Tom Matlack has a conversation with one of the first victims to come forward about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
In the fall of 1997, I was introduced to a gentle, funny man who had a photographic memory for Hollywood birthdays. “Princess,” as many of his friends affectionately call him, was one of the people I came to trust and upon whom I relied. He would take my late-night phone calls whenever I felt myself sinking in my troubled personal life as a divorced father of two small children.
In the thirteen years since, Princess and I have remained close. Four years after we became friends, he told me that he’d decided to talk to a reporter from the Boston Globe’s Investigative Team, which had just begun to ask questions about possible sexual abuse of children inside the Catholic Church. The team would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize. Then (2001) and now, I hope I have been a compassionate friend to Princess as the story unfolded on the international stage.
Princess was a key witness at the start and has continued to step forward time and again to make sure that he, and others like him, won’t be silenced. Princess was one of the first brave sexual abuse victims to speak out. Without him, it’s possible that the church would have continued its cover-up for years.
My personal life improved from those early days, but I somehow sensed that my friend was carrying a heavy burden. I didn’t think it was my place to ask a lot of questions about how the scandal had impacted him, but I generally listened and tried to provide encouragement.
Recently, though, I decided to talk to him about the lasting impact of pedophilia on his life. He agreed by saying, “What better way to celebrate Ann-Margret’s 69th birthday?”
What is a good man?
A good man is compassionate, strong, empathetic, smart, non-judgmental.
What have you learned about yourself in the last years by going through the process that you have?
I learned that I set myself up, treated myself like a victim, in just about every area of my life. The whole victim mentality was really ingrained. That horrified me when I realized it. I thought, wow, I have a lot of work to do
How about your ability to trust?
In the past, I always gave people so much power, and now I don’t give them as much power in my life. For forty years I had all this guilt and felt like I was responsible. Now, I look at it as a crime perpetrated against me that should never have happened. But that’s not how I looked at it most of my life. When I finally looked clearly and directly, there were radical changes. Ironically, I can now trust more easily.
What inspired you at the very beginning to confront this?
Anger. I was really tired of carrying it; it felt really heavy. And anger at the institution that protected my perpetrator. Anger at him. Anger at myself, maybe, that I had allowed it to go on for so long. Anger that I had never done anything about it. The other reason was that this is continuing today with other children. I think that every time one person speaks up, it’s more difficult for that crime to happen and for someone to get away with it. So I think every voice counts.
How has all this changed how you view men’s capacity for evil? Do you think you’re more critical of human nature at this point, or more hopeful?
Sometimes I think of the man who exploited me and divorce myself from the situation and think of all the different things he did to all these different children. And I’m amazed that one person could do so many evil actions. But now I feel much more hopeful because I did something. I also saw a lot of good things in my journey—people who helped me, people who did kind things for other people going through this. I feel more hopeful about the human race.
What do you think about how this issue plays into the kind of sexuality in our country right now? It seems like there’s this explosion of sexual exploitation on all levels—pornography, prostitution, whatever. But we don’t talk about that a lot in this country. We’re much more comfortable talking about what Tiger Woods did.
Yeah, the media always uses sexuality to sell products, and the one thing in this country no one wants to talk about is that children are sexual beings. People are very uncomfortable with that and would prefer to ignore that reality. Still, companies, mainstream companies, have long used children by exploiting them sexually. Think of Brooke Shields’ ad [“Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”]. She was what, 14 in that ad? That was very controversial in 1979, ’80. I think it’s not new, but yeah, people don’t look at how come when you check into any Marriott Hotel, you can see all this porn, and yet they’re Mormons. They’re very conservative, but they’re making money in porn. Most hotel chains do that.
No one wants to really address it. They want it to go away, they want to sweep it under the rug.
I believe that one of the reasons the Catholic Church was able to get away with the cover-up is because, as a society, we’re not really willing to confront our own sexuality in a direct and open and healthy way. How has your perception of sexuality in our culture changed through your experience? Are you more cynical of it, are you more critical of the way that sexuality is expressed in our country?
Yeah, I don’t think I could be more cynical than I ever was about it, if that’s possible. (Laughter.) But I mean, the Catholic Church continues to this day to lie about what they know and what they allowed. These press releases the Vatican has been handing out the last couple of months just shows them all to be bigger liars than ever.
But I mean, if you think about it, priests, the Catholic Church, they’re not supposed to be having sex, and yet they’re giving advice about experiences they’re not supposed to know about. Which sort of makes no sense.
I don’t believe for a minute that they’re sincere or sorry that these crimes have been committed, and continue to be committed. I mean, they had seven hospitals in the United States built in the 1960s housing pedophile priests. And yet in 2002, and up to today, they claim that they didn’t know the extent of the problem.
What was supposed to go on in the hospitals? Were they supposed to cure them?
Yeah, treatment. Thirty days and you’re cured. But why would there be a need for seven hospitals?
Do you think it makes sense for priests to be celibate? To me that’s where the problem begins, although that’s only part of the problem.
Well, I think that’s such a separate issue, because it’s just not a natural state of being for people. There are plenty of good priests who don’t rape children. So, I don’t know.
