Boy fled terror, shame by suicide

By Patirck Boyle
© The Washington Times
May 23, 1991

Third of five parts

Christopher Schultz was 12 when he decided his life had been too hard for too long. So one spring evening in 1979 he stepped into the bathroom of his family's suburban New Jersey home, opened the medicine cabinet and picked out the little bottle marked "oil of wintergreen."

Christopher took off the cap, put the bottle to his lips, threw back his head and drank. "That tastes awful," he mumbled when he got back to his bedroom, where his mother had been sitting with him watching TV. His breath smelled like mint mouthwash, she recalled, but Christopher would not say what he swallowed.

Margaret Schultz had reason to be worried. For seven months the Schultz residence had been on suicide watch, ever since Christopher said "Brother Edmund," his teacher and Scoutmaster, had been forcing him into sadomasochistic sex acts.

Mrs. Schultz rushed to the bathroom and found the 2-ounce oil of wintergreen bottle three-quarters empty. Christopher spent the night in a hospital. The next day he was dead.

Pretty soon, so was the family. Mrs. Schultz, her husband, Richard, and their surviving son, Richard Jr., were blown apart by guilt and anger over Christopher's abuse, then his suicide.

This is a story about a Boy Scout who committed suicide after being abused by his Scoutmaster. It is also the story of how sex abuse can wreck a family, how an abuser can escape charges, and how two of America's most revered institutions - the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church - can escape liability.

"What happened to Christopher was a lot like going through rape, in that he felt tainted," Mrs. Schultz said. "And I think the whole family absorbed that feeling. We all felt tainted."

In more than 400 sex abuse cases in the Boy Scouts over the past 19 years, at least three other Scouts tried suicide, as did at least three Scout leaders who were charged with abuse, according to a study of cases by The Washington Times. Because many of the files released showed scant information, however, it is not certain that these were the only suicide attempts or that Christopher was the only one to succeed.

He and his family lived in a spacious house on a quiet street in Emerson, N.J., just outside New York. Mr. Schultz was a salesman in the computer industry; Mrs. Schultz was a nurse. The family went to the Assumption Catholic Church, and the boys went to the Assumption School. That's where they met Robert Coakley, known as "Brother Edmund."

Mr. Coakley was a Franciscan brother, a teacher and Scoutmaster of the church's troop - a considerable authority figure in the eyes of boys and parents alike. Some thought he was a bit odd, Richard said, because he dressed sloppily, smelled a little and collected guns. But he seemed trustworthy; he had been to the Schultz house several times, and Mr. Schultz went along with him on Scout campouts.

Richard was the first to be frightened by Brother Edmund. It was the Memorial Day weekend of 1978, when the Scoutmaster took Richard, 13, to a camp in Upstate New York to prepare it for a visit by the troop. Other boys were supposed to go along, but Brother Edmund said they canceled.

That weekend, Richard said, Brother Edmund coaxed him into posing in a sheet for Polaroid pictures to simulate the stations of the cross and tied his hands behind his back one night in the trailer, but he eventually untied the boy, went to bed and masturbated.

Richard didn't understand then that Brother Edmund was trying to molest him; he just knew whatever happened was wrong. A naturally withdrawn child, Richard was even more so when he came home. He said nothing to his parents.

"At that time we didn't put anything together other than he had his back up," Mrs. Schultz said. "And it wasn't unusual for him."

Weeks later, Mr. Schultz and Richard dropped 11-year-old Christopher off at the camp, again to help Brother Edmund get it ready for a Scout trip. Again, Brother Edmund said the other boys canceled.

He had invited Richard, too. "Because of what happened on Memorial Day weekend, I didn't want to have anything to do with it," Richard said. But Richard worried about his brother.

"I kept trying to tell him not to go," he said. "It was like a hint. I wouldn't come out and say, `Listen, this is what he did to me.' " Panicked, Richard took a bus to the camp days later.

By then the troop was there, too, and Christopher's mood had changed. Richard said his brother kept fighting with him and the other boys, which was unusual for Christopher. "He was becoming a problem child," Richard said. "He kept saying, `If you only knew what happened up here.' He kept hinting at things happening."

Back home, Christopher, an emotional child by nature, grew rambunctious. His parents couldn't figure out why.

"Every indicator told you something was really wrong," Mrs. Schultz said. "You couldn't have a comfortable family dinner. You couldn't speak with him. He was the way you would see an older teen-ager who was really getting nasty."

The sexual relationship with Brother Edmund continued at school. One day that October, according to a lawsuit filed by the Schultzes, Brother Edmund asked Christopher to help him paint the school gym, then locked the doors and made the boy tie him up and beat him with "a rope that had many ends to it," like a cat-o'-nine-tails.

Days later, under prodding from his mother, Christopher told. "He said, `I know you won't believe me and you'll think I'm terrible,' " Mrs. Schultz recalled. "Sickeningly enough, he didn't have to say too many sentences for me to realize what was the problem. . . . Then I remembered how Richard had acted differently. Maybe things that I hadn't wanted to click clicked."

