Victims then, priests later
By Bonnie Miller Rubin
June 3, 2002
Cloverport, Ky. — Rev. Gary Hayes can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a priest. As a kid, he and his four brothers would play "mass" the way other boys played "army."
"We used to make vestments out of bedsheets and use NECCO Wafers as the host," Hayes, 49, recalled from his modest red-brick church near the Ohio River.
But between those innocent days and his ordination 12 years ago, something dark intruded. Starting at age 15, Hayes said, he and other boys in his southern New Jersey parish were sexually exploited by two priests who plied their young charges with alcohol before molesting them. Hayes reported it to the Camden diocese, which didn't believe him.
Two years passed before it would stop.
"Father Gary"--as his parishioners call him--differs from most other survivors in that he went on to join the very institution that so profoundly hurt him. As Catholics seek healing from the current sex-abuse scandal, Hayes and other priests like him offer a personal perspective on how one reconciles the pain of abuse and cover-up with one's faith and a hope for a better church.
"God didn't do this; man did," Hayes explained, referring to the misconduct and coddling of abusive priests by church officials. "What is most meaningful often comes from your worst suffering."
Rather than shrink from the controversy, he embraces it, serving as head of a support group for abuse victims. He calls the work "energizing and life-affirming"--even if fellow survivors sometimes can't get past his Roman collar.
No one knows how many spiritual mentors of one generation abused the priests of the next, but the numbers are probably "larger than we think," according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and psychologist.
Boys interested in the vocation are especially vulnerable to abuse because of close contact with priests and desire for their approval, Sipe said. These were the kids most likely to volunteer to serve mass, run errands or pitch in on a retreat--anything to be close to the men whom they one day hoped to emulate.
Rev. John Bambrick understands. In 1980, when he was 15 and dreamed of becoming a priest, a visiting cleric spent six months taking him to movies, on outings--and then to seedy motels, Bambrick said. The priest told the New Jersey teenager that he "knew the right people," including the cardinal, and would make sure his charge got special consideration.
But when Bambrick threatened to tell the authorities, the cleric counterattacked: The teen would never be a priest. He was a disgrace to his family. Other boys who had spilled secrets were locked up in a place for the mentally ill.
"It got so horrendous that there were many days where I sat in my bedroom with my dad's revolver in my mouth," Bambrick admitted.
'Took my dignity, self-respect'
Incredibly, this did not derail Bambrick from his career path. Now 37, he is pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Manalapan, N.J., near Trenton.
"He took my dignity and self-respect," said Bambrick, who had never spoken publicly of his abuse. "He wasn't entitled to my dreams as well."
For years, neither Hayes nor Bambrick knew other clergy like themselves. They are now in touch with almost two dozen who have similar stories, mostly through survivor groups, such as The Linkup. The organization was started a decade ago by Rev. Tom Economus, a Chicago priest who said he was molested for years at a Catholic boarding school.
Economus died of cancer in March, just as the scandal was reaching crisis proportions. As his successor, Hayes has vowed to continue efforts to expose abusive priests and demand accountability from the church hierarchy.
Although all victims of sex crimes share similar traits--anger, guilt, betrayal--some issues are unique to clergy.
"I must live with the knowledge that I have pledged loyalty to an institution that intentionally placed me in harm's way, then compounded the injury by dismissing my pain," one priest said.
Sometimes, the official response goes beyond indifference to hostility. In 1993, after Hayes and two other victims filed a civil suit against the priests and church leaders, a popular religious columnist in Philadelphia wrote: "Somewhere in the background of this suit is a homosexual or pro-choice advocate." Then he accused Hayes of seeking "vengeance against the Camden diocese for not accepting him as a candidate for ordination."
A long road
In 1987, Hayes had been rejected for the seminary because of his negative experiences "with priests who are still functioning," according to a letter he readily shares with visitors. It was a classic blame-the-victim scenario, he said. "It was hard to hear, but it didn't surprise me." He later found a slot at St. Mary's Seminary outside Louisville.
