Many read reports about victims of sexual abuse and wonder why the victim did not come forward earlier. Some readers suspect financial motives for newly important memories of abuse. Perhaps that is true in some cases. It was not true in mine. I am not suing anyone, and I cannot speak for anyone who is. But maybe my true story will help the reader to understand better the complex situation in which an abuse victim can find himself or herself.
No doubt some victim advocates will disparage me for writing under a pseudonym, but I do not want the man who victimized me to be identifiable, which could add to the damage he has already done to the church. And I do not want to drag my wife and adolescent sons into this in any public way. They have put up with enough already by living with me these years. A counselor once told me, appropriate disclosure is redemptive. We must respect each victim’s sense of how much disclosure will help in his or her situation.
A Time of Change
Come back to 1976, to the days when the church was busy about the changes of Vatican II. Come into the mind and heart of a teenager who felt called to the priesthood. It was a dizzying time.
We were the in-between generationconstrained by what seemed the outdated Roman Catholic system that was passing away, but filled with assurances that more change was in the works. Among many young priests I knew, and among many candidates entering the small order I was joining, there was a sense that the married priesthood was just around the corner. To some, the adoption of celibacy appeared to be a necessary evil that could soon end when things opened up.
With the sexual revolution of the 1960’s in recent memory, seminary recruits were getting in touch with their sexuality. Considering the age groupyoung men arriving at adulthoodthis was utterly normal. Within the context of religious formation, it was a sign of the church’s newfound openness to the world.
There was no homosexual phenomenon in my group. During the three years I spent in a college-based house of studies for candidates considering religious life, a welcome group of young women hung around. They were there for liturgies and good times with these idealistic young men who were not trying to get them into bed.
But with hormones flowing freely, it was not quite that simple, and more than one fine marriage resulted. The big question for some of my friends and me was, how far can you go in a relationship and remain celibate? The widespread presence of Donald Goergen’s book The Sexual Celibate (1975) was a big clue. We jokingly referred to it as a reference book, because some of the candidates, in this no-dating house, seemed to be carrying it around everywhere.
Others, of course, were more conservative in their approach. These were confusing years for most of usa time when the rules were being rewritten. And, as I discovered with time, a homosexual phenomenon did exist for some of my classmates.
Hello, Brother X; Goodbye Priesthood
After my first night in the candidacy program, as much as I tried to convince myself I wanted to continue, my subconscious was looking for a way out. That night, in the summer of 1976, at a community gathering at a university house of studies, I was betrayed and violated. Brother X, a religious brother who was a member of the vocations team that recruited me, was my roommate at a gathering of the community’s 100-some members. He tricked me into bed with him.
Twenty-seven years later, now raising teenage sons, I still cannot believe how blind and gullible I was. Like many victims of sexual abuse, though, I was easy prey; and, typically for abusers, Brother X knew it.
Legally I was a consenting adult, well into my 18th year. But I was emotionally still an adolescent, reeling from a deeply troubled childhood. Mom spent much of my childhood hospitalized for mental illness. When she was not in the hospital, she medicated herself with alcohol and a variety of prescription narcotics. Dad was an absent character for reasons I still do not fully understandtoo many children (eight of us), constantly working out of town to finance an upper-middle class lifestyle for his children, tragically dying of heart disease when I was 15, a year after my stepbrother had perished, the victim of a drunk driver. While Dad was alive and home, he often was verbally abusive and sometimes violent.
I sought refuge in the church.
At an early age I had been given the gift of faith, mediated somehow even in such a troubled home. In my childhood I gained a deep and abiding sense of the Lord’s presence and a profound, mystical awareness during Mass of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, in the word sung and spoken, in the people around me. I knew in my heart the meaning of the old slave songs that spoke of being delivered by God. In that deliverance I heard a call to the priesthood, and I sought a community to join.
In retrospect, I see that I was also seeking stability and looking for surrogate fathers. Young men like me exude neediness, which the predator senses and moves in on.
