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Freemasons under scrutiny - We don't want people to think we're satanical nut cases

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Freemasons under scrutiny


March 21, 2004

The night Gene Madlon, a Lindenhurst real estate salesman, was blindfolded and initiated into the Freemasons, he was surprised to feel, against the bare skin of his neck, a noose.

Madlon hadn't been warned by his father, uncles or grandfather who long before had joined the secret society.

Instead, he and other Masonic initiates in the past 250 years stepped blind into a hidden core of symbolic ritual objects and practices: A white smock open at the chest to reveal the left breast. Startling noises of hand claps, stamping feet, the clash of cymbals. The point of a sword against skin, emphasizing dire oaths of secrecy. The noose, known to Masons as a cable tow. The blindfold, known as a hoodwink. And later, the handshakes and passwords.

"No one tells you anything," Madlon, 52, said of his 1985 initiation ceremony into the Babylon Masons Lodge. And to him, that's not a bad thing.

When the initiate's blindfold is removed, he finds himself facing ranks of men in white leather aprons.

"It's like going into a play. You don't want to know the end before you go in," said Madlon, who also was initiated in 1990 into the Odd Fellows lodge in Lindenhurst. "It's not anything sinister. I've never been threatened with actual physical harm in any way."

The glare of public interest has turned toward the group's confidential practices since Albert Eid, 76, accidentally shot to death a fellow Mason on March 8 during a rogue ritual at the South Side Masonic Temple in Patchogue. New York Masonry officials suspended the lodge and are investigating whether misconduct led to the death of William James, 47.

Many in Masonry see his death as its worst public debacle in nearly 200 years.

"We don't want people to think we're satanical nut cases. Freemasonry is sometimes looked on as a secret society, like voodoo, with a lot of hokum," said Robert Stack, a retired pharmacist who belongs to the Scottish Rite Masons in Rockville Center, where lodge membership is down to 1,250 from a high several decades ago of 3,000.

Across the country, Masons and academic researchers said they were stunned by the incident.

Freemasons say they are not a secret society, but a society with secrets. What to outsiders sounds bizarre -- the noose, the bare-chested initiate -- is to insiders normal and benign. They say rumors and scandals unfairly divert attention from the companionship, spiritual growth and philanthropy generated by 5,000 members on Long Island, 60,000 statewide and an estimated 3.5 million across the world -- all of them men.

The Masons don't admit women, but have a separate group, the Order of the Eastern Star, that admits both men and women. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows has the Rebekahs. And the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic society with more than 20,000 members on Long Island, has the Ladies of Columbus.

Into the 20th century, the Masons would not admit Catholics and segregated blacks in a separate society, Prince Hall Freemasonry. The Knights of Columbus until recent decades segregated blacks in its Knights of Peter Claver lodges.

The legacy of bias against women, blacks and other religions has long undermined fraternal groups' status in a wider society that, more and more, insists on equality and transparency, said Hugh Urban, an associate professor of religion at Ohio State University who has researched fraternalism.

Men who join fraternal societies are, in part, reacting to feminism, Urban said.

"Groups like that appeal to conservative individuals who feel the world around them is changing for the worse, and these societies offer an island of security and protection, an esoteric space," Urban said.

Men who live humdrum lives can achieve distinction as masons, said Andrew McCain, a University of Virginia researcher. "Assuming an alternate personality seems to be one of the main drives behind members who want to somehow enact a powerful persona," he said.

But some join, in part, for downright practical reasons. Madlon wants access to a Masonic nursing home. William Brown Jr., who in 2000 was the first African-American to become grand knight of the Uniondale chapter of the Knights of Columbus, depends on the order's insurance benefits.

For others, like Andrew Boracci of Sag Harbor, membership is a source of pride.

"It makes me a member of one of the oldest and most respected brotherhoods in the world," said Boracci, 77, who is a Freemason, Scottish Rite Mason and Shriner.

"I like the spirit and the concept of brotherhood under God, a single God by any name," says Boracci, who owns and publishes American Mason magazine.

While Masons said few applicants are rejected, a man must be 21 or older, with a reputation good enough to withstand a cursory investigation by the membership committee. No one is invited to join -- the applicant must ask of his own initiative. He must believe in a single God and the soul's immortality.

Members typically pay an initiation fee of $100 or so, with yearly dues of $50 or less, and attend two 3-hour meetings a month. More time is devoted to committees, fund-raising and administration.

An initiate, Boracci says, needs to demonstrate a heartfelt obligation to serve others. Freemasonry and its affiliated groups in North America donate an average of $2 million a year to hospitals, free eye clinics, learning disability centers and medical research, he said.

Friendships and family tradition have kept Stack involved in Masonry for 43 years. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant to New York, became a Mason in 1919.

For Madlon, Masonry and the Odd Fellows offer a way to give back to the Lindenhurst and Babylon community, in part by supporting Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops.

And there's a link to local history and tradition. "Many of the old-timers from Lindenhurst, the people with deep roots, are in Odd Fellows," said Madlon, who joined the group at age 40. "They used to joke that when I joined, I brought the average age down to 70."

Steven Bullock, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, said Freemasonry's spiritual component is paramount. "It is not a religion, but it is deeply religious," said Bullock. "Their meetings open with prayer."

Behind the closed doors of the Lodge, though, remain many of the rituals that strike nonmembers as outlandish.

"The parts we hold secret are what bind us as a fraternity and make us Masons," said Dean Monroe Jr., 29, an Oklahoma State University scholar who co-wrote a study on the decline of Freemason membership. Monroe, who is a Mason, considers William James' death an instance of hazing -- a waning practice in Freemasonry.

Members worry that the notoriety of the Patchogue incident may harm fraternal societies just as a new wave of younger members -- the sons of baby boomers -- is joining.

"The guys here are weeping over it. They're so devoted to Freemasonry. We want to bring in men and make them better," Stack said last week. "This unfortunate incident out East is going to set us back another 50 years. Those crazy guys."

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.