I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Oh Horatio...

As I was getting the kids ready for school this morning, I happened to glace down at the front page of my local paper, The MetroWest Daily News. The headline read Kids' fair named for pedophile:Annual event honors Horatio Alger who molested boys. Yep, Horatio Alger Junior strikes again. The street fair in Marlborough has been named after him for the last 11 years and, when I first heard about it, I did wonder why. The mayor's office called the revelation of his crime "new information" but one of the the organizers of the event, Janet Bruno, didn't seem all that surprised, pointing out that "he was never convicted of that" and that the topic of the name "comes up regularly at committee meetings". At least, that is what the paper says.

Interestingly, Marlborough is currently trying to bar sex offenders from living in town.

Of course, the information isn't new. The events occured in 1866 and are currently available on the UU Historical Society's biography of Alger. The reason many folks are not aware is because of the cover-up at the time. This is also the reason he wasn't convicted of a crime he did not deny. That cover up, no doubt was planned, in part within the confines of my living room. You see, I live in the Horatio Alger Sr. house, the parsonage of the last church he served. It was to this place that Junior fled after his removal from Brewster. It was Senior who wrote the letter "promising that his son would resign from the ministry and never seek another church" (see the UUHS webpage, linked below). This, of course, freed him to write children's books and become a tutor for wealthy families in New York City.

Horatio Alger, of course, wouldn't really have fit in one of his stories. While his parents weren't rich, they were middle class. His father (a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, like his son) had served a variety of Unitarian congregations and appears to have been stunningly average both in his gifts and his ministry. Some have described him as "downwardly mobile". Either way, he had the sort of connections his son needed and he used them...

I am, in some ways, reminded of this incident in the history of our movement every time I walk through my front door (there is a plaque, not to the event, but naming the residence) and when I enter the sanctuary of the church (another plaque). I sometimes find myself wondering what it was like for Senior when he heard the news (probably from his own son). What was his initial reaction? What made him decide to take the course he did? What a horrific situation to find yourself in as a parent. Still, that doesn't excuse the actions that enabled his son to have further access to children. In fairness, it should be noted that there are no other known examples of sexual misbehavior during his long life so maybe dad knew something we do not. Still, what a risk to take. We also have to ask what kind of impact this had on those Brewster children. How did they handle it when what happened to them was swept under the rug?

In a time when we are rightly concerned both with the sexual misconduct of clergy and the response to that misconduct from denominational (or association) leaders, it is very much worth our while to remember this dark moment. Sure, what Junior did was bad and I am sure that the folks in Marlborough will (and should!) figure something out and change the name. Yet we shouldn't forget the role played in this by Horatio Senior and his friends and colleagues. We need to make sure that it never happens again in the UUA or anywhere else.