I’m a Survivor of Priest Abuse — It’s Time to Break my Silence
The magnitude of the Pennsylvania abuse was, for most people, beyond comprehension. But not for me.
The numbers from Tuesday’s Grand Jury report on the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania’s history of abusing minors popped off of computer screens across the globe like sparks hitting the unprotected eye of a steelworker. Seventy years. More than three hundred priests. Over one thousand victims. We’ve known for most of this century that there was a disgusting history of priests violating trust and sexually assaulting the children they were charged with spiritually fostering. We likewise knew that there was a deep conspiracy among the Church hierarchy to keep this abuse secret. Worst of all, we were aware that these clergymen accused of such horrific acts were often shuffled to new, unsuspecting parishes. Which meant nothing more than new, unsuspecting victims.
Still, the results of the investigation out of Harrisburg were jaw-dropping. Pennsylvania is only 24% Catholic, with approximately 3.2 million Pennsylvanians prescribing to the faith. The magnitude of the abuse was, for most people, beyond comprehension. But not for me.
It happened in my parish. It happened to me.
For thirty years now, I’ve wrestled with the impact that being born into the Roman Catholic faith has had on my life. I’ve lived through four of the five stages of grief over that period. While it was happening, and for roughly 5 years after, I successfully blocked it from my memory. Life was just grand (denial). As I entered adulthood and all of its rites and passages – college, bills, cohabitation, marriage – I lashed out at any mention of Catholicism under the guise that “all religion was bullshit” (anger).
When I finally hinted at what had I gone through to my closest friends and relatives, I convinced myself that I was putting it all behind me (bargaining). For most of my thirties, I dabbled in and out of talk therapy and psychiatric medicine while blaming my issues on money, politics, family strife, self-esteem, genetics, the weather and just about anything else (depression).
I’m hoping that this will finally get me to the point of acceptance. And I hope it will encourage others to speak up as well, as the brave survivors from Pennsylvania have inspired me. For years, I kept my silence because I felt what had happened to me paled in comparison to what impact this Church-wide conspiracy had on countless others. In many ways, that’s still the truth. But this scandal should not be judged solely on the most tragic of outcomes.
I want to be clear from the start that I am not using the real names of anyone, as this is not the proper channel to do so. That includes the abuser. That proper channel may manifest itself one day, and I hope to have the courage to take advantage. But this is not about him. He’s taken up enough of my headspace. As has the parish, which I will also not name.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a middle-class suburb of New York City. As Springsteen would say, ‘cross the river, to the Jersey side. The town was primarily second-and-third generation Americans of Irish, Italian and Polish descent. Naturally, the cultural epicenter was the giant, beautiful gothic revival church smack dab in the middle of the town – St. Lucifer’s.
My parents were both products of a Catholic school education. My maternal grandparents walked to church seven days a week. The paternal side of my family had a close friend who attended every family celebration, a jolly old man named Father Cork. (And if memory serves me correctly, he married all of my grandmother’s children and baptized all but one of her grandchildren, present company included). From my earliest memories, Sunday Mass was non-negotiable. So when the time came for my schooling, I don’t think there was any discussion between my parents where I would be educated. I would be attending St. Lucifer’s.
My early years at St. Lucifer’s were during the first Reagan Administration, for all intents and purposes it may as well have been the late 1950’s. Corporal punishment was no longer permitted, but all of the nuns that taught there (or wandered the halls aimlessly in an Alzheimer’s haze) were products of the beat-the-shit-out-kids era. Boys and girls lined up separately. The physical abuse may have been outlawed but these nuns would berate you until you were drowning in a puddle of your own piss and tears.
If your desk was messy, Sister Leona would dump it out and make you clean it up while the whole class would watch (who cares if it wasted 20 minutes of what should have been developmental learning). If Sister Cruella caught you throwing out any part of your lunch, she’d make you dig it out of the trash and eat it, and the entire lunchroom would be denied recess until you did. And we were all told that if our grades weren’t up to par, the parish pastor – Father George – would be very angry (Fuck Santa Claus, you didn’t want Father George to be disappointed in you. Seriously, they billed this fragile hunchback as Darth Vader with a collar).
That all changed, however, when we came back from summer vacation following fourth grade – 1986. It was my class’s first summer as Altar Boys.
While we were spending our days at the town pool, watching Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” dominate MTV and Ferris Bueller play hooky on the big screen, St. Lucifer was undergoing a major administrative metamorphosis. The ancient school principal that ruled the roost with an iron fist was out. So were Sister Cruella and a few of her born-in-the-nineteenth-century cohorts. The new boss, Sister Eva, was only fifty-three years old. For St. Lucifer’s School, that was practically adolescent.
