My Own Personal Experience with Abusive Clergy
Loving the Church at this time demands that we shine the bright light of truth on the experience of those intimately attacked by abusive clergy.
This week, the bishops of the world will gather in Rome for an international summit to address the clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic News Agency reported the comments of Pope Francis on a Jan. 28 papal flight from Panama concerning the summit that “the bishops receive a ‘catechesis’ on the suffering of abuse survivors…” The Pope emphasized the importance of survivor testimonies to understand the lasting effects of sexual abuse.
In the spirit of the Pope’s desire to highlight the experience of victims I felt inspired to share my experience as a social worker and songwriter to create a song and video that tells the story of a young man abused by a priest. The process of creating this musical story also inspired me to share my own deeply painful experiences, in my youth, and later as a father of 5 children, with clergy abusers.
Music provides an effective vehicle to help the listener enter the life of an abuse victim and intimately share in their emotional experience. The perpetrator priest in the song “Uncle Ted” is partially based on the notorious Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick instructed his minor and young adult victims to call him “Uncle Ted.” Like the young man in this song, more than 80 percent of clergy abuse victims were adolescent males.
Some of the lyrics and images of this music video are necessarily dark and disturbing. Yet, they accurately reflect some of the common themes found in many of the testimonies of adolescent males and others abused by clergy:
Family dysfunction and/or father absence leaving a family vulnerable to predator priests; failure of some parents and other adults to recognize the warning signs and affirm the victim’s concerns; the diabolical emotional, relational, and spiritualized sexual manipulation and exploitation of victims by abusive clergy; the cold and abusive response from many Cardinals, Bishops and Chancery officials.
Grooming Victims for Abuse
The summer after junior year of high school, a friend shared with me that he was sexually assaulted as a young adolescent by a priest from a local Catholic school. Prior to meeting my friend, this very same priest had started the process of grooming me for abuse when I was age 12.
The priest would take boys and young men to his country house for day and overnight trips. On one such trip, the priest isolated me from the other boys, giving me way too much attention. He affirmed me, telling me I was special. As a young adolescent I didn’t understand that he was grooming me for abuse. But I was aware that he was separating me from the other boys, and the way he was interacting with me felt uncomfortable and creepy.
Thankfully, unlike the victim in the song “Uncle Ted,” my parents listened when I expressed my discomfort after that initial visit. Despite the priest’s invitations, there were no more trips to his notorious country house.
Other young men from across the U.S. and around the world, including my high school friend, were not so fortunate and suffered molestation, sexual assault and rape at the hands of abusive clergy. The ongoing impact of such abuse is devastating causing life-long suffering; in many tragic cases, desperate victims commit suicide.
I later experienced molestation my freshman year of college from a local parish priest that I went to see for spiritual counsel. I was discerning a vocation to the priesthood. This behavior from a priest, offered under the guise of helping me discern a vocation, left me for a time in a state of emotional shock. I can sympathize with how powerful that initial shock and paralysis is when a trusted spiritual father initiates such activity.
The experience with that parish priest remains to this day a hurtful and disturbing memory. Sadly, I encountered a number of seminarians and priests in my years of discerning a vocation to the priesthood, both locally in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and with an international missionary order, who clearly were living lives of duplicity and immorality in their same-sex relationships.
Years before the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report revealed in 2005 the extent of the abuse, and the incomprehensible criminal complicity of Cardinal Bevilaqua and his chancery officials in the enabling of abusers, our family attended Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. The pastor at that time was Fr. Stanley Gana.
Fr. Gana came to our home for dinner when we first joined the parish. He told us what a fine boy our oldest son was, who was just entering early adolescence at the time. He asked us on a number of occasions if our son could serve as an altar boy.
Part of me wanted him to have the experience of serving at the altar. I homeschooled our son in his Catholic faith and prepared him for the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist. Of all our children, he had the religious sensitivity and interest that indicated he may one day discern a vocation to the priesthood.
But given our mistrust of the Archdiocese, my wife and I could not let him serve in any capacity where we did not have close supervision of his activities. Keep in mind I had no reason to mistrust Fr. Gana at this time. It was a general sense of making sure our children were not exposed in any way to situations where abuse might occur.
I later read with horror, anger and grief the Grand Jury Report that came out in 2005. The report alleged that Cardinal Bevilaqua and his chancery officials placed Fr. Gana in our parish with the clear understanding that he orally raped and sodomized scores of minors and groomed them to engage in homosexual acts with him.
Like the priest in my song “Uncle Ted,” Gana is alleged to have targeted vulnerable youth — but he also deceived strong, faith-filled families. My heart breaks to this day knowing that there were families we worshipped with at Mother of Sorrows parish whose sons were abused by a man that, like the priest in my song “Uncle Ted,” had a “wicked hunger for adolescent flesh.”
Mary, Queen of Peace
I have been blessed over the years to know many fine, holy priests and bishops in pro-life, abortion recovery and sexual abuse healing ministries. My current spiritual adviser is a parish priest in the Philadelphia area. He has been a source of invaluable guidance, strength and grace in my life. I know that as a true spiritual father, his heart also breaks, and he is filled with righteous anger at the sins of some of his brother clergy, and the complicity of Church officials.
I am the father of five adult children. Miraculously I remain a devout Catholic, daily communicant and pray the Rosary each day.
Loving the Church at this time demands, as Pope Francis suggests, that we shine the bright light of truth on the experience of those intimately attacked by abusive clergy.
This is not some unfortunate event of the past that we “need to put behind us.” Victims continue to live with the pain of their abuse every day. This crisis is still unfolding and will deepen as revelations surface from churches in the developing world. There are similar cases of clergy abuse of minors and seminarians, but also women, and women religious that suffer molestation and rape. Here too we see complicity by Church leaders in covering up and enabling abusers.
There is no doubt that the scandals have led to changes that have made the Catholic Church here in the U.S. a much safer place for minors and young adults. That is an essential first step, but the more serious work of reform is only beginning.
We owe it to victims, and to our Catholic faithful that we address the ongoing institutional issues that create a fertile soil for such abuse with aggressive and unrelenting openness, honesty and clarity.
A Mother Comforts Her Suffering Child
Our Blessed Mother was with Jesus as He suffered the horrific agony of the cross. Mary listened as the child she nurtured at her breast cried out in despair “My God, why have you abandoned me?”
Mary was there to console her son, and to suffer with him. She united her own maternal anguish with Jesus, offered in perfect sacrifice to the Father for our redemption.
In the song “Uncle Ted,” the young man experiences a similar moment of despair, as he cries out to God in his pain and desolation. Mary comes to offer maternal consolation; her tears wash the victim’s wounds as she comforts her suffering child.
May the spirit of truth and justice, and the consolation of Mary, touch the lives of all abused by clergy.
May that same spirit flow through the Catholic Church like a great flood of grace – cleansing her of this diabolical abomination that has attacked the heart of our beloved Church.
St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, pray for us.
Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.