Editor's Note: This story is the first part of a two-part series about how one victim of sexual abuse found healing. The second part will be published Aug. 2. While every effort has been made to cover difficult subject matter appropriately, parents may wish to exercise prudence regarding the availability of this story to their children.
WASHINTON — Michael* remembers vividly his high school speech class, 1982.
Each member of the class had to stand in front of the room to answer a randomly assigned question. Michael held his question on a piece of paper: “When was the last time you were in an awkward situation?”
Michael could not speak. He tore the paper into small pieces, nervously.
He knew he couldn’t tell the truth in that speech class.
Instead, Michael invented a wild tale about hitchhiking home from school, getting picked up by a gay man and being trapped in his car.
Michael was then 15 years old.
He couldn’t tell his peers that their classroom was only down the hall from the place where he had been sexually abused just days before.
Eventually, though, Michael had to speak. In the years after he was first abused, Michael told CNA that he would spend nearly $60,000 on therapy, and be diagnosed with PTSD.
About half that amount the Church would eventually reimburse.
Therapy helped, Michael told CNA. But what really helped was learning to forgive.
His abuser was Father James Rapp, a Catholic priest and teacher at his Catholic high school. The abuse Michael suffered at the hands of Rapp, and later others, drove him from the Church in which he was raised. He was convinced he would never again trust a priest, or set foot in a confessional.
But it was a priest, and the sacrament of confession, that eventually brought Michael the healing he needed. A miracle, he says, for which he is grateful to God.
Michael was raised in a Midwestern Catholic home in the 1970s and 80s. His mother and father went to Mass, worked hard and saved to see their three children through Catholic school.
Priests were more than just men in Michael’s household. They were local celebrities. To his family, priests seemed to stand somewhere between ordinary men and God himself. In Michael’s family, the homily was more than a pastoral exhortation--it was a missive from heaven. His parents were proud that Michael served as an altar boy.
As a child, Michael was, he says, “fascinated that God could speak through these men.”
On his first day of high school, Michael heard about a religion teacher at the school, Fr. James Rapp, a priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.
Rapp stood six feet tall, was strong, and seemed tough. Stories about him circulated among the freshmen: that he had once been a police officer, that he let kids drink liquor in his office.
“Like any thirteen year-old kid, I thought to myself ‘that is so cool!’”
In November of his sophomore year, Michael introduced himself to Rapp at a school dance. “In a matter of minutes he invited me to his office,” Michael told CNA.
As the two walked down the hall Michael says he felt “elated.”
“I felt like a ‘big shot’ to be with him, I was beaming inside. I thought I might make it into his circle of boys that he told stories of what it’s like to be a priest, the stories from NYPD, the gun, and maybe even drink liquor with him.”
Michael says he now cringes at the memory.
Years later, following his conviction for the sexual abuse of several minors, Rapp admitted that his homosexual fantasies were tied to violence.
“I can only wonder what he was thinking as he walked me down that hallway to his office,” Michael says now. “I don’t know why I let myself think about it, but I do.”
That night, Rapp sadistically abused Michael.
Michael was not Rapp’s first or last victim. Michael’s was not the first or last school where Rapp would groom, and then abuse, young men.
Michael says he does not know how many other boys suffered the “pure evil” he did at the hands of Rapp. He says he does know that the responsibility for it is shared by those who shielded Rapp – “by all his superiors and peers who would cover his tracks and let him hunt boys in the Catholic schools.”
“But that night, my number was up, and my life would be forever affected.”
Michael says that because of how he was taught to view priests - as figures next to God - he had no way to understand or resist what was done to him. Rapp did not just abuse him. He hurt Michael, taking pleasure in causing pain, asking him to describe the pain.
Michael says nothing had prepared him for such a situation.
“I did not know what to do other than endure and obey. I know that sounds absurd, but it’s the way my mind was working at the time.”
Hours after the dance was over, the school then empty, Michael says Rapp walked him back down the same hallway, passing by the same classrooms, “but I was a different human being, I looked down the dark halls, the light had gone out for me, in every way.’”
Rapp gave Michael a ride home, a long midnight drive into the countryside. They sat in silence.
Halfway home Rapp slowed down and pulled over in the middle of a stretch of marshland.