It Seemed Normal at the Time
The parish also welcomed a new priest that fall. Father Damien was a breath of fresh air when compared to the imperial Father George and the gentle-but-boring-as-shit Father Thelonious. He was a larger than life character. He was a tall, broad heavyset guy. He had a round jovial face that always seemed to be smiling. Even later in our schooling, you couldn’t take him seriously when he tried to act with authority. You don’t have the perspective of age when you’re only nine, but looking back, I would peg him as early-to-mid-thirties.
Father Damien was present throughout the school day, in a way that the other priests never were. He would bring Nerf footballs out to the recess yard and throw them around with us. Our fourth grade teacher was a middle-aged Jewish lady who had no idea how to corral a bunch of ten-year-olds who were finding out they were able to get away with a lot more than they used to, so Father Damien would pop in, tell us a few jokes and before you knew it he was gone and our teacher had our full attention. By the spring of ’87, it felt like the whole school was in a competition to get his attention.
Kids do stupid stuff. Always have, always will, and my class was no exception. At one point in fourth grade, we started this game where you would run up to another boy on the playground, grab his balls and yell “Whiskey!” Seriously, I don’t think there’s a hypnotist alive that get me to figure out the genesis of how or why it started, but it did. That led to the first of many awkward moments with Father Damien.
And like those that would follow, it seemed completely normal at the time.
He took all the boys from the fourth grade and brought us to the school’s auditorium. He asked us all to sit in a circle. He said something along the lines of it’s unhealthy to grab another boy’s penis or testicles. Fine. We had been lectured on our behavior before. But then he went further (SPOILER ALERT, STOP READING IF YOU STILL BELIEVE IN THE STORK). He went on to tell us why the penis and testicles were so sacred. Because sperm develops in the testicles and comes out of the penis. When a penis gets erect, it enters a woman’s vagina, the sperm, well…you know the rest.
I was shocked. Not because a priest told me this, but because until that moment I just accepted the fact that God decides who to bless with children and how many. Shit, I remember being really young and asking my mother why I didn’t have a sister. She told me God didn’t give me one and that was enough.
I honestly don’t know if our parents were informed that this priest would be giving us “The Talk”. And I never asked.
But aside from learning that my dick could do sooo much more than take a piss that day, Father Damien established a level of trust with our class. For the first time in our lives, we were treated like adults. Who gives a shit that none of us were capable of an erection, Father Damien told us our ding-dongs had magic powers! I suddenly felt cool! Father Damien was cool!
And if a bizarre moment like that would feel normal, why wouldn’t anything else? And so began our grooming.
One of the “perks” of being an altar boy was getting a special blessing from the priest who said mass, once the service concluded. We were trained to retreat to the sacristy – a sort of office/locker room hybrid set just off of the altar – turn around, kneel on one knee and the priest would literally bless us. Father George would just make a sign of the cross and that was it. Father Thelonious would at least be verbal, saying something along the lines of May God the Father, Mary the Blessed Mother and blah blah blah blah blah Amen.
It was a whole different ballgame with Father Damien. For starters, no more kneeling. He’d ask that we stand and then he would pull the two (on a weekday) or three (on a Sunday) of the altar boys in tight for a bear hug. And then he’d deliver his customized blessing.
I still remember the first two lines of it. I couldn’t forget it if I tried. It’s popped into my head while I’ve been at parties. I’ve heard it in my mind while trying to meditate.
It’s even manifested while having sex.
For all that you are, and for whatever your needs may be. Especially any needs that might make you worried, anxious or afraid…
Those 22 words seem simple and innocuous. Comforting, even, if you just look at them at face value. But over three decades later, they still haunt the ever-loving shit out of me.
Damien had this knack for hugging children. To many of the parents – the baby boomers – this was nothing odd. Quite the contrary. I’m only speculating, but I imagine that some of the more devout parents were thrilled to bits to see their children actually enjoying church. And we did.
When he first arrived, he made it his mission to start a “Youth Group”. My class was too young but we anxiously awaited seventh grade when we could attend ourselves. Its immediate impact was obvious. Kids would call the parish rectory to find out which Sunday Mass he would be officiating. Attendance at his services were almost standing-room only, compared to the other four masses each Sunday which would be maybe 60% capacity, depending on how close you felt like sitting near other people (I preferred plenty of room to myself for the sole reason of not having to deal with strangers during the “sign of peace”).
Then Things Really Got Weird
But while the baby-boomers as a whole generally embraced what Father Damien brought to the parish, the older folks – the so-called Greatest Generation – weren’t having any of what he was selling. His attempts to hug and kiss the senior citizens of the community were routinely rebuffed. I distinctly remember my grandfather, who wasn’t a parishioner but occasionally joined us on special Sundays and holidays, saying something to the effect of there’s something not right with that priest.
