resulting bill made that requirement but excluded from it counseling sessions and other "confidential communication" with a member of the clergy. SNAP members fear that this exemption will be misused.

Recently, Hayward met with Abbot Justin Brown at St. Joseph's Abbey, who she calls "the one bright light" in this. "If you've been abused, you want the church to apologize and embrace you," she says. Brown understands that, she says.

Brown told Gambit that it was essential that he, as the current head of the abbey, sit down face-to-face with Hayward and tell her that he believes her and that he is sorry. He did just that several months ago and has since been in regular discussions with her. Hayward would like to see a retreat located on the abbey grounds where victims can go to heal, and Brown is receptive to the idea. She's also discussed an altarpiece, depicting the stages of this struggle, that she could paint for a chapel designed for victims.

As Hayward once again considers the intersection of art and faith, her thoughts naturally turn to her friend Walker Percy. One night, she says, Percy -- "a true moviegoer" -- phoned and told her to turn on her television. "You've got to see this," he said. It was John Huston's movie, Freud. Later, she recalls Percy quoting from that movie. "I think he was actually quoting Montgomery Clift quoting Freud," she says. Still, the quote rang true when Percy recited it. "What a splendid thing," he would say, "to descend to hell and light your torch from its fire."

These days, when she's not checking SNAP email or organizing meetings, Hayward spends her time painting, doting on her grandchildren and making sketches for an altarpiece that may eventually become reality. She's not old yet, and her floors may not be highly polished. But every once in awhile, she walks across the room and reaches up. Her copy of Thanatos Syndrome is still there.


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