Michael fought waves of panic and adrenaline as Rapp stared at him in silence. The swamp stretched on both sides of the road, Michael was 10 miles from home.
“I was certain he was thinking about killing me and dumping me in the swamp. He didn’t say anything for five or ten minutes.”
Without speaking, Rapp eventually put his 4x4 back in gear and continued the drive.
The next day, Rapp appeared in the doorway of Michael’s biology class and summoned him into the hall.
“I felt something happen inside my chest, like an intense heartache. I wanted to cry. I wanted my mom. I hovered above consciousness and walked to him at the front of my classroom, under the watchful eye of my peers.”
There, outside his office, Rapp apologized to Michael.
“He told me not to tell anyone – and I swore I never would – I did not want anyone to ever know. He was the priest and I was looking for some sort of absolution, something to make it go away. I told him I was worried about the sin of what happened. He scoffed at me and told me God wanted it to happen. He told me that God wanted me to give him pleasure.”
Rapp made Michael repeat this phrase.
“He made me say, ‘God wanted me to give you pleasure.’ He made me repeat the words until I could say them clearly and without stammering. It took me three attempts to say the whole sentence without stammering.”
Michael says he hated the word “pleasure” from that day on.
Decades later, in therapy, he was trained to say it 100 times a day for a week to break the hold it had on him.
When he returned to class, the other students wanted to know where Michael had gone, what did Rapp want with him?
“I perpetuated the rumor, that he called me out of class so that I wouldn’t tell anyone I drank alcohol in his office during the dance.”
Michael told CNA he struggles with the pain and shame which trapped him, preventing him from coming forward as a fifteen year-old.
“I effectively widened the net he used to catch more boys by adding to the validity of the rumor. I was petrified and didn’t know what else to say. Kids believed it and sure enough he went on to rape more boys.”
He told no one what had actually happened.
He came close only in speech class, as he tried to focus his eyes on the slip of paper he had been handed by the teacher.
He froze, considering the question written on it: “When was the last time you were in an awkward situation?” Rapp’s office was just down the hall.
The teacher tapped his watch. “I was melting down,” Michael says.
“Electricity spread from the top of my head to my fingers. I felt like my skin was on fire.”
As he shredded the slip of paper, he poured out his half-invented tail of hitchhiking.
“As parts of the truth came out, I stopped speaking. The room went out of focus. Maybe I stopped mid-sentence, maybe I trailed off. I can’t remember.”
When he finished, his teacher pulled him aside and challenged his story and implied he had made the whole thing up.
“He was right, sort of, but I lied again and told him it was true. My friend came up to me after class and asked if I was ok. ‘What happened up there?’ he asked me. I told him I was fine.”
By the time he was 16, drugs and alcohol had become a daily habit.
For seven years, Michael told no one about what he had endured. Then he went to confession.
“I knew I could not continue on with my drug and alcohol use as I was getting ready to enter medical school. I also longed to reconnect with God, as that connection had been severed. I wanted to start over, and hoped that confession might get me back on my feet.”
A priest at his college campus church, Father Francis, heard Michael’s confession from behind a screen. He volunteered to help.
Michael got off drugs, he began to pray, he felt that his life was on track. And Father Francis, whom he sometimes called Frank, became a good friend.
One night, as Michael watched a movie with his girlfriend, the phone rang. He let the answering machine pick up the call, only to hear Fr. Francis, his confessor and confidante, pour out his sexual desires for Michael, loud and graphic, onto the answering machine tape.
He ran to pick up the phone, horrified, but the priest immediately hung up. Questions from his girlfriend followed: Who was that? What did it mean? She knew nothing of the priest or Michael’s past abuse. Michael did not know what to tell her.
Father Francis called back minutes later, offering an incoherent explanation about how he often received obscene phone calls at the rectory.
The evening resumed, but Fr. Francis called a third time, repeating his explicit sexual advances into the answering machine, only to hang up again when Michael answered. He stared at the phone, then at the wall, then out of the window, remembering the high school hallway seven years before.
The 15-year-old boy was now a 22-year old man, but Michael says that night tore through his understanding of God, faith, relationships, the priesthood.