(I recently learned more about this dynamic from Patrick Boyle’s book Scout’s Honor: Sexual Abuse in America’s Most Trusted Institution . Boyle documents how the Boy Scout organization woke up to sexual abuse in the 1980’s and finally took dramatic action to combat it. Most interesting in the book, though, is his long, personal profile of a convicted pedophile. Some of the literature that aided this abuser was from the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which recommended that men seeking boy-love would have an easier time with boys whose fathers had died. I shuddered when I read it.)
After experiencing a few wonderful retreats and some extended volunteer experiences in service of the poor, I made application to a community I had discovered through my high school. Having made my decision, my only hope was that I would be accepted.
I provide these details because I want the reader to understand a recruit’s vulnerability. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to prove to these people that I was worthy of their trust. I wanted to impress upon them that I had the right stuff to be a member of their community. I was in love with the mission of this community and was willing to give up everything to follow the Lord with these men.
Groomed for Success
Though I did not know it, I was being groomed by Brother X for his own sexual gratification. Grooming the intended victim through incremental and systematic seduction and training is typical predator behavior. Pedophiles will shower their targets with gifts and attention, often in secret, gradually building the level of trust and secrecy to the point where the intended victim is either confused or compromised enough to go along with the abuse. Brother X, no pedophile, was obsessed with the sexual awakening of late teens. He groomed me over a period of two years, then made a perfectly legal move on me once I turned 18.
During those two years, I participated in a series of trust-building exercises that were part of the community’s retreats. Some of the exercises called for personal disclosuretelling our personal faith stories, being vulnerable in a group with intimate sharing. These are not bad things, mind you, but they are the perfect arena for the predator.
One of the brothers on the vocations team was into rappelling, and used his skill to create the kind of wow! experience that inspires and motivates many young men. With a careful eye toward safety, volunteer retreatants learned how to harness themselves and rappel from tree limbs 10 or 15 feet off the ground, in preparation for a thrilling 100-foot drop at a nearby park. Developing trust in the belayerthe one who controls your descent from below by applying tension to the ropesis an integral part of learning to rappel. In this context it took on a deeper dimension. Letting go of the tree and hanging mid-air, 10 feet off the ground, was an exercise in learning to trust. I’ll never forget the words, Trust the Brother that this charismatic and kind brother yelled at us as he trained us to rappel.
Unfortunately, I transferred that trust to his recruiting partner, Brother X, who took the trust exercises a step further with physical touching. He gave backrubs and body massage (swimsuits or shorts required), with the announced goal of helping us become more at ease with our bodies. Had I met him on the street somewhere, I would have run for cover. But in the context of a program operated by a religious order, with a team of adult priests and brothers at the helm, I, along with almost everyone else at the retreats, gave him the benefit of the doubt. (At one, an older recruit accused the team of trying to conduct a cult, using group pressure to get people to do things they normally would not do. When he went home, we thought he was paranoid.)
Brother X took a special interest in me on these retreats. He noticed that I always waited for the others before I got into the food line. He asked me why I would jump out of the way if he approached me from my periphery. That, I learned later, is a sign of an abused childalways on the alert to dodge an incoming blow. I think he knew that and exploited that insight to develop a fatherly relationship. I felt he cared about me. I could talk to him. I could trust him. By the time I entered the candidacy house, I was groomed enough for Brother X to make an overtly sexual move.
I want to sleep naked with you, he whispered to me the day I arrived for the community gathering in 1976. This is a strange and risky request, I thought. In my utter sexual naïveté, though, I thought he meant exactly that and no more: that he wanted us to be naked together, sleeping in the same bed. This is a test of my ability to trust, I thought. I can pass this test. I will trust him, though it goes against common sense. To this day I am sickened at my gullibility, I suppose much like those who lose their life earnings to a con artist.
We swapped roommates so that we could be in a room together that night, and I willingly went to his bed. When he started to masturbate meto relax meand initiate lovemaking, I knew something was terribly wrong. He wanted more than for us to sleep together naked.