What was the most helpful for you along the journey in terms of how you were able to find your way through?
How do I articulate that? Let’s see. I think attending the trial of the priest who raped me. It was very helpful, because I hadn’t seen him in almost twenty years, and I walked into a courtroom, and here was this elderly man. And to sit ten feet from him every day for three weeks, watching him, realizing that this man was really crazy was actually very helpful to me.
On a certain level it helped me forgive him. He’s really mentally ill, and he has no idea that he did anything wrong or immoral. He really thinks he did the right thing, that he was helpful to these children by having sex with them. Just to go in and see him—I was a middle-aged man, instead of a kid—was interesting. And that did sort of change the whole perspective in a lot of ways.
What else? Doing things like telling my story for these state representatives listening to a proposed bill on abolishing the statute of limitations on child rape in Massachusetts, that was helpful. Every time I spoke about it was helpful.
When you went to the trial, was that your idea, or someone else’s?
No, that was my idea. Originally the DA had asked if I would be willing to be a witness, and I didn’t want to, but I said I would do it. Eventually they decided not to have any former victims testify.
But the reason why I said I would do it is because I thought it could help put him away. Again, this man shouldn’t get away with these crimes. I think writing a lot about it helped, just journaling about my feelings, because I’d felt overwhelmed a great deal of the time for a few years there, trying to stay on schedule, just sticking to as normal a life as possible, trying to do just normal things.
When you were trying to piece together exactly what happened and how it had affected you, did you always have clarity? Or were there times when you were unsure?
No, there was always clarity. Other things came to me—I have this great memory, as you know. (Laughter.) I wasn’t someone that didn’t remember physical acts or anything like that. But then as time went on and I was in therapy, I actually realized that I had repressed a few sexual things he did to me. They were physically painful things, and in therapy I remembered them.
How about on the other side, in terms of your capacity to love and connect? How do you feel about that now? Do you feel like that’s been repaired?
No. I don’t. (Laughter.) Since you asked. I think it’s better. I don’t think I’m fixed. (Laughter.) I think that I have good days and bad days, more good days. It’s a process. I certainly don’t feel like I’m falling apart like I did when I started doing the work on this. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve got this big secret weighing me down that I’m carrying around like I did for so many years before I dealt with it.
As far as my ability to trust or love, it’s better. But it’s not perfect, and I’m not as afraid of being hurt, exploited. I don’t see myself as a victim. I think—and I never thought this consciously, but—I think I saw myself as this scared kid my whole life, or I was a scared kid. And I don’t see myself that way.
So what advice do you have when you talk to other people who are struggling with this experience?
Oh, it’s hard. I remember I was out with someone that I’d known for years and I told him my experience. And then he said something that surprised me; that he’d had a similar experience. It was his uncle, and it went on for a few years when he was a child. And it still owned him.
I remember when he told me, I sort of filled up with tears, because he was a small kind of person. He was older than me, but very baby-faced, and I thought he must have been so little when he was 11, 12, 13. He told me that when he was in his thirties, he went to his mother—it was his mother’s brother who had raped him for those three years—and told her what happened. And she said, “I don’t want to hear about it.” And I said, “You must have a lot of rage toward your mother.” And he snapped at me—“I love my mother.”
I told him, “I didn’t say you didn’t love your mother, but you were in your thirties, why would you go to your mother about something that happened twenty years ago, unless you wanted her to act like a parent and say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry that happened’? You weren’t blaming her, but she didn’t really do her job as a parent, and so you must have great rage.” And he got very angry at me.
But he eventually, literally, drank himself to death. I remember when he died, I thought, Wow, this is what killed him. I think there’s a lot of suicides, and a lot of self-destructive behavior, a lot of wasted lives because of child rape.
So, when that happened—God, that was sad. So, I never portray myself as “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” as an expert. I just try to listen. I tell my experience. And I give a wide berth.
What do you think that people who are not survivors should know about the whole experience?
I don’t think that people, in general, realize the long-term effects that it has on people. I think some people think just, okay, that happened twenty, forty years ago. Buck up, things happen. Be a man, or be a woman. I think one of the reasons they have that reaction is society. Nobody wants to talk about it, because most people know someone who’s been sexually abused, and a lot know someone in their family, or whatever, that has sexually abused someone.
I think there’s a real need for society in general to be educated about the whole process. I don’t know how that would happen, but there’s so much depression and rage and there’s so many negative side effects. God, I don’t know how to answer that, Tom.
Well, I think in a certain way by coming forward in the beginning, I think you played a real role in that. I mean, there’s still a long way to go, but I think the public perception of the problem is certainly a hell of lot better than it was nine years ago.
I do too, yeah, I guess. I wonder sometimes, I don’t know. I hope so.
I don’t think they understand it completely, the general public. I think a lot of people want it to go away because it’s ugly. They don’t want to look at it or hear about it, and I don’t think they want to—I don’t think a lot of people want to be educated about the subject matter, just because it’s so distasteful. People don’t want to hear about children being raped and how that impacts lives down the road. And it’s scary, and it could be their children. I know it’s one of the reasons they should hear about it, but I think it’s one of the reasons that makes them uncomfortable.