Now, he realizes, the priest was grooming him. But then, Michael told CNA, “I was spiritually eviscerated that night. I tried to go back to church the next day, but could not endure it. Church was the last place I could connect with God. I made one last phone call to Frank, and he denied it all. We never spoke again.”
It marked the end of an 18-month relationship with a spiritual director, and the only person Michael had told about Fr. Rapp. It also marked an end to Michael’s faith.
“I had met Father Frank through the sacrament of reconciliation. I vowed to never step foot into a confessional again.”
Two years later, Michael married his girlfriend. She was Catholic and they married in the Church. During their pre-Cana course, Michael says “the dam broke” and he told her everything. But communion with his wife could not bring him back to the Church.
After searching for a spiritual home in different Protestant denominations, evangelicalism, and eastern spirituality, he settled into an accidental agnosticism.
When his sons were born, more than a decade later, Michael and his wife decided to raise them as Catholics.
“I grappled with how to raise the kids. We made the decision to raise them Catholic, including Catholic schools, but we weren’t going to church. As our sons entered elementary school, I made a firm commitment to re-engage and attend Mass regularly, if for nothing else, for my sons to see me in the pew.”
That was in 2002, the year of the Spotlight scandals.
“The news was everywhere, in the car, the newspaper, on TV, table talk at work. My anxiety was intolerable. It took me to the breaking point. I turned to training for endurance sports - marathons, triathlons - just to deal with it.”
One Sunday, Michael heard a priest address the scandal from the altar. “He said, ‘We’ve been instructed to offer anyone counseling who might be affected by this abuse scandal, please contact me if needed.’”
Michael spoke to his wife that night and decided to reach out, telling only the third person in 20 years the story of his own abuse.
His parish priest ran marathons. They ran together, and talked about faith.
“He was there for me through much of the 2002-2003 scandal, but I was still struggling, badly. My wife wondered why I couldn’t ‘get over it’ – and I wondered the same thing.”
Michael says he coped with the trauma of his own experiences through endurance training, and working long hours as a surgeon.
“Work gave me a sense of control that I needed,” he told CNA.
By 2010, Michael was a leader in his field. When asked to give a speech in front of a large crowd, that control slipped away.
“I began to question my work. Was I really in a position to be lecturing anybody? I was still this messed up kid inside with tremendous anxiety. Before that talk, I broke, and realized I needed to get help.”
Michael contacted the physician wellness counselor at his hospital. In their first session he spoke about his anxiety.
When, the counselor asked, was the first time Michael had felt this way? He remembered: it was in speech class, 1982.
28 years later, he knew the answer to the counselor’s question but could not yet say it.
It was the start of a long and expensive process for Michael, which led to his diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and years of therapy.
As he continued in treatment, Michael began to wonder what had happened to Rapp. Was he still alive? Was he still around kids?
He discovered Rapp had been arrested in Oklahoma. Michael’s feelings of guilt increased.
“He had raped more boys there, boys that could have been spared if I had said something.”
After making contact with the local diocese, Michael received financial help with his therapy. But, he says, the contact with the diocese and the local province of the Oblates - Rapp’s order - started him back on the road to the Church.
The diocese recommended Michael make a police report. “It was difficult. I realized there was no way I could have handled it at age 15.”
Investigators went through Rapp’s file and found multiple victim complaints. They also found that Rapp had repeatedly moved across state lines, opening a window for prosecution.
On April 29, 2016, Michael had his day in court, one of ten victims to testify against Rapp. There were many more victims who did not wish to appear in court. With Michael were his family, his sons, his parents, and his closest friend.
He sat two feet from Rapp as he testified. When it was over, Rapp was convicted of three first-degree criminal sexual crimes against Michael, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Rapp would eventually be sentenced to more than 40 years in prison in total.
After the trial, Michael realized he wanted to meet Father Ken, provincial head of the Oblates, and with the local bishop, both of whom had offered to meet with him, and he wanted to go back to his high school.
Early one Saturday morning in 2017, the school’s principal gave Michael the master key to his old school. While she worked in her office, Michael walked the halls.
“There were school spirit signs on the lockers. There was evidence of normal, healthy, young student activity everywhere. I felt relief seeing these signs of high school life.”