Father Damien immersed himself into the lives of St. Lucifer’s students (and some other town residents who attended after-public-school CCD) so much so, that it wasn’t unheard of for him to come to family dinner. And my family was no exception. My family became so fond of him that when my youngest sister was born, in 1987, she became the only one of my grandmother’s 8 grandchildren to be baptized by somebody other than Father Cork.
Early on, it was a badge of honor. I’d strut into school Monday morning and brag about how Father Damien ate at my house last night. He’d appear at birthday parties as well. For the first two years of his assignment at St. Lucifer’s, he was the closest thing to a rock star.
Then things got weird.
I rag on the Church with regularity, and it’s well known how lavishly some of the high-ranking bishops and cardinals live (tax-free!), but I can honestly say just about every priest I’ve ever met lived within humble means. Not poverty, per say, but rather simplistic when you consider that your housing and food are paid for and you really only need what, 3 black shirts, 3 black pants, some socks, shoes, and underwear?
But Damien’s lifestyle was quite different. By the time we were in 5th grade, he acquired a few items that to this day remain unusual for a meager parish priest. He had a beach house down the Jersey Shore, a cottage out in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, and a brand-new Chevy Astro Van. This priest now had twice the automobile seating capacity as my family of six did at the time.
It all became clear shortly after that, however, when he would routinely bring teenagers down the shore as we say in New Jersey. What fourteen or fifteen-year-old was going to pass up the chance to go to the beach for a few nights without their parents?
He had a special bond with the 7th and 8th graders when he first arrived. They were the first participants in his “youth group”, and his DeFacto beach buddies. But time marches on and soon those students would be out of that awkward pubescent period, out of St. Lucifer’s and off to high school.
Which meant it was our turn for the extra attention.
Somewhere around 6th grade, the post-mass altar boy blessing got weird. The bear hug remained the same, but it now included an encore. After he finished that goddamn For All That You Are schtick, he’d let go and then individually grab each altar boy. He’d look you in the eye, say “Peace be with you Eddie (or whatever your name was) and then give you a long, closed-mouth kiss. On the lips.
That was fucking strange.
Naturally, this was ridiculously confusing for 12-year-old boys in the waning years of the pre-politically-correct world. I’m not proud of the language I used back then, but it didn’t take long until we were all giggling on the basketball court about how Father Damien is a fag.
But the scary part is, none of us ever thought to complain to anyone. Not our parents. Not our teachers. Not Sister Eva. Not Father George. Nobody. On Wednesday night we’d be making jokes about him loving men (because we considered ourselves men, not boys) and on Thursday morning he’d be kissing us on the lips after the 7:00 mass.
Hell, none of us could even comprehend what a homosexual was at that point in time. It was a dude who preferred dudes. Knew nothing about the physical dynamics. Shit, we were just two years removed from thinking God gave parents babies. And we most definitely didn’t know the distinction between a pedophile and a homosexual.
I can’t even begin to put myself in the headspace of an abuser, but if I were to guess, it would be that he was emboldened by the lack of resistance or reporting. He was given an inch, so he took a mile.
Soon the kisses, with regularity, were open-mouth. Not long after that, you’d feel his tongue licking your lips. I knew this wasn’t right. My friends did too. We just never talked about it. I would use every kilowatt of energy in my body to keep my lips shut. It didn’t matter.
Every time we served mass we were greeted with 30 seconds of pure hell.
By the end of the school year, there was a strange dynamic emerging within our class. Those of us who were altar boys and among his “favorites” began to separate ourselves from the rest of the boys (in a class of about 13 of us) that we had spent the first seven years of schooling. We ignored the others. Shunned them. Made up rumors about them. Mocked their backgrounds or appearances.
I know kids can be cruel, but we were fucking vicious, man.
There was one student who came to our class in the 5th grade. Transferred from a nearby Catholic School. From what I recall, his parents were quite devout. (By this time, we knew the names and faces of every parishioner. The “devout” ones made a scene of just how much they “believed”. Singing loudly in church. Holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Sitting as close to the altar as possible, and so on.) Father Damien took a liking to him too, but he wasn’t “one of us”.
We tortured the ever-loving shit out of this poor kid. I’m talking stuff that should have gotten us thrown in juvenile detention at times. We were continually lectured by the faculty, and Damien himself, about how we abused him. It was always written off as Well, he joined the class late, they’re picking on the new kid.
Bullshit. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we were projecting on him. And I know for sure because of the most common insult we would hurl his way.
Yet we still didn’t retreat.
My father’s company at the time had season tickets to the Yankees. Me and a couple of friends were diehard fans, didn’t even care that the team was abysmal. One time my old man got four seats and said I can’t take you guys; do you think Father Damien can?