Now I decided that this was a case of mistaken identity. He thinks I’m gay, I thought. Why didn’t I jump up and run from the room screaming? I wish I had. But I knew that if anyone found out what was going on in this room I would be on my way home, my dreams of priesthood dashed. I froze. I shut myself down emotionally, as I had learned to do so well in an abusive home.
I think he gave up after I would not respond to his attempts to arouse me by French-kissing my ears. It was the longest night of my life. He told me of other recruits whom he had done this with, and even a religious sister, at her parents’ house. Eventually I fell asleep in his arms, basically paralyzed with fear. God knows what he thought was going on. After hearing many stories of sexual abuse, I wonder if more abuse occurred that I have psychologically repressed. I don’t think so, but isn’t it something to be so shaken as to be unsure?
In the morning I left and avoided him thereafter. For 15 years my wife was the only one I ever told about this event. I told her after I met Brother X years later, when I was at a party with my wife. He came up to me and whispered in my ear, I should be a significant person in your life. I told him I was not gay. I heard through the grapevine that he left the community a year or so later. I have never seen him since, and I hope I never do.
Seeing the Pattern
Now I return to my thesis: why do some victims come forward only many years after the abuse? Some victims dissociate traumatic events from their experience, resulting in memory gaps. A therapist minister described this to me as a protective gift from Godremoving awareness of the trauma until a later time, when the victim is better equipped to deal with what happened. My experience was not like that. I simply did not understand what had happened to me.
In my case, I made it all the way from 1976 to 1992 before I even realized that I had been manipulated by a predator. I, like many victims, saw myself as primarily to blame. He thought I was gay, I told myself. It was an honest mistake on his part in a decade of sexual experimentation throughout society.
Was I gay? Within a few months after the incident I was actively seeking female companionship to clarify my sexual identity. I dated several women classmates on the sly while in the candidacy program and eventually left the program in order to pursue marriage and lay ministry. Now, 22 years into my only marriage, I doubt that I had a calling to celibacy, but I can assure you that Brother X put an end to my seriously considering the question.
By 1992 I had spent some years in group therapy and individual counseling, coming to grips with my troubled childhood. The incident with Brother X never came up. I did not realize its potency, though now I do, because I’ve thought about it on and off a lot during the past 10 years. At the time it seemed almost a footnote to so much of what had preceded in my childhood home.
That was the year the James Porter case became widely known, and the church hierarchy scrambled to deal with a full-blown crisis over clergy sexual abuse. (That is the crisis that most everyone except the victims seemed to forget about immediately, the one that resulted in voluntary guidelines for the N.C.C.B. that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and others rejected.) I began to follow the news closely about a priest in my own area who was on trial for victimizing 60 boys over many years. When I read some of the stories that these grown men were now telling of how the priest had groomed and manipulated them, I suddenly saw everything about Brother X in a new light.
It is as if you are staring at one of those M. C. Escher drawings, and suddenly your perspective changes. The same things look dramatically different. Here I was, 12 years married, raising my young sons, having come to grips with much of my past, still keeping tabs on my alcoholic mother, when the blinds were pulled from my eyes. I read a victim’s account of being groomed and felt a sea shift. It was no case of mistaken identity, I thought. It was a setup!
But what was to be done? I knew that Brother X was long gone. I heard that, after nursing a friend with AIDS until the man died, he was back on the streets, looking for beautiful young men to pick up. He was beyond the reach of church accountability and had committed no civil crime against me.
I could see in my story how he had damaged the community I had wanted to join, and I could only imagine how many other people he had victimized and turned away. Within a few days I was on the phone to the superior of the community. I knew that Brother X had broken no law and was out of reach, but the superior knew me as a friend of the community and would believe me. I wanted to tell him, so that he would believe other victims who might contact him.
I did not go public, and I did not sue. I felt at the time, and I still do, that Brother X, no doubt himself a victim, had done tremendous damage to that small community already. Public scandal would damage them further. These men were still my friends, whose mission and ministry is still urgently needed. Was this not the rationale for many victims and their families who allowed things to be handled quietly?
Ten years later, watching the debacle unfold yet again, I wonder if I took the right approach.