Silence hid evil secret

Revelations that priests
abused dozens of
boys at St. Anthony's
Seminary tear at the
fabric of the church

By Victor Inzunza and Morgan Green
Santa Barbara News-Press
December 5, 1993

How could it have happened?

It was the question that haunted the Rev. Virgil Cordano Monday night as he sat in stone-faced silence and watched his fellow Franciscan friars and a group of lay people outline a report that he clutched in his hands.

The pastor of the Santa Barbara Mission held a 70-page text chronicling what some believe is the worst case of sexual abuse of its kind anywhere in the country.

For at least 23 years, a fourth of the friars on the faculty at the now-defunct St. Anthony's Seminary molested boys, some as young as 7. And at no time during that period was the school without at least one "predator priest," as some victims and their families call them.

So far, 34 men have said they were abused. The molesters face no criminal charges because the state's six-year statute of limita[tions] has

It was "an insane place with insane rules," says Michael Higgins, 22, one of the 34 men who say they were sexually abused as boys at St. Anthony's Seminary. His story is on page A 10. Steve Malone / News-Press.
passed. While the church won't punish them either—because its four-year deadline on accusations has elapsed—the Franciscans are bracing for a flood of civil suits. One was filed Thursday in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

"It's terrible," Cordano said that night, numbed by the scale of the abuse. "I feel very, very sad for the boys and the families and the Franciscans. It's a mystery to me. I don't know how this happened.

"It's the mystery of evil. It's the mystery of sin."

The evidence shows no conspiracy, for the seminary's dirty little secret festered generation after generation, apparently hidden by, a self-imposed gag of victims and molesters. The silence thrived under a Franciscan see-no-evil tradition that assumed the only protection the boys needed was each priest's Catholic conscience and Franciscan vow of chastity.

Perpetrator and victim alike had his own reasons for keeping quiet. Many agree that the boys were silenced by angst, guilt and confusion.

"You internalized it," remembered "John McCord, who was molested while a seminary student in the 1960s. Now 37 years old, he lives in the Carmel Valley. "You blame yourself. You can't believe this guy you love and said he loved you and would take care. of you would do it."

When the victims at last spoke out during the 11-month investigation that started in January, the magnitude of the abuse was shocking.

Click on this image to view a readable copy of the original print edition (use the buttons at the bottom of the newspaper pages to navigate). See the other articles in this feature: Families torn by abuse turn away from church and Seminary life was a nightmare, victims say, by Morgan Green; and Encounter in '60s left woman perplexed, by Barney Brantinham.
See also the text of the report commissioned by the Franciscans; Molested at St. Anthony's, by Andrew Rice, Santa Barbara Independent, December 2-9, 1993; NY Times articles about the report 1 2; a News-Press article that names the priests; later articles 1 2; and the Application to Amend Complaint (8/27/04).
Note: This feature was posted from an original copy in the Ray & Anne Higgins Archive. We thank them for their assistance. is solely responsible for the web posting.

"Sometimes it was just overwhelming hearing from the victims," said Santa Barbara attorney Geoffrey Stearns, who headed the six-member board that investigated and reported the abuse. "We listened a lot and it was a difficult thing to hear."

How could such widespread abuse have gone on so long without anyone knowing?

On Page 45 of the report, the response is succinct, "There are no simple answers."

"It's a fair question and one I have asked many times," said the Rev. Joseph Chinnici, who as the head of the Franciscans' St. Barbara Province has been at the center of the controversy.

Chinnici—a 1963 graduate of St. Anthony's who knew some of the offenders well—said he has struggled along with everyone else to understand what happened.

One victim who asked to remain anonymous calls it pure negligence. "Otherwise, why wouldn't they have a policy for this sort of thing. Molesting? It's been going on forever," he said.

The Rev. Joseph Chinnici, head of the Franciscan’s St. Barbara Province, says he is struggling to understand why the widespread abuse at St. Anthony’s continued for so long without anyone knowing. Len Wood / News-Press.

In retrospect, it was all so easy. Many involved in the investigation agree that nearly every circumstance worked in favor of the abusers and against the boys.

It was partly the unstructured way the school was operated, and the: cloistered on-campus way of life that some believe allowed and fostered the abuse.

"You had an ideal situation where this could be carried out in secrecy because you had a closed boarding school, where people in positions of authority really ruled the roost," said the Rev. Dismus Bonner, a Franciscan who was on the inquiry board. He is the spir[i]tual director of the St. Louis Consultation Center in Missouri, where sex-offender priests are treated.

"They had every opportunity if they wanted to do that kind of thing."

Therapist Keith Mar: The boys were convinced they were to blame for what happened. Rafael Maldonado / News-Press.
Ray Higgins: Trusted enough to relinquish as a parent to them. Elaine Thompson / News-Press.
Therapist Kathleen Baggarley-Mar: Victims buried memories in "the black hole." Rafael Maldonado / News-Press.

When the boys enrolled in the boarding school, most were away from home for the first time. The friars told them that they were now their family.

Ray Higgins, a Hope Ranch man on the investigative panel, painfully remembers his son's indoctrination: "They were told that the Franciscans were taking over the role of parent, the primary family of the student was changing from the parents to the Franciscans and that our role as parents was secondary to that of the Franciscans.

