Amid outrage at clergy sexual abuse, there are sometimes questions about the victims. Why did they allow it? Why do some wait so long to come forward? And why can’t they see it is bad men and not bad teaching to blame?
Paul Peloquin, a psychologist in New Mexico, and Benedict Hoffman of Minnesota, shared their stories in “Victimized Family Finds Healing in the Church”. This article gives additional information and answers. Both men were victims of sexual abuse by priests as minors and left the Church; Benedict for three years and Paul for thirty. They are now husbands, and fathers, and very Catholic.
Ben was abused one time, eight years ago at the age of 17 by Father Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who was a family friend. One summer evening, he invited Ben to go camping in Wisconsin, offered him drugs and alcohol, then took advantage of him. By the next morning, Ben was disgusted and stayed away from the priest from that point on.
Only after Wehmeyer was convicted of sexual abuse and of possessing child pornography the following summer in 2013, did Ben reveal to his parents that he had also been victimized. Wehmeyer was sentenced to three years in prison in Minnesota for other abuse, and three in Wisconsin for his offense against Ben. Wehmeyer was laicized and is eligible for release in May 2019.
Ben said embarrassment kept him silent. “It was a shame thing,” he said. “I played sports and had a girlfriend and did all the things that men like to do. It wasn’t something I wanted anyone to know.”
In recent years, as a youth leader, Ben has gone through VIRTUS training, a program to help prevent wrongdoing and promote “rightdoing” within the Church. He said he realizes now that there were many signs that Wehmeyer was grooming him. According to Ben, if he had the information from a VIRTUS class back then, he would have recognized what was happening.
“He would give shoulder rubs and hugs,” Ben said. “There were inappropriate jokes and conversations where he said outlandish things like asking if I ever watched porn—not as a mentor but in an inquisitive kind of way.”
After the incident, Ben stayed as away from Church. “I didn’t know what was right or wrong anymore,” he said. There was tension with his parents and halfway through his senior year, he moved into a rented house with an older brother.
“I was petrified that if anyone found out, I would probably never have friends again,” he said. “I viewed it as a weakness on my part and wanted to bury it at the center of the universe.” Eventually, Ben went to his parents and they supported him all the way.
Ben left the Church for three years which is where he said the devil wanted him, making a sinful life seem like fun. He had a good job in sales and lived a party lifestyle. “I woke up one morning and realized I was not living the life God meant for me,” he said. “There is no true happiness without Jesus Christ.”
When he was 21, he started attending a youth group and brought his Lutheran girlfriend with him. She eventually converted and became his wife. “I began to make religion my own and I’m still striving toward it,” he said. “This is why I’m passionate about youth groups and am a leader. I want to tell people that there is something more.”
Ben is now 25, married, and has a 1-year-old son. He went to some counseling but attributes his real, ongoing healing to the power of Jesus and the return to his faith. When he sees people in social media attacking the Church over abuse, Ben tries to help change their minds. “There is spiritual warfare going on by removing the Eucharist—who is Jesus Christ—from people’s lives,” he said. “I want to be the push in the right direction for anyone who has left the Church this way. Christ is our home. It’s good to be back.” (Ben welcomes email and can be contacted at Benedict.email@example.com.)
Paul Peloquin, a Catholic clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was abused as an 11-year-old by Father Earl Bierman over the course of several months. He explained that sexual abuse by a priest causes both physical and spiritual trauma. Peloquin left the Church for over 30 years, but now uses faith-based therapy to help victims to heal and return to the Church.
“My mother invited the priest into our house for dinner,” he said. “Then. he asked if he could take me to the movies. I blamed my mother for bringing him into the house, but I never told her.” Peloquin explained that many good Catholic families are affected this way so parents should be vigilant. They should also stay calm, listen to the child, and then go to the police.
Reasons for not telling anyone, according to him, include: repressing the experience, fear of hurting the parents, thinking no one will believe them, or shame because it’s a seduction instead of a rape. “I was treated to special rides and enjoyed the attention,” he said. “Because of the imbalance of power and immaturity of the child, there is not real consent, but the child will feel guilty and hide it. Then, where can they go? They are blocked from seeking reconciliation and blocked from the sacraments regardless of whether their parents are still making them go.”
Peloquin began acting out, which he said always happens. He was eventually sent to a military school for things like joy riding, vandalism, getting drunk, hanging with a bad crowd, and sneaking out at night. After Peloquin was an adult, it came out that Bierman had abused many children in two states. In 1993 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died there in 2005.
Not until he was in a doctorate program, did Peloquin realize he had been blocking the abuse and got into therapy. His return to Catholicism came about slowly, from 2002 until 2005, as his heart began to soften. Spending time at a Benedictine monastery in the mountains, surrounded by nature and soaking in the peace, helped him re-establish a relationship with God. During one visit, a feeling of forgiveness for his abuser washed over him. “I have blessed him and prayed for his soul—it was cleansing,” he said. “I no longer curse him. He has no hold over me anymore.”
Peloquin took part in a lawsuit in 1991. “The lawsuit was revenge motive; it didn’t give me healing.” It was another 12 years before forgiveness unburdened him.
"We need good priests, who want to live as servants,” Peloquin said. “We don't have the sacraments without them. Most priests are good, but some are not. When a man of the cloth abuses, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing doing the devil’s work. The Church has a lot of problems because it’s full of human beings,” he said, “The perpetrators are narcissists, manipulators, and sociopaths.”
Peloquin’s message to victims is: “Don’t let the evil one imprison you. There’s one who came to set you free—Jesus—who can heal us from our wounds. He is your hope and he never stopped loving you. He is there with open arms and thirsts for you to come back. If you leave the Church, you are leaving more than you realize; you are leaving your means for salvation.”