John Long of Saltillo, now 82, says he was abused by Catholic Priest Cuthbert Bender, in 1950 when Long was 14 years old. Bender was among 37 clergy identified Tuesday by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson as having had credible sexual abuse allegations made about them between 1939 and 1998. Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff
John Long, 82, of Saltillo shows a visitor the framed stone and nail he collected from his ancestral home in County Cork, Ireland. Long said it was his family deep Irish-Catholic roots that made him a vulnerable target of sexual abuse committed against Long in 1950 by his priest, Cuthbert Bender. Bender was among 37 clergy identified Tuesday by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson as having had credible sexual abuse allegations made about them between 1939 and 1998.
Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff
March 20, 2019 10:08:25 AM
'I couldn't tell her anything about that because, man, my mother was devout. She would probably have believed him over me, for sure.' -- John Long
John Long will be 83 in April and confesses there are things he cannot remember from his childhood.
Such is the erosive nature of time.
There are other things from his childhood he simply chose to forget.
The details of what happened on a fine spring day in 1950 are a combination of both, but Long distinctly recalls what set the events of that day in motion.
"I was 14 years old and I wanted to learn to drive," Long said.
Long grew up in an Irish home and Catholic to the core. ("You might as well have grown up in the Vatican," he said). So when his priest, Cuthbert Bender, offered to allow Long to drive him as he traveled around north Mississippi -- as far north as Corinth, as far south as Aberdeen and as far west as Houston -- as he fulfilled his priestly duties, Long jumped at the chance.
"What teen doesn't want to drive?" Long said.
But the overnight trip to Aberdeen was not what he could have imagined.
"I only drove him that one time," Long said.
Who was Cuthbert Bender?
On Tuesday, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson released a list of what it said were all of its clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. The list notes the years the offenses are believed to have happened going back as far as 1939 and as recently as 1998.
The listed includes 37 names and Cuthbert Bender is on that list.
John Long is the reason why.
According to the Catholic Diocese of Jackson's list, Bender served in numerous towns in Mississippi before his death in 1968, including Annunciation Church in Columbus, although the church secretary said after reviewing church records, there is no mention of his name.
Another document found online is much more detailed, providing his birth year (1913) and 23 church assignments since he was ordained in 1938 -- including stays in Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and, most extensively, in Mississippi.
Beginning in 1950, Bender was assigned to serve simultaneously at several churches in north Mississippi -- Tupelo, Aberdeen, Corinth, Okolona, Houston and Saltillo at Long's church, St. Thomas.
"We had a long-time priest, but when he left, we had several come in," Long said. "They sort of came and went pretty quick. Bender was one of them."
Long was 14 years old when Bender arrived at St. Thomas.
A long day's journey into night
"There are a lot of things about that day I don't remember," Long said, as he sat in the living room of his handsome ranch house of Barrett Ridge Road, now known as County Road 683, in Saltillo Tuesday afternoon. "It's been almost 70 years, but to tell you the truth, I think I blocked out a lot of what happened."
Long doesn't remember the priest arriving at this house that day nor does he recall much of the conversations they had as they drove down Highway 45 to Aberdeen.
Other things remain so clear in his memory they might as well have happened yesterday.
"The first place we stopped when we got down there to Aberdeen," he recalled. "It was a bootlegger in town."
That made an impression on Long. Even at 14, Long was familiar with bootleggers, but a bootlegger operating inside the city limits was something new.
"All the ones I had known were back in the woods somewhere," Long said. "I guess that's why I remember that. Anyway, he goes in and comes back out with a bottle. I'm not sure what it was. It wasn't the regular stuff like Old Charter that you get. It wasn't wine."
From there, Long drove to a home the church owned in town.
"I remember that night, watching him get liquored up," Long said. "When I got up from the kitchen table, he was still drinking. I got in bed and went to sleep."
At some point in the night, Long was awakened.
"He was messing with me," said Long, who offered no further details.
The next morning, Bender informed Long that they would be making a detour to Houston before returning to Saltillo.
As they neared Houston, Bender explained the reason for the detour.
"That's when he apologized, said it wouldn't happen again, said we couldn't say anything about it because we would be ex-communicated. It turns out that was a big thing he used, ex-communication," Long said.
"Years later, I met a woman who lived in Houston who said (Bender) had threatened to ex-communicate her for marrying a Protestant," he added. "That was the way he controlled people, I guess."
When they arrived in Houston, Long was instructed to stop at a building where the other priest assigned to the region operated.
"Bender goes in there and does his thing with his confession," Long said. "Then I go in, but I can't bring myself to tell the whole story to the priest. He kept saying, 'Is that all? Is that all?' because Bender had just been in there and told him what happened.