I jumped at the opportunity to call my friends and tell them Father Damien was taking us to a Yankees game. Son of a bitch even took us to Sizzler beforehand.
Knowing how much my parents loved me (and still do), I am 100% convinced I gave them no signal whatsoever that there was something seriously unnatural (and criminal) about Father Damien.
Which is why they would continue to invite him over from time to time. One of those times fell in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. My childhood home had a large above-ground pool in the backyard. Father Damien was over for a BBQ one Sunday and he brought his extra-large trunks with him.
I have no idea how it happened, but I ended up in the pool alone with him. I don’t know if my parents or siblings were in and eventually left, if he was in alone and I joined him, or vice versa. But there we were.
He said something about water being soothing, reminiscent of John the Baptist, and then asked me to float on my back and close my eyes. I did so instinctually, I guess. I don’t recall putting up a fight at first. I was still a believer in “the role of the Priest” and thought I was “chosen” and “going to heaven” and all that other fake news. He put one arm underneath my shoulder, the other underneath my upper thigh. It was reminiscent of the pose you often see of the Blessed Mother holding her son’s lifeless body after he was taken down from the cross.
I seriously thought it was the start of some ritual.
He was talking about John the Baptist and then segued into our changing bodies. I’m paraphrasing the wording, but distinctly remember being asked:
- Do you find that you now have to shower more often?
- When you shower, do you notice you pay more attention to different areas and crevasses?
- Are you noticing you now have hair in places you didn’t before? Maybe on your legs. Maybe on your armpits …
(TIME OUT: I’M IN THE FUCKING POOL WITH YOU, WEARING JUST A PAIR OF SHORTS. YOU CAN TELL IF I HAVE HAIR ON MY LEGS OR ARMPITS)
- Maybe on your testicles? Maybe above your penis?
Playing “20 questions” about a 13-year old’s body was bad enough. But then I felt a minor rub against the back of ribs. And he began to thrust. The motherfucker was as hard as a rock, poking me in the back. In my own swimming pool. With my whole family home.
I made up a lie about having to pee (puke was more like it) and immediately put an end to it.
And I told no one.
And I continued going to church.
And I continued as an altar boy.
And I went with Father Damien on group trips to his Pennsylvania cottage.
That’s not the extent of what I know about Father Damien’s reign of manipulation at St. Lucifer’s. But it’s all that I’m willing to share publicly at this point. And it’s the extent of what happened to me personally.
The rest is not my story to tell, and I know I sure as shit wouldn’t want to be on Facebook one day, see someone from a past life share a story and find out it’s about a priest playing grabass with me when I was a preteen.
And it’s certainly not my story to tell about that first group of teenagers that Father Damien took a liking to. But within that very small circle, two of those boys would eventually commit suicide. And that’s precisely why I continually told myself to just “shut up about it”.
I didn’t have it as bad as others.
I’ve struggled with this for over thirty years. It was probably somewhere in the mid to late 90’s when I finally realized it was not something funny, but rather a horrible system of abuse.
As social media exploded and I reconnected with friends and acquittances I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, it was clear that those of us born in the 70s – give or take – have all come to the conclusion that what the town experienced was not right. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t legal. And it caused lasting damage.
Following the Boston scandal not long after 9/11, I confided in a few people that some “inappropriate” things may have happened to me, but assured them “it’s nothing like what you hear in the news. I wasn’t raped”. (And according to the Catholic League, what happened to me was no big deal!)
But I sure feel like I was.
Following the Pennsylvania report and the public outcry, I felt that now was the time to tell my story. Not because I was stunned by the events in the Keystone State, but because I wasn’t. Because I STILL don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface on this scandal. However bad you think this is, believe me, it’s worse. And it’s nowhere near over. Father Damien is still a priest. And I’m willing to bet everything I have that he’s not the only abuser that’s still donning the vestments every Sunday.
Out of the 1,356 pages in the Grand Jury Report, there was one sentence that turned me whiter than a Trump rally. It was discussing the internal policies of the Archdioceses and how they should inform the public that a predator priest was removed:
“When a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on ‘sick leave,’ or suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.’
By my junior year in (public) high school, I was still going to church every Sunday, but I was going through the motions. Going because it was what you were supposed to do. I came home from basketball practice one day and my mother says to me “Did you hear Father Damien left St. Lucifer’s?”
I asked her why.
“Father Bob (the pastor who replaced Father George a few years prior) said ‘nervous exhaustion’ whatever that means”.
Blue Sunday’s regular features, “Now That You Mention It, What Won Twitter This Week, and Songs of Freedom will return next week. Thanks for your patience and understanding.