He went to the office where he was assaulted, praying to the Holy Spirit as he unlocked the door.
“I stood where Rapp made me repeat the words. I remembered how it felt, when he made me say it, over and over. I believe the Spirit was with me that day, told me that it wasn’t true.”
It was a small room, like he remembered, but it had changed. The new occupant was a family man. Pictures of his smiling young kids were on the walls.
“I felt so good to see it that way. The room had new life, seemingly unaware of it’s past. I cried a little bit, but I was calm, and believe Jesus had his arm around my shoulder as I stood there.”
Michael went back to the classroom where he had been asked to give his speech. He gave the speech he’d wanted to give decades ago, speaking this time to rows of empty chairs.
“I suppose anyone looking would have thought I’d lost my mind,” Michael said, but it was a healing moment for him.
“I was overwhelmed with joy, I had a renewed enthusiasm for my youth.”
Michael says his visit with the bishop and his return to his old school were both unexpectedly helpful, but his visit with Fr. Ken proved to have the greatest impact on him.
They met in September 2017. They sat on a farmhouse porch and talked.
Michael explained how he had recovered his faith in medical school, only to have it broken again by Fr. Frank.
“I told him that faith had been a life-long struggle for me. I told him that after everything I’d been through, all that I really wanted was advice on how to get my faith back.”
Michael says that Fr. Ken gave him two pieces of simple advice: that he should pray, and go to confession.
“I saw him catch himself when he said that, I had just told him about what happened with Fr. Frank in the confessional.”
Michael brushed off the advice.
He went on attending the occasional Mass, mostly to be there for his wife and family. That was to change when, a few months later, Michael was back in his hometown for a funeral.
He arrived early the night before the funeral, offering to help set up the hall for the wake and found himself invited to say the rosary.
“I could not remember the last time I said a rosary, and I had planned on getting out of the funeral home before it started. I always remembered it being dreadfully long. When it started, I decided to set my watch timer to see how long it took.”
After the first few Hail Marys, Michael says he felt an “unexpected peace.”
“Before I knew it, 18 minutes later, it was over. I came away from it like, wow, what was that all about? I was so peaceful and calm just then –I wished it was a little longer.”
The next morning, Michael got up early and had nowhere to go before the funeral. He drove by his high school, he drove to the swamp where he thought Rapp was going to kill him.
“I was feeling good about going through therapy, being able to visit these places with a sense of being healed. I felt that I could look back on everything I’d been through and feel like I had run the gauntlet and I had arrived at the finish line.”
Over the years, Michael says he had decided he was going to have “some sort of bespoke faith, where God was going to allow me to do whatever I wanted when it came to faith.”
“I accepted that I would not have a ‘normal’ spiritual life. I figured that God would not hold me accountable for lack of faith or practice.”
As he drove, he passed St. Mary’s Church, where his grandfather had sometimes taken him.
“I suppose it was a seed of grace that my grandfather, now in heaven, took me there as a kid. As I drove by St. Mary’s, something compelled me to turn my car around. I pulled up in front of the church doors and I just stared at them. I really didn’t know why.”
It was 9:55 am on Saturday, the funeral did not start until 10:30. Michael wanted to see the stained-glass windows that he remembered from his childhood.
He read the sign at the front of the church: CONFESSIONS 10 AM SATURDAY.
“Man, I cannot tell you how my heart rate picked up. Fr. Ken’s words roared into my head, ‘You need to go to confession to integrate back into the Church.’ I thought, “It’s a sign”, then I thought, ‘No, it isn’t.’”
It had been 28 years since Michael was last in a confessional, with Fr. Frank.
“God and I had come to an understanding that I was excused from ever having to go to confession again, and maybe I didn’t even have to go to church anymore either.”
Michael says he resolved that he was not going to confession, but would go in for a look around. Nevertheless, he found himself in line.
“When my turn was up, I could hardly feel my legs. I felt the same as I did when I was 15 being summoned out of biology class by Fr. Rapp. It was the exact same feeling in my chest and in my legs. I couldn’t believe I was walking into a confessional. I had not planned on it. In fact, I planned on never doing it.”
The confessional was tiny. The priest seemed kind. Michael says the priest let out a good laugh when he said it was 28 years since his last confession.
