Priest's Victims Struggle to Heal
Year since Going Public about Abuse at S.J. School Has Been Painful for Men

By Brandon Bailey
Mercury News [San Jose CA]
Downloaded May 25, 2003

It was supposed to be a "listening session" -- a step toward healing wounds. Victims and their families waited for Bishop Patrick J. McGrath in the coffee room at St. Martin of Tours Church in San Jose. Six months earlier, a group of men had made the shocking disclosure that they were molested years before by a popular Roman Catholic priest.

The bishop never arrived. A nun apologized and said it was a mistake. But many of the victims felt betrayed, again.

A little more than a year has passed since 10 men told the Mercury News they were sexually molested by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard, when they were boys at the St. Martin parish school. For church leaders, the past year has brought new policies and programs -- sometimes drawing mixed reviews. For the victims, it has been a year of introspection and disclosure, of strained marriages for some and failed businesses for others, and of struggle to reconcile their experience with their faith.

"Who really wants to confront the demons of the past?" asked John Salberg, 38, a former St. Martin student who has filed suit over the abuse.

Catholic Church leaders say that last year's sex abuse scandals, here and around the country, have led to a new era of sensitivity and reforms.

"I am committed to making sure we do everything humanly possible to make sure that this never happens again," McGrath said recently. Still, he warned, "the reality is that not even the right procedures and the right people are going to heal the past."

The bishop apologized for missing the Oct. 28 meeting; a parish bulletin mistakenly said he would be there, when he never planned to attend. He held another session later. But that October meeting was a vivid example of what a struggle it has been for the church -- an institution both spiritual and bureaucratic -- to come to grips with the suffering caused by some of its own priests.

For several victims, the bishop's absence was enough to break the dam they had built over the years.

Emotions pour out

One by one, in anger and sorrow, they began to speak. According to several people who attended, the men in their late 30s described confusion, guilt and long-simmering resentment over being sexually fondled by a trusted authority figure when they were boys of 10 or 12. They told of later drinking and drug use, thoughts of suicide and grief over losing their feeling of comfort in the church.

When the session was over, many felt drained. Some said later that it had helped. But others weren't sure.

"It was like they turned on the faucet at the meeting. And then the meeting ended, but the faucet was still going," said one man who attended. For privacy reasons, the Mercury News does not print names of sexual abuse victims unless they choose to be identified.

For some, the very act of confronting the abuse has been a source of more pain.

A 38-year-old man said he thought telling his story last spring might comfort others and help prevent further abuse. Though he still believes he was right to speak up, in some ways the past year has been "horrible," said the man, who closed his contracting business in February and said he was having trouble concentrating on work.

"It was something that you almost had put away in the back of your head, for a long time," he said. Since coming forward, he added, "I've probably thought about it every day."

For others, the disclosure has left few marks.

A former student who is now 40 said he called the diocese last spring to report that he, too, had been fondled by Pritchard in the rectory at St. Martin. He said McGrath sent a letter of apology and someone on the bishop's staff phoned to ask if he needed any assistance.

"I could sense a degree of uncertainty by them, about what to do, but they seemed to be sincere," said the man, who still goes to St. Martin. He declined counseling and said he has no plans to file suit.

Bitterness builds

But for Salberg, the past year has been dominated by conflicting emotions and expectations. He was thrilled last spring when the bishop made a public apology and held a tearful reconciliation with several victims. But he has become increasingly bitter in the months since.

As the most outspoken victim, Salberg said he received calls from dozens of former St. Martin students last year. He spent hours on the phone as they struggled with their emotions and talked about the aftermath of the abuse.

Last May, McGrath appointed Salberg and his wife, Lori, to a task force that was formed to advise the bishop on issues of sexual abuse. But within a few months, some victims were complaining the diocese was slow to return phone calls and had no procedures to provide the therapy that McGrath had promised.

When the Salbergs pressed the task force to intervene, its leaders said they were only supposed to draft a new policy for the bishop.

The effort to attend countless committee meetings, and report back to other victims, took a toll on Salberg's business and family life.

"I was spending 20 to 30 hours a week, doing the job the diocese was supposed to do," Salberg said recently.

"Sometimes I wanted to run away, I was so tired of hearing about it," Lori Salberg said.

The Salbergs closed their sports-equipment dealership in December and have taken other jobs. John Salberg has been seeing a therapist; he calls the weekly sessions "brutal," but he believes they are helpful.