Eventually, Christopher would say that Brother Edmund made him sleep in his trailer at camp, wear flimsy underwear and engage in simulated rape scenes.

This is where the guilt starts.

"I put a tremendous guilt trip on myself," Richard said. "My parents, of course, being parents, said, `We should have known.' But I'm the one that went up there that weekend and he did this stuff. If I had only opened my mouth . . . I could have prevented it."

Mr. Schultz said he felt "totally emasculated."

"You're looking to protect them, then something this devastating happens right under your nose," he said. "You've just been stripped naked."

The church dismissed Brother Edmund from the school and the troop. The Schultzes all went to counseling. And, in what they admit was a mistake, they reported nothing to police. They said that they wanted to keep it quiet and that church officials pledged to pay for Christopher's therapy.

For months Christopher was in and out of hospitals and therapists' offices, his troubles exacerbated by a football injury that damaged a kidney. It seemed he had always been struggling: At age 2 he was hit by a car, and for years he suffered from hyperactivity.

Now Christopher was embarrassed and terrorized. He said Brother Edmund had threatened to kill him if he told anyone what they did together.

Christopher had hallucinations, thinking Brother Edmund was coming at him. The Schultz home was tense. Christopher talked about suicide and made several attempts, albeit feeble, like trying to cut the top of his wrists with a plastic knife. Nevertheless, therapists said "we could lose him at any time," Mrs. Schultz said.

The family went on round-the-clock watch. They tried to keep sharp objects and drugs beyond Christopher's reach. They listened to his footsteps around the house, wondering what he was up to. Everyone tried to be nice to Christopher, even when he seemed to be egging them into fights.

"We were walking on eggshells," Richard said. Deep down, he and his parents thought Christopher was just trying to get attention. "I never thought he would actually pull it off," he said.

Even when Christopher swallowed the oil of wintergreen on May 28, 1979, they got him to the hospital and thought he would be OK. Oil of wintergreen is used as a liniment and in very small doses as flavoring in some drugs, but when taken straight it has much the same effect as an aspirin overdose. It can cause a person to hyperventilate, develop a fever, collect lung fluid and go into a coma.

"A teaspoon of oil of wintergreen is equivalent to 21 regular-strength adult aspirin tablets," said Dr. Toby Litovitz, director of the National Capital Poison Center at Georgetown University Hospital.

Mr. Schultz, Mrs. Schultz and Richard said they never figured out how the bottle got in the house.

Christopher was buried in his Boy Scout uniform, with his funeral at Assumption. His death knocked the family to a new level of guilt and anger.

"My son was home in my care," Mrs. Schultz said. "I'm a professional nurse. And while he was in my care, he managed to take stuff that killed him."

"As a parent, you failed," Mr. Schultz said. "The bottom line is, you lost a child."

Richard felt both guilty and resentful. He was told to be understanding through his brother's troubles, and then, when his brother died, he was told to be strong for his parents. No one paid much attention to him.

The Schultzes decided to press charges against Brother Edmund, who had moved to Phoenix, where his mother lived. Police said the case was too weak because the only witness, Christopher, was dead.

So the family sued the church and the Scouts over Christopher's abuse and death. It appears to be the first lawsuit involving sex abuse ever filed against the Boy Scouts. Since then, about 50 similar cases have been filed.

When the lawsuit made headlines in September 1980 - almost two years after Brother Edmund left the church and the troop because of the allegations - the local Scout council sent the stories to national headquarters, along with information about Brother Edmund, to ban him from the Scouts.

But the lawsuits died over a law called "charitable immunity," which bans most lawsuits against charities over the actions of a volunteer.

The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3 that the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark was immune from the lawsuit. The family sued the Boy Scouts in New York, where the camp was. The State Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that the case belonged in New Jersey.

Mr. Schultz often traveled to Colorado on business and was tempted to swing down to Phoenix "to finish things off" with Brother Edmund. If a child of his were sexually abused today, Mr. Schultz said, "I would, while I were in a highly emotional state, go down and take care of the individual first and let the law straighten it out later."

Eventually Mrs. Schultz moved out of the house. She had taken Christopher's death harder than anyone. The hospitalizations, the suicide, the guilt, the trips to the counselors, the criminal investigation and the lawsuits had sapped the strength from their marriage.

"Individuals grieve differently," Mr. Schultz said. "My coping mechanism was to say yes, it happened. . . . To bury it. My wife couldn't let go of it. It just drove us apart."

"They could no longer keep each other up like they used to," Richard said. "My father would look at my mother and see her getting depressed, and it would remind him of his failure as a husband and a father. . . . They came to the realization that the only way either one of them were going to survive was to get a divorce."

Mr. Schultz sold the house. He and Mrs. Schultz have since married other people.

In 1988, Brother Edmund died. His four-sentence obituary in the Arizona Republic did not list a cause of death. His funeral was in a non-denominational chapel, and he had no immediate survivors.

Richard Jr. is married now. Last summer, he and his wife had a baby. They named him Christopher.