CHAPTER 23 - JUSTICE FROM ROME
The call from the Archdiocese attorney was waiting for me when I finished teaching my last class before lunch on September 19, 1984.
“Well, do we Tango and make a little nasty history in the courts, or do I get my letter?” I asked.
“I’d love to take your deposition . . . but I’m afraid I’ll never get the chance. You can have the letter this afternoon. Be at my office any time after 3:00 P.M.”
Wednesday was still visitation for me, so I drove out to Maria’s place to pick up my son before heading over to claim my prize.
“What’s new?” Bobbie asked as he jumped into my car and threw a big hug around me.
“The question’s not what’s new, but what’s News and the answer, young man, is about to be you. The Church has agreed to annul your baptism, a first in almost two thousand years!”
“You mean they’re gonna let me be a Jew?” Bobbie asked with obvious joy.
“And there’s nothing Mom can do about it?”
“Not a thing in the world once we get that letter in our hands. We’re goin’ over to get it right now. That’s not all, son. Judge Hickey is off the case!”
Bobbie was so happy that tears began to flow down his handsome face. At last the end was in sight.
The exchange of Release from Liability for the letter went without a hitch at the attorney’s office. The Archbishop’s letter was incredible. It supplied me with all I wanted and a thousand times more. I read it once, twice, a dozen times again. God, I wondered, what must have transpired in McCarthy’s office to have him come down so strongly on my side?
The Church attorney probably recommended annulment of the baptism for three reasons. First, the mother wasn’t a practicing Catholic until the past few months. There would be a need to send a message to Church members that baptism was a sacred act, not one designed to be used as a tool of revenge when a marriage ends up on the rocks as interfaith marriages generally do.
Fitzpatrick probably thought it wise to placate me. If they fought me in the courts, they may have lost even they we won the case. The trial might have taken years and drawn out all their dirty laundry with respect to the Holocaust.
Finally, reports from Bobbie’s catechism class indicated his strong Jewish identity, both before and after the baptism occurred. Fitzpatrick must have emphasized Bobbie’s psychological wellbeing as an explanation to the press. A television interview with Monsignor Walsh later that week confirmed this as the excuse to give me what I wanted.
The date on the letter, September 13th, was troubling. The Church had called me about the letter on September 19th. My final ultimatum (coupled with a threat to reveal the Holocaust evidence) was delivered on September 14th. Did McCarthy try to make it look like the decision was made before my threat was delivered? Who cared! I read the letter again:
There must have been some concern about the effect the letter would have on Maria’s chances to appeal General Master Dixon’s findings. But if there was, it wasn’t apparent from anything that the Archbishop had written. Perhaps McCarthy was angered by a perception that Maria had been careless and flippant in her use of the Holy Sacraments. Maybe he hoped that I would be less likely to continue my war against the Vatican if he handed Bobbie over on a silver platter.
I made two more stops before heading home that day to share the joyous news with Kathy; Bennett’s office and Schmidt’s. Bennett wasn’t in just then, but Busker was. Busker almost did cartwheels when he read it. “Unbelievable,” he said, “You just broke the back of the biggest church in the world!”
“Not quite,” I said, “but I have at last gotten some justice from Rome. Now I’m going to find out if I can get some from Schmidt and his client, too.”
Maria’s attorney refused to come out to greet me when I arrived, but I was loud enough to be sure that he could hear me out in the reception area. “Tell Mr. Schmidt,” I advised the secretary, “That it’s futile for him to fight me anymore. I’ll give Maria good visitation if she ends her resistance now and hands Bobbie over to me. If this isn’t done forthright, there’s a lot more in store for that dear lady.”
As I drove away with Bobbie, I was surprised to learn that the boy had never been to his mother’s attorney’s office before. Schmidt had fought for nine months to keep him away from me father, but he’d never actually met the boy himself. Perhaps it was because Maria had told him from the beginning about Bobbie’s sentiment and the lawyer didn’t have the stomach to face him.
As soon as I was gone, Schmidt came out of hiding and read the letter. He then picked up the phone and called Maria to give her the news, along with his decision to withdraw from the case, though he did offer to have his associate negotiate terms for an out-of-court settlement.
According to Bobbie, his mother reacted to the Archbishop’s letter by removing the crucifix from the wall in her bedroom, then throwing it into a bathroom in her garage (where it stayed for a year before being put up again).
There was a celebration at the Homestead Jewish Center that night as word of my success quickly spread throughout the congregation. Not having heard from Maria by the following afternoon, I set out to go for the kill by calling Arnold Markowitz of the Miami Herald, the new reporter assigned to the story. After hearing the letter read over the phone, Markowitz made me swear that I wouldn’t give the story to anyone else before he could get it into the paper. We both agreed that it was best to leave the Holocaust evidence out of the story for the time being. It was best to emphasize the positive.
Markowitz promised to do his best to get the story into the Herald on the following day, Friday, September 21st. He did, on page one. The story, entitled CATHOLICS ANNUL BAPTISM OF UNINFORMED JEWISH BOY, was two pages long. There was a big picture of my son on the first page with a caption under it reading, Robert Roffman considers himself a Jew. In the article Monsignor Walsh was quoted as saying, For the mother to promote the sacrament as a protective shield against hell was doctrinally wrong, an idea he had not heard before, possibly as a reassuring but badly oversimplified description of baptism’s salvation aspects.
Walsh also said, The rules include making sure a child who has reached the age of reason knows what he is doing, does it freely, and has an understanding of the Catholic faith adequate for his age. As for the age of reason, he did not mention that Bobbie was still six weeks short of his seventh birthday when the baptism occurred. Seven was the age of reason as defined by the Church.
The Archdiocese chose to reprimand Father Smith before the world. Monsignor Walsh blamed the priest’s lack of experience for his failure to learn Robert’s background and to make sure he understood the meaning of baptism. It seemed that McCarthy wanted to insure that his priests would learn from his example. Priests would now have to be more careful before baptizing the children of interfaith marriages and divorces. Father Smith was transferred away from his beloved church to another in Homestead, Florida.
Rabbi Schiff was also quoted in the Herald. He said, “Judaism holds a deep institutional concern about dishonest baptisms. We have a sad history over the years where Jewish children were baptized by those of Christian faiths because they wanted to save the Jewish soul. We don’t hear about it today, but the history is fresh enough in our collective conscience to make us extremely sensitive.”
If you want to read the full story in the Herald, it's here: Final Miami Herald Press Coverage of Friday, September 21, 1984. Pages 1 and 20A.
I first learned that the news had been published so fast when my fellow teachers began to congratulate me at work. Maria got the word when she saw our son’s face staring back at her from the paper on her doorstep that morning. I imagine that she nearly passed out. It’s one thing to lose a custody battle, but quite another to have the loss broadcast to the world.
By the end of the day Bobbie, my wife, and I had appeared on CNN and numerous local news programs. One broadcast showed Bobbie singing the Kiddush prayer in Hebrew. The young man didn’t neglect to take the on-camera opportunity to thank the Archbishop for “letting me be a Jew and making the Baptism as though it were nothing at all.”
By Saturday, September 22, the story had shown up in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and in Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco newspapers. A month later it even appeared in the Weekly World News, a tabloid that was generally occupied with tales of Big Foot or UFO invasions.
On the following Monday morning, Bennett received a call from Karl Schmidt. Bennett didn’t know what to expect at first. He worried about a new suit based on all the publicity. Schmidt’s message, however, was short. “Please tell Mr. Roffman that he has my personal respect. You may also tell him that my client is now ready to come to terms.”