"This was very difficult for my wife and I to accept but we went ahead and accepted it because we thought that the Franciscans deserved our trust and we thought this was God's will."

There were rules against any student being alone with a friar, Franciscan officials said. But former students don't remember ever being told those rules, and they don't remember anybody enforcing them.

It was easy for a friar get a boy alone. The report found that under the guise of special tutoring or discipline, friars would order boys to their bedrooms.

"Those safeguards were circumvented, in one way or another through surreptitious behavior," Bonner said. "If somebody wanted to flaunt the rules, they could certainly get away with it. I suspect that depending on the situation it could have been fairly easy because people were trusted."

Displays of physical affection also were common, contributing to the cloak of invisibility that so ominously draped the abuse. Hugging or holding a student was not viewed with suspicion by fellow friars.

"Contact between students and friars was encouraged. They were always hugging us and touching us, said a victim who asked not to be named. "It was weird. It was like being courted."

Some of the abuse began with touching in the guise of comforting a homesick or ill boy. It escalated to fondling and sometimes to masturbation, oral sex and sodomy.

Friars also went on camping trips alone with boys and molested them. It was all of these practices—from the hugging and touching to the excursions—that appear to have been a matter of course at the seminary. No one—not the friars, the students or the parents—questioned such intimacy.

"They had all of these things that were the marks of a good priest that they could use to cover up their abuse," Higgins said.

And no one was looking for anything out of the ordinary. Everyone involved agrees that the friars' superiors at the seminary were not .looking for sexual abuse, and certainly not among the rank and file. It was simply not an issue that was discussed or given much consideration.

In the secluded world of the ascetic Franciscans, it was as if such a thing could never happen. So it wasn't surprising to. Bonner that those who did not abuse overlooked such behavior while it seemed to go on all around them.

One victim demonstrated the attitude of non-abusing friars toward molestations by slowly turning his head and gazing unfocused into the distance. He said, "They were like that."

Bonner agreed: "Rules were in place, but as a matter of fact I don't think most superiors or leaders of a religious house are going to be snooping around if they had no reason to be suspicious."

Superiors were not chosen for their ability to detect abuse or other kinds of excesses by friars, but for their interpersonal, spiritual and administrative skills.

Widespread ignorance is a scenario that Higgins finds impossible to accept. How, he asks, could they have not known?

He refuses to absolve the Franciscan superiors at the seminary simply because they were unaware. "They were negligent. If they didn't know, they should have known."

*  *  *

But what could have driven men committed to serving God to perpetrate such heinous acts?

It is a question Bonner has studied long and hard. In his years of analyzing sexually abusive friars he has found not the image of a demented man, but a repressed boy.

These were men, he said, whose psychosexual development had been stunted. It had somehow stopped at about the onset of puberty—the same age of many of their victims. The stunting, he believes, may in some cases have been caused when the men were abused themselves as children.

The Franciscan Order might have appeared a safe refuge from their sexual confusion through vows of celibacy.

"There are some people who have joined religious orders as a way of opting out or escaping from some of the pain of maturity," Bonner said.

Other clerics as well as Bonner said that it is impossible to truly understand the men who committed the abuse without also taking into account the changing mores of society
y and the Catholic Church.

In the 1960s, tectonic cultural shifts made openness about sexuality and drugs and personal relationships not only permiss[i]ble but desirable. Many people during those turbulent times—Franciscans included—lost their compass, Chinnici said.

The Catholic Church was swept up in the notion that it also had to change to keep up with the times. The clerics pointed to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council issued in the 1960s.

Vatican II as it is known, called on the Church to become more human, to reach out to the laity. It also changed the seminary system and the fundamental understanding of what it was to be a priest, Chinnici said.

It is from that wider societal perspective, the clerics say, that the emergence of the sexual abuse must be viewed. "If someone who is confused or someone who is dissociated psychosocially gets placed in that situation, then it appears to create a very explosive thing," Chinnici said.

That argument doesn't hold for people like Higgins and some of the victims and their families.

To argue that a more liberated society somehow led to the sexual molestation of seminary students is simply a fallacy, said Higgins, pointing out that some men said they were abused before 1964. "Much of this happened before Vatican II."

The Franciscans now acknowledge that they had no control to prevent men with such deviant sexuality to enter the order. They did not screen for such aberrant behavior until the 1980s.

The Franciscans now have an elaborate battery of psychological tests to screen prospective friars, and to evaluate their behavior as priests and non-ordained brothers.

For some it is little consolation.

*  *  *

And what about the boys? Who were they and why were they there?

In most ways they were like teens anywhere attending high school -but there was a difference. They had belief in clod so strong that at the tender age of 13 or 14, they resolved to leave home and study among priests in the hope of joining the order.

"I was a kid 100 miles from home. I did what I was told," McCord said.

Invariably, they were bright students, most of them from middleclass families, but there also were boys from low-income households. Virtually all were products of deeply religious families.

And so they left home with all the hopes and pride and love of their families.