Of the two priests Hayes says abused him, one was convicted of molesting three other boys, resigned from the priesthood and is dead. The other was placed on a leave of absence when the lawsuit was filed and since has retired. The suit was settled out of court.
After a long road, Hayes said he has found peace in rural Kentucky, where Catholics make up only 6 percent of the population of the area his diocese serves--culture shock for a "Jersey guy" who grew up with a parish on every corner.
Today, Hayes--a rumpled man whose mother is Sicilian--happily ministers to parishioners at St. Rose's in downtown Cloverport, a down-on-its-luck river town where most of the storefronts are empty. He also serves another parish in nearby Irvington.
Sometimes, after he has been on TV or quoted in the newspaper, Hayes encounters elderly women who come up after mass, drop their voices conspiratorially and tell him they are afraid he will get punished. "And I ask them, `Where else could they send me?'"--unleashing a guffaw that echoes throughout the church.
Unlike Hayes, Bambrick had chosen to keep his abuse a secret until now. "Who wants to be known as the priest who was molested?" he asked.
Besides fear for his reputation and job security, Bambrick said he also hid the abuse for family reasons--"My father doesn't want people to know, especially his union buddies"--and because parishioners might think that he, too, could be an abuser.
Indeed, research indicates that people who molest youngsters often were themselves victimized in childhood or adolescence.
"Their sexual abuse of minors is for many a re-enactment of their own trauma," said Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and president of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a facility for the care of male and female religious.
Rossetti said therapy is almost always necessary to break the cycle.
"I'd never discourage someone with a molestation in their past from being a priest or a nun, but we want them to be wounded healers, not wounded wounders," Rossetti said.
Familiar with the theories about reoffenders, Bambrick shudders at the thought. "I cannot imagine wanting to pass on to someone else the terrible agony of this kind of abuse," he said. "It seems unconscionable."
Crisis of conscience
Unlike Hayes, Bambrick was able to stay close to home for his training, but his pastoral journey was far from smooth. On the eve of his ordination--after eight years in the seminary and one year as a deacon--he was gripped by a "crisis of conscience," triggered by the fact that the priest who abused him was still in active ministry.
"In my heart I knew I wasn't standing up for the most vulnerable members of society, but if I told, I feared that I wouldn't be ordained," he said.
After unburdening his soul to his retreat master, Bambrick sent a letter--signing only his first name--to church officials. "That way the onus would be on them, not me, to keep this guy away from kids." The older priest subsequently was barred from serving in the New York archdiocese but remains in ministry in Texas as a hospital chaplain.
As priests and survivors of abuse, both Hayes and Bambrick are in a unique and sometimes difficult position.
"Some people have had to travel a great distance to walk with me, and that has been very humbling," Hayes said. "And then there are others who will never be comfortable . . . and I understand that too."
These days, Hayes is soliciting donations for a retreat center where victims can reconnect on a spiritual level.
"Fourteen treatment centers for priests, but zero for survivors," lamented Hayes, who hopes to raise $500,000 by year's end.
More immediately, he is planning a meeting for clergy who were similarly exploited. Reluctantly, he declines to disclose the location--"If the bishops get wind of it, they'll kill it for sure," he said.
Map to a better church
Neither priest has much hope for moral clarity when U.S. bishops convene in Dallas this month to discuss the sex-abuse issue.
Said Bambrick: "For any lasting change we must have a sincere acknowledgment from the Catholic bishops that they understand the problem and are willing to deal with it in an honest and forthright way."
He suggested that the road map to a better church is by "transparency, openness, vulnerability, suffering, resurrection and hope."
To Hayes, any forward momentum will come from within, not above. "The people in the pews refuse to be lied to any longer. It is everyday faithful Catholics--along with survivors--who will lead us out of this."
And what role does Hayes see for himself? "There's a prayer that starts, `Lord, let me be a holy disturbance.' I'd like to think, when it's all said and done, that will be my calling."