Some of the St. Martin victims said their experience with Pritchard drove them from the Catholic Church years ago. But the Salbergs said their religious faith has grown, as they have tried to make the church address their concerns.

"I feel like Jesus is working through me to make change," Lori Salberg said. "We won't walk away, because it is our church too."

`A major problem'

When the St. Martin story came to light last spring, the Catholic Church was already reeling from scandals involving priests around the country. When he heard the allegations against Pritchard, McGrath said, "I realized that we of course have a major problem and we have real victims and we need to now deal with them."

As children, the St. Martin victims said they had been too confused to tell adults about Pritchard. One boy did tell his parents that Pritchard fondled him; the boy's father said that in 1977 he complained to the San Francisco archdiocese, which governed local churches before the San Jose diocese was formed in 1981.

Parishioners were never told of the complaint when Pritchard transferred to another parish in 1979. And when the allegations surfaced in 2002, church officials in San Jose and San Francisco said they had no record of that complaint.

But in June, bishops from around the nation met in Dallas -- and emerged with a dramatic pledge to deal firmly and openly with such cases in the future. After the Vatican expressed concern for the rights of priests, the bishops modified the plan, but insisted they were not softening it.

The San Jose diocese has since launched several programs, moving more quickly on some than others.

A week after the Dallas meeting, McGrath announced he was removing from ministry two local priests who were convicted of lewd conduct with minors in separate cases years before. And in October, he announced that retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli would lead a new outside review board that will assess future complaints and recommend punishments.

But more than six months later, the board is still developing specific procedures. Panelli said he was waiting for church officials and experts to provide a model to follow.

"This is all new," he said, and it takes time to change a church that isn't used to seeking outside input.

Advocate for victims

McGrath also has hired a person to help victims lodge complaints and get assistance, which many said was needed last year.

"We are taking the bull by the horns," said Bernard Nojadera, who was hired in December as director of a new diocese Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults. Nojadera, 39, is a trained mental-health counselor and former seminarian who has worked for several local agencies.

In addition to coordinating the diocese's investigation of specific complaints, Nojadera is responsible for developing awareness and training programs for parishes and church schools. He also has drawn up procedures to pay for private therapists; about 10 people are receiving counseling for abuse by priests here and elsewhere.

The soft-spoken Nojadera has won the confidence of many, including Salberg and Adele Bihn, a San Jose businesswoman who recently agreed to lead a committee of lay Catholics and experts who are advising Nojadera. Bihn was critical of the diocese's efforts last year.

"I feel a very high level of frustration that things haven't moved more quickly," she said. "But the next few months are going to tell us if we're heading for success or not."

Attorneys hired

Meanwhile, at least 15 former St. Martin students have retained lawyers.

Salberg, who said last year that he would not sue, has joined five other Pritchard victims in hiring San Jose attorneys Robert Tobin, Jean Starcevich and Robert Mezzetti II.

Salberg said he knows they will be accused of being hypocritical or greedy. He said he wants compensation for what the abuse has done to him and his family, but also said he became convinced it is the only way to make the church take responsibility for what Pritchard did.

"It's bad enough that one person committed these acts," Salberg said, "but it's the lack of action by some really good people that frustrates me the most."

Nine other men have retained a different group of attorneys, led by Richard Simons of Hayward and brothers Larry and David Drivon of Stockton. The Drivons have launched a wave of similar lawsuits against Catholic dioceses up and down the state, after helping California legislators draft a law that suspends the statute of limitations for such cases.

While McGrath has said the diocese has no large cash reserves to cover legal settlements, he acknowledged it has liability insurance for such claims. The bishop also expressed sympathy for those who sue.

"I believe there are some victims who probably feel this is the only way that they will get peace," he said. "I understand that, although I am not sure that that in itself is going to bring peace to them."

Dennis Kavanaugh said he thinks it will.

The former St. Martin student, who filed a lawsuit in January, said his memory of being molested used to be like a nightmare version of the Whack-a-Mole game: "Whenever it would pop up in my mind, I would try to slam it down as fast as I could."

Kavanaugh, a 44-year-old salesman, blames the abuse for problems with drugs and alcohol, and his temper; he spent time in jail for assault.

Now he is trying a different approach. Now, Kavanaugh said, "when the squirrel pops up, I'm kind of trying to look at it.

"I'm not going to try to smack it down anymore."


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