Survivor Shares Tragedy of Abuse and What Must Be Done to Prevent It

Shaun Dougherty discusses with the Register the deep trauma of clerical sex abuse, and what he believes the Church must do to bring perpetrators to justice and ensure such crimes never happen again.

Shaun Dougherty
Shaun Dougherty (photo: YouTube)

In the 1980s, Shaun Dougherty was sexually abused from the age of 10 to 13 by a priest in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 

The priest, George Koharchik, who was a religion teacher and sports coach at the local school, abused many others before he was eventually laicized in 2012. 

Named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report published last August, the statute of limitations means Koharchik will not be tried, something Dougherty and other victims are trying to change. 

Dougherty says he forgave Koharchik long ago, but in this Feb. 22 interview with the Register, he explains how the pain which he “can’t even begin to describe” has only increased as he has got older, and that he believes the Church has yet to take clerical sex abuse seriously enough.

In Rome to give witness to the abuse at last week’s Vatican summit of bishops on “Protection of Minors in the Church,” Dougherty explains how the trauma, and particularly the cover-up, has caused him to lose his faith, and that at the age of 24, it led to an attempt to take his own life. Some of his friends and contemporaries who were also abused by Koharchik have committed suicide.  

Here below is a video of the interview and an edited transcript.


Shaun, could you just take us through what happened to you and what's happened since?

Sure. Beginning in the fifth grade when I was 10 years old, my religion teacher, Father George Koharchik, who was also my basketball coach, began, I can't say began the grooming process, I believe that began in the third and the fourth grade, but he began sexually assaulting me… That went on for 3 years. It continued more aggressively, groping. I lived only a block from the school… Any sport, especially racketball, that would require a shower, he would take me in the shower and he would bathe me thoroughly, not using sponges or anything like that, my entire body… The day in the shower, I could not explain that away. And I shot him a very stern look, no words were ever spoken, but that was the last of that. 


And because you were so young, you didn't think of telling anybody, you thought it was perhaps a kind of normal thing?

Not in my family. Not to my dad. My dad was a good man but he was a hard man and you don't talk about the priests. You don't talk about the nuns. You're not there to question what they're doing. You're there to learn from them. My parents bowled in the church bowling league with Father Koharchik every Thursday night for my entire childhood. No, I thought, if my dad believed me, he's gonna go beat up Father Koharchik but if he doesn't believe me, he's gonna beat me up.


And what about taking it to other priests or others in the Church who perhaps might have listened?

It was just very confusing for me. It's just something that you don’t talk about. In my family, we didn't talk about sex. We just didn't, even though there are 9 children in my family, it just wasn't a topic that the faithful discussed. I was young, 10 years old, I had no idea what sex was, none. So, there was no one for me to turn to.


Then after that, how did you cope with the aftermath?

Well, I would just start skipping Church… When I was 15, I declared then that I'm never going to Church again… I left my home town three days after I graduated high school. I went to Texas to cook and learn to cook and work in a restaurant. I wanted to be as far away from Catholicism as I possibly could. And I ran fast and hard to the other side, and I couldn't explain the emotions that I was feeling, I couldn't explain. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew drugs and alcohol helped ease that pain. So, I abused cocaine, I abused muscle relaxers, I abused pain pills, anything that would make me feel good and ease my pain, take me to another place.

And at 24 years old, in 1994, while I was working, cooking in New York, I had finally had enough and I just couldn't take it any longer. I went and bought a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping aids. The bottle had 300 pills in it and I took all 300 of them. I was living with my brother in New York at the time.

I woke up in the middle of the night, violently ill, vomiting. It woke my brother up, he came out of his room: “Are you okay? Are you okay?” “I'm fine, I'm fine, just go back to bed.” I didn't tell him I tried to kill myself. I wanted to die. He went back to bed. I woke up the next morning, just in time to get ready to go to work, and I remember the first thought that crossed my mind was, “God doesn't even want me.”


How did it affect your relationships, especially with the opposite sex?

It was horrible. You can't explain your fits of rage. You can't explain your insecurities in sex or the fact that you're very emotional a lot, how can you be such a happy, good guy one minute and then the next minute, you're a totally different person… For my whole life, I didn't want anybody to get close to me again. And so I would always find a way to wreck it.