It pains Higgins to realize that those high expectations—ones he held for his son—may have played a part in the boys' decision to endure the abuse in silence.

"There he was. He had left home with a lot of fanfare that he was going away to become a priest, and so if he called up and said, 'I'm leaving I don't want to stay here any longer,' then he failed."

A boy "would be a disappointment to all of his parents and friends and other parish[i]oners that had made a big thing of this," Higgins said. "Therefore, it was not an option for these boys to leave."

One other thing distinguished many of the boys of St. Anthony's—great admiration for the friars. In the minds of many of the boys, the friars were the voices of God.

"They looked up to these men, and some instances they couldn't believe what was happening to them," Bonner said. "And sometimes the perpetrators would put fear into them by threatening to have them expelled or other dire consequences."

While some left the seminary, others stayed and endured the abuse and found ways to suppress the pain - only to reopen the deep emotional would that for some had laid buried as long as 30 years.

In recent years, "I was cracking up," said McCord. "My wife told me to get some help. I never even looked at the two years of abuse as part of the problem. As I got older I internalized it, repressed it, and thought something was wrong with me."

And they kept their secret.

It is now clear that the boys did talk among themselves—identifying friars to look out for, Higgins said.

But there is no evidence that any of the boys ever went to anyone in authority with their stories.


The answer to that is embedded in myriad social, cultural and emotional reasons, said p[s]ychotherapists Keith Mar and Kathleen Baggarley-Mar, who were on the inquiry board and spoke with scores of men that were abused at St. Anthony's.

The silence from the boys for so long is not at all su[r]prising to the couple, who run the Goleta-based Aspen Center for Therapy and who specialize in treating childhood trauma.

They said that most victims of child molestation don't speak out until many years after - if they ever speak out at all.

The boys of St. Anthony's seemed to suffer, the couple said, from the classic symptoms of guilt, shame and confusion.

They blamed themselves for the sexual advances of the friars they idolized. And when their bodies became aroused through the molesters' stimulation, the boys became even more convinced that they had been complicit in the sexual behavior, Keith Mar said.

Then there was the issue of veracity. Time and again, the couple said, the words were voiced by the men that came forward during the inquiry: "No one would believe me over a priest."

"I was afraid I wouldn't be believed," remembered Michael Higgins, 22, Ray Higgins' son. "I guess I was afraid that people would get mad at me for saying things about these wonderful people. From looking at it now, I was intimidated.

The offending friars were also skil[l]ful at putting pressure—everything from punishment to threats of expulsion—on the boys to keep them from speaking, they said. Sometimes they were simply tricky.

"Afterward, he would usually say something like, 'Let's go get some ice cream,' like everything was normal," remembered one victim.

So the boys buried what had happened to them at St. Anthony's in what Kathleen Baggarley-Mar calls "the black hole."

"I tucked it away in the darkest corner of my mind," a victim said.

The secret yet remains inside some victims who haven't gathered enough confidence to deal with the abuse, the couple said.

In the end, the boys went on with their lives—some better than others. Some have come close to suicide. Many resorted to drug or alcohol abuse to numb their pain. Some behaved violently or courted danger to counter fears their abusers had been drawn to them because they were somehow unmanly. Others have managed to be married and have children of their own. It appears most, if not all, have lost their faith.

No one ever forgot.

"One of the things that blew me away," said one victim, was when friars who had not been abusers asked to hug victims at a meeting when the abuse report was released.

"But I'm sorry," he said. "A brown robe represents evil incarnate to me right now."

*  *  *

The clerics believe that nothing is certain, but as far as Franciscan seminaries for high school-age students are concerned, it won't happen again-at least not in the United States. The Franciscans no longer run any boarding school for boys in the country, Bonner said. "St. Anthony's was the last of a breed."

And so after decades of secrecy and silence, victims have found catharsis in speaking out. They've opened the emotional sores to release the pent up poisons and start to heal.

One man wholeheartedly recommended all fellow victims come forward for therapy. "Don't be ashamed," he said. "What happened to you is not your fault. It's the fault of the adult. Therapy gives you back a sense of who you are."

And everyone involved vows never to forget, so that it may never happen again.

"My innocence was stripped. I have to say (the pain) will probably be with me forever," said a victim. "I'm now a cynic. I take everything with a grain of salt because I feel I should protect myself. When I have kids, I'll be damned sure they know what inappropriate behavior is, so they won't have any fear to come forward."

For the Franciscans, the event has been wrenching as well, and they say they want to remember in order to prevent such abuses from happening again.

"It is sort of like a wound," Chinnici said. "It can heal but you can look at that wound and the scar . . . and it may remind you and it will tell you, 'I don't want to wound anybody else because that was real pain for me.'"

Where to call

Help is available for Santa Barbara County sexual abuse victims:

• For anyone abused by friars at St. Anthony's Seminary, an independent permanent assessment board has established a hotline for inquiries about free referrals and psychological counseling. The number is (800) 770-8013.

• The North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center provides various child abuse services and support from Lompoc to Santa Maria. Its 24-hour hotline is 922-2994.

• In the South Coast, Child Abuse Listening Mediation provides help for victims of child abuse-and their families and offenders. The number is 965-2376, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.






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