"I never did say anything about it, but this guy kept nagging me," he continued. "He kept saying, 'Is there something else you want to tell me?' I think he enjoyed listening to what happened because he was a fruitcake, too. But I still wouldn't say anything."
Bender and Long then drove home.
Two weeks later, Bender showed up at Long's house again.
"My mother came and told me he was here and wanted me to drive him again," Long said. "I told her to tell him that I was sick and couldn't go, so she went and told him. Then she came back in and gave me hell. 'You ain't sick,' she told me. 'Why would you say that?' I said, 'Well, I just don't want to go.' I couldn't tell her anything about that because, man, my mother was devout. She would probably have believed him over me, for sure. So I turned him down that second time and he never came back. I don't remember ever seeing him again. If I did, I blanked it out."
It would be years before Long shared what happened with anyone.
"I finally told my wife after we got married," Long said. "She was always wanting to know why I didn't go to church all the time and things like that, so I told her what happened."
The grooming of a victim
As he grew older, Long began to realize that what happened that night in Aberdeen was not chance occurrence.
"I think it was something Bender had been planning for a long time," he said.
In many respects, Long was the perfect victim.
First, there was his strong Irish-Catholic roots.
"I'm double Irish," Long said. "What I mean by that is both sides of my family came here from Ireland. My grandmother's father was one of the first to come to this area. In fact, the area is named after that family -- Barrett Ridge. My father's side, the Longs, came over from Ireland, too. My family has been around here since the 1840s.
"You can't get more Catholic than Irish-Catholic," he added. "My family was devoted. So, when a priest tells you to do something, you do it. When a priest tells you you did something wrong, you believe it, even if you know deep down it's not true."
Bender's role as priest established a spiritual authority over the youngster.
But from the start, he established another kind of superiority.
At age 14, Long was a little kid -- about 5-foot-2 and weighed around 115 pounds, he said.
"I didn't make the connection until years later, but from the very first time I met him, he would shake my hand and his grip was so tight that it hurt my hand," Long said. "Every time he shook my hand after that, it hurt. He was sending me a message that he was not just spiritually superior, but physically superior, too.
"He knew what he was doing. I don't have any personal knowledge, but I'm sure I wasn't the first kid he messed with and I wasn't the last, either."
Almost immediately, Long began to suppress memories of what happened that day.
He joined the Army at age 18. After five years, most of it in Germany, he returned home, went to college and then law school, becoming a member of the first graduating class from the University of Memphis School of Law in 1965.
He practiced law -- primarily personal injury and workers' compensation -- until retiring in 1998.
He married Helen, a nursing student at Memphis, while he was in law school. The Longs have two children and five grandchildren.
Long knows many victims of sexual abuse have been badly damaged by the experience. He made up his mind it would be different with him. It has. Aside from dropping his childhood dream of joining the priesthood, he said he doesn't believe the encounter with Bender has seriously altered his life.
"I know some people have really been messed up by this sort of thing," Long said. "All I can say is I'm Irish strong and Irish stubborn. I made up my mind that I wasn't going to let this interlude that lasted only a few minutes ruin my whole life. It hasn't."
While some victims of priest sexual abuse have left the church, Long said he's still a Catholic, even if he doesn't attend services very often.
"I can't get un-Catholic," he said. "I get the question every time it comes up: 'How can you maintain your religion after you've been treated that way?' I tell them I take it like I stepped on a rattlesnake."
Telling his story
Long might never have shared his story with anyone outside his immediate family were it not for a grievance with the diocese over the cemetery at St. Thomas in 2008.
"That's when the church started denying that it was a family cemetery and let all kind of people be buried there," Long said. "So I went to Jackson and told them about the legality of it. I have the 1898 deed to the cemetery from my grandmother. When I was down there, I told them, 'Oh, by the way, this is what happened to me when I was a kid.'"
That got their attention, Long said.
"They asked me if I wanted money," he said. "I said, 'No, I don't want any money. I don't need any money and that's not what I'm down here about.'
They said, "Well, what do you want?'
"I told him, 'I want the church to come clean about all this mess.'
"They said, 'We've already come clean.'
"About a week later, I got a letter from them saying that my complaint was credible. That was that."
A final visit
For years, Long put Bender out of his mind. He didn't know where Bender went after leaving St. Thomas nor that he had died in 1968.
It wasn't until recent years, when Long began piecing together the events of that awful day in 1950, that he learned of Bender's death and that he was buried in a cemetery in Cullman, Alabama.
Not long ago, Long visited Bender's gravesite.
"Well, I did more than visit his grave," Long said, with a twinkle in his Irish eyes. "Let's just say I didn't go over there to say a prayer for him. I'll leave it at that."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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