When you heard about this summit which came about because of the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other abuse cases, what was your reaction? Do you think the Church has taken this seriously enough?

I don't think the Church is taking this seriously enough. These reports say that they have these documents, this has been going on a long time. I can't even begin to describe how hard this is to carry for the rest of your life. As an adult, and the older you get, it's much, much harder than as a child… Until there is total accountability for everyone, all bishops, cardinals, and even the Pope, I don't think that they are properly addressing this. 


Do you think the root causes need to be addressed more, because people have said there's not enough emphasis on why this has happened, and unless you deal with the root causes, you're not going to be able to end it. What do you say to that?

Sure. Pedophilia is not just within the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the large majority of pedophilia happens within the home, by your own relative. So, there is a cause, there is something that is attracting these men, and there is a code of silence and it's a hush-hush taboo subject that keeps it all quiet that continues the behavior. I believe that research and study, of course, is needed into the psyche of pedophilia. [The Church has] a large quantity of pedophiles that they should be studying, not just for the sake of the Church [but] for the sake of the world.


What happened to your abuser? Was there accountability eventually for him? Was he ever brought to justice?

He owns a home 5 minutes from me in Pennsylvania. He's been defrocked. He's never been charged with a crime because of the statutes of limitations. My abuse ended when I was 13. I only had 2 years to file a civil case and 5 years to file a criminal case, so by my 18th birthday, I would of had to have filed, and I hadn't told a soul by the 18th birthday. And I didn't even know what a statute of limitation was, by my 18th birthday.


And when you heard about the report, the Pennsylvania report, were you surprised at the extent of the abuse that it contained?

I was blown away [and] I never in a million years imagined that George Koharchik would ever sit and testify before a grand jury and admit, he admitted to it, that he did what he did. I'm still in utter shock. 


How has it affected your faith now? 

I can't say that I have a faith, I really can't say that I have a faith. I have never believed, I can't believe. I find it hard to believe that God exists. 


Because of the abuse?

Because of the cover up, because how could God allow this to even happen? These are trying, trying times for me and I wish that I had faith to lean on, but every time I try to lean onto faith I get mad and I get angry. There are some things that have happened to me in life that I can't explain.

Just coming here today, I wept outside. There was a man playing a beautiful guitar right down the road. I was early, and I sat and I listened to him for a few minutes and it was beautiful. And I gave him a little money, I said thank you very much. I was walking away and I got 50 yards or so away from him, maybe 100 yards, and he started playing my favorite Beatles's song, Blackbird, which I've always related to: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. This is the moment in your life that you've been waiting for all your life.”

He could have played any song in the world, any song in the world, and he played Blackbird. I turned around, I sat, and I wept as I heard that song. Wept. Walking towards St. Peter's square for this meeting, why Blackbird? Why, when I'm here? Why? I can't explain it. I want to believe, I want to believe that God's talking to me, telling me: “You're right where you're supposed to be. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing, that's my sign to you. That's your favorite song. Directly related to you.”


Have you forgiven your abuser?

I have forgiven George Koharchik. In fact, I’ve done it publicly on multiple occasions, I just can’t bring myself to forgive the Church for the cover up. I [think I] can forgive the Church, but not before they come completely clean.


It’s said that in the western Church, it's a homosexual problem. Do you agree with that?

Homosexuality and pedophilia are two entirely different things. There are plenty of heterosexuals, George Koharchik isn't a homosexual, he's a pedophile. What about a female nuns that abuse boys? That's not homosexuality. What about priests that abuse girls? That's not homosexuality. This is about power, control. Sex is just part of it. Sex is the humiliating part. Sex is the complete submission to power.


Figures say that 80% of abuse cases have been male on male.

Consent. Consent. I might be more receptive to that if there was consent involved. There is no consent to rape. The crime is rape, not being gay. 


Lastly, about the cover up and how you think that could be dealt with properly to stop that happening?

Quite easily. At the end of this summit, every bishop and cardinal involved in this should come to St. Peter's square, prostate themselves to the world, heartfully apologize, and say: “We are a massive organization [but] by this date, this time, the world will receive every document that we have in our files about child sexual assault and we, as the Catholic Church, [are] going to lead by example from this point forward.”


Shaun, thank you very much.

Thank you very much, I appreciate this.