“Well,” the priest asked, “what brings you in now?”
“I told him I was a victim of Fr. Rapp’s. His face changed immediately. He knew of Fr. Rapp. I told him that I just wanted to have my faith back and that Fr. Ken of the Oblates told me I would need to go to confession for that to happen.”
Michael says that the priest began to speak about the devil, whom St. Peter describes as prowling a lion. “When the lion strikes, it sinks its claws in us, and the initial strike is very painful, but the injury leaves us with lasting disabilities,” the priest said.
Michael, a veteran of numerous volunteer projects in Africa, had seen more than a few lions. He says he found a spiritual metaphor for his PTSD.
“He was telling me something I already knew, but I had never thought about it in terms of good and evil. I had a disability from the strike of the lion - I was dialed into what this priest was telling me.”
“Then he told me that I needed to forgive.”
The priest explained that forgiveness is not primarily for the benefit of the person who has hurt you, it is a liberation for the one who forgives.
“When he told me that, that when I forgive I will be free, and compared the experience to Christ on the Cross, it was so inspiring. I became tearful in the confessional. To think that a soul like mine could experience something as beautiful as what he described to me, well, I’m crying again just remembering it.”
The priest also told Michael to pray the rosary, a simple recommendation that, Michael says, 24 hours earlier he would have dismissed out of hand. Having so recently experienced the peace of prayer, he embraced the direction.
“I have said the rosary every day for over 18 months now.”
Michael was also told to read the Gospel of Luke the whole way through, to immerse himself in the whole narrative of Christ’s life and power.
“He couldn’t know that I was a physician like St. Luke, or that I had said my first meaningful rosary just the night before, or that I have seen more actual lurking lions than anyone I know,” Michael says.
“He put his hands on my head and absolved me of my sins, and man, it was powerful! It was an amazing catharsis and I was CHARGED UP! I HAD GONE TO CONFESSION! And it was really good! I drove to the funeral feeling like a MILLION BUCKS!,” Michael wrote in an email to CNA.
Michael was late to the funeral, but he didn’t care. He arrived to hear the second reading, from St. Paul, announce, “I have run the race to end, I have kept the faith.”
A few months later, Michael was running early one morning, by himself. He came to a sudden stop in the snow.
Michael told CNA he heard a voice saying “Forgive them now.”
“And I did. I forgave all the people who had abused and used me, driven me from the Church: Fr. Rapp, Fr. Francis, all of them, all at once. It was powerful.”
Michael says he dropped to his knees on the trail, sobbing in the dark and thanking God for the freedom to forgive.
Later, he wrote to James Rapp. It was a two paragraph letter.
“Dear Mr. James Rapp,” he began.
“I am writing to tell you that several months ago, after much reflection and counseling, I unequivocally forgave you. By the grace of God I finally found my way back to the Faith last year and came to understand many good things, including what it means to forgive. I forgave you with God as my only witness and it was a tremendous liberation of your unknowing grip.”
“Later, I became aware of the concept of merciful forgiveness, the act of letting the offender know they are forgiven. I do not carry the hatred for you that I spoke about at your trial. Rather, I want you to know that I forgive you for the multiple felony counts, and the psychological and spiritual inflictions that followed for decades. I am healed, I have received many blessings, and I truly forgive you. I hope that you will make an appeal to heaven for the forgiveness you need from above.”
Michael signed it simply “Victim A.”
By September 2018 Michael says he was happier in his faith, in the Church, than he had ever been.
The McCarrick scandal, he says, he took in his stride, but the Pennsylvania grand jury report was something else.
“Thinking I was recovered, and wanting to stand as a witness to fellow survivors, I read the first few pages of the report. I was not as strong as I thought. I had to stop reading it, and it knocked me down really hard.”
Michael says he is still in therapy, but in a way that expressly affirms his faith. The real road to recovery, he says, may take longer than he hoped or imagined.
“But as others have said before me, I believe in Catholicism because I believe it is true. I believe Catholicism is at the intersection of faith and reason. I am fascinated with our Faith. After facing so much adversity I have been blessed to know God’s grace.”
*After consideration of his particular circumstances by CNA's editors, Michael's name has not been used in this story.