Joe approached the microphone, held his handwritten index cards out in front of him, and took in a deep breath.
He exhaled with grace.
“My name is Joe. I’m a surviving victim … thank you.”
That is how he concluded an eight-minute witness talk, with several pauses and tears, during an impactful element of a two-hour Victim Survivor Listening Session at St. Dorothy’s Church in Glendora on Thursday, April 4. But it will likely mark the beginning of Joe’s further public healing process that he wants to continue.
In his first public talk about what happened in his life, Joe stood before some 40 strangers — parishioners, parents, and teachers at the school from the Safeguarding Children committee — and explained how he had been an altar boy raped by two priests as a 12-year old.
He battled depression and anxiety and wanted to get off medications, but his doctor told him “he would be damaged for life” because of the abuse.
He had deep conflicts about why he held that information inside for 48 years — mostly to protect his parents from the burden and fear, their status in the community, and the chance they would lose their faith. Joe had two failed suicide attempts.
After the doctor visit, he said he finally went to his parish and was put in contact with Dr. Heather Banis at the Victims Assistance Ministry Office of the archdiocese.
As their therapy sessions have now passed a year, whatever details he tells now is up to him.
Even if Joe isn’t ready to reveal his full name or other specific details to protect current family, he emphasized all this was his step toward trying to help others and explain the power of reconciliation.
“My anger and guilt are gone, and I blamed myself for too long,” Joe said. “I pray to our Lord: What’s next in my journey? I want to be a voice and advocate for those unheard voices in the Catholic Church. Everyone deserves therapy. The Catholic Church needs to reach out, through the pulpit, bulletins, newspapers, and even Facebook, to show it cares for unheard victims.”
The first 10 minutes of the gathering was framed as a “Liturgy of Lament,” with Scripture, song, a litany of repentance, and a lighting of candles that led into a call for God’s blessing.
The last hour-plus was devoted to Banis, a clinical psychologist, who explained the purpose of her office, which was established in 2002. The goal from the start has been to guide people like Joe through the trauma of their incidents.
She then answered questions on a variety of elements in the process over the last nearly 20 years of priest abuse revelations, just as she has done with various parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to date who request her presence for further education.
But this visit was much different.
In Banis’ lexicon, she helps the “victim-survivor.” With Joe, here is a “victim-survivor-thriver.”
“I’ll always be a victim,” Joe agreed. “But I survived it. I’m thriving day by day, breath by breath, and take each day with a blessing. Because someone heard me.”
Banis said that what Joe did “was something truly extraordinary” in talking to the group.
“He was living a life full and rich with family and work and friends, but he didn’t have his Church. He took a huge risk by calling me, a complete stranger working in the Church. We can’t make the Victim Assistance Ministry the best-kept secret in the whole archdiocese. It’s growing and evolving because of people like Joe.”
Msgr. Norm Priebe of St. Dorothy’s, who led the opening prayer service, called it “a night of repentance and a way to express our sorrow.” Priebe explained how he felt compelled to ask Banis to visit after a distraught parishioner spoke to him after a recent Mass.
She said her two sons, in their 20s and once involved in youth ministry, refused to attend church anymore because of their anger over the silence surrounding the priest abuse scandal.
“This was very informative and I’m so thankful so many came,” Priebe said afterward. “Dr. Heather is so engaging and heartfelt. And I so much appreciate Joe’s courage and I hope he will want to do this for many other communities.”
Before the event, Joe talked to Angelus News for nearly a half hour. He explained how he has met Archbishop José H. Gomez to show him a letter he wrote to Pope Francis, and feeling he was being heard. Joe also talked about how as a schoolteacher, he has always been about protecting children.
But as Banis was about to conclude the evening by thanking the audience for attending, Joe stood up and wanted to say more. He said he felt empowered even more by what he just heard from those asking questions.
Joe expanded on how only recently he told his son about what happened to him, and it troubled Joe how others react by wanting to leave the Church.
“I don’t blame him for not wanting to step back in the Church again,” Joe said, who regularly attends a Catholic parish in the archdiocese. “But as a parent, I want him to follow Christ’s path and be involved in loving Christ.”
Joe also revealed he has visited his perpetrator, now in hospice care.
“I’ll never forget,” Joe added. “But to heal, I have to forgive. Forgiveness is still a big deal for me.”
He said at one point they held hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
“I cried, he cried,” said Joe. “I got to confront him — most never get that chance. He eventually said to me: ‘I have hurt you, haven’t I?’ In the end, I do feel sorry for him. He was also molested. He was jailed and his job taken away from him. In a way, I’m helping to heal him, too. Maybe God will forgive his actions. He can’t hurt me or anyone anymore.”
In thanking St. Dorothy’s for inviting him to come to this safe space with Banis, Joe concluded that if this meeting took place at his parish 10 years ago, he might have stood up and asked for help. But he also said he knows if he came out with this story back in the 1970s, “no one would have believed me.”
“Keep me in your prayers,” he asked. “This has been very positive. This all has meant a lot to me.”
Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.
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