I Was Abused . . . and 25 Years Later I'm Still Trying to Make Things Right


Author: John Salveson '77, '78M.A.

Almost 30 of us were at that March meeting in New Jersey. We were sharing our experiences as survivors of clergy abuse and discussing ways we could work together to help the victims of that abuse.

The Attorney General of New Jersey and the Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection were there to listen. The five bishops who lead the five dioceses that make up New Jersey also were invited. None of them showed up. The absence of the bishops led me to reflect on how little has changed with the Roman Catholic Church since the clergy abuse scandal erupted just over a year ago.

In June 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved its landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Among other things, the charter requires that each diocese reach out to victims of clergy abuse, that offending priests be removed from ministry and that the church conduct itself with “transparency” when it deals with this scandal.

Despite these promises, this is a small sampling of the stories I read in the press about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church:

The chairman of the review board named by U.S. Catholic bishops to monitor compliance with their child-abuse prevention plan says he is “stunned” that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles has raised First Amendment and privacy objections to the release of church documents to law enforcement officials
Boston Globe, March 14, 2003).

Lawyers representing the Cleveland Catholic Diocese have warned Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor not to release any information he has collected about 145 priests accused of sexual abuse. . . . The diocese itself has expressed no interest in reviewing the files
The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, February 9, 2003.

The Diocese of Detroit took nine months to investigate a priest accused of abusing two women; a priest convicted of trafficking in child pornography continued to serve in a Philadelphia parish; a Delaware priest who admitted to sexual abuse of a student was hired by the Archdiocese of Chicago to rewrite liturgies and was housed in the cardinals mansion next door to an elementary school. And on it goes.

Friends and family members frequently ask me why I continue my very public and personal efforts to support victims of clergy abuse and to expose the behavior of the church whose priests abused them. I often ask myself this question as well.

I always come back to three reasons. First, in my view the Catholic church continues to deliberately and profoundly fail in doing the right thing to support the victims of its priests’ sexual abuse. Second, when I speak of my own abuse, other abuse victims come out of their isolation and darkness and try to get help. Finally, it helps me to cope with and integrate the effects of the sexual abuse I suffered for seven years at the hands of a Catholic priest.

This is my story. There is nothing about it, or me, that is extraordinary or unusual. Multiply it by a couple of thousand, and you will begin to understand the devastating impact clergy sexual abuse has on its victims and the church.

The Abuse
I grew up on Long Island in New York, part of a standard-issue, middle-class, Catholic family. I attended Catholic school starting in the third grade (my mother couldn’t get the pastor to let me in earlier, as there were already more than 50 kids in the class). I was a kid any parent would be happy to have. I worked hard in school, stayed out of trouble and was involved in my church. I went through a long period as a child when I aspired to be a priest. I can still remember being fascinated by the book The Making of a Priest, which I would read at night under the covers of my bed with the aid of a flashlight, when I was supposed to be asleep.

The summer before I began attending my parish high school, Saint Dominic, in 1969, I met Father Robert Huneke, a new priest in our parish. He was young, smart, funny and sarcastic. He had us call him Father Bob and quickly became popular among my church and school friends.

Father Bob spent most of his time with young people. He was the sponsor of our Folk Mass group and was instrumental in getting us all to sign up for “Christian Awakening,” a weekend retreat program involving several Long Island parishes. He let us smoke cigarettes around him and criticized the other parish priests in front of us. He swore. He was like no other priest I had ever met.

My parents were thrilled to have Father Bob in the picture. He quickly became close to my family. I saw him in school, on weekends at Mass and on weekday evenings at Christian Awakening or Folk Mass practice. Sometimes he would come to our home for dinner.

In fall 1969, Father Bob invited me to go with him on a weekend trip to Virginia to visit a family that had moved out of our parish. I jumped at the chance. I was 13 years old and incredibly impressed with myself for being invited on such a trip.

Father Bob and I shared a bedroom at the home in Virginia. During the night, he got into my bed and began to perform oral sex on me. As I awoke, I became terrified and stunned. I was profoundly shocked, without any idea of how to react to his behavior.

The next morning, we left the home in Virginia and started the drive back to New York. Over breakfast, Father Bob told me that what “we” did was okay. He explained that it was okay to show love for each other, and that God accepted and encouraged it. I was nearly unable to speak. I remember feeling responsible for the abuse almost immediately. I also remember feeling nauseated. I had absolutely no idea what to do. It never occurred to me to tell another adult what happened.

As time went on, the abuse continued. Father Bob was expert at making me feel special and completely dependent on him. I was also terrified of him and lived for his approval. He was a priest. I felt that I had no choice but to do exactly what he wanted. He used his considerable influence over me to be sure I continued to comply.

This was the start of seven years of sexual abuse, which included most any sexual activity between two males that you can imagine. Through all of this, I took frequent trips with Father Huneke and often spent time in his room in the rectory. We drank a great deal of alcohol. This helped me cope, and I was kind of proud that I could tell the difference between Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch and Johnnie Walker Red Label by age 15.

While he had considerable control over my body, Father Huneke had complete control over my mind. He told me it was all right to do this with him and that God approved. If I balked, he told me it meant that I was unloving, ungrateful and cold. He often told me I was a “bad person” if I did not do exactly what he wanted. I believed him. He was a priest. I had somehow allowed him to hijack my entire view of myself. If he thought I was okay, I was okay. If he thought I was bad, I was crushed and depressed.

He also drummed into me his personal view of what it meant to be a “good person.” He often repeated his view of the world to me: “Life is a sh—sandwich, and every day you take another bite.” He said being a good Christian meant having a difficult life. Consequently, the more miserable a person was in his life, the better a Christian he was. His abuse was making me extremely miserable, so I believed I was living the right kind of Christian life.

During this time I began to develop into two people—the abused John, terrified and unable to get help, and the public John. I was a leader in my high school, an editor of the school paper, leader of the parish Folk Mass group, an ice hockey player and ultimately president of my senior class. I was not some strange kid in the shadows. Any mother in that parish would have been thrilled to have me date her daughter.

I moved easily between these two people. When I was not with Father Bob, I tried not to think of him or of what was going on. But it hung over me like a cloud. I was always anxious about what Father Bob was thinking of me, and if I was going to have to go to his room for a long “talk,” which he frequently required.

I entered Notre Dame as a freshman in fall 1973. Part of my agenda in moving so far from New York was to get away from Father Huneke. He visited a few times, despite my efforts to keep him away. When he came to the campus, he would stay at the Morris Inn, where the abuse continued. I occasionally was able to avoid him. He would suggest trips during breaks from school, and I created conflicting plans. This would anger him, but I managed to limit my time with him. That became harder when he announced, in 1974, that he was coming to Notre Dame to be an assistant rector at Cavanaugh Hall and enter graduate school for a master’s degree in psychological counseling, which he received in 1976.

When he arrived, I tried to stop the sexual activity in the relationship. I would resist him and tell him I couldn’t continue. He responded in one of two ways. One was the screaming, angry Father Bob, who told me how ungrateful I was for all he had done for me. The other was the tearful, pitiful Father Bob, who told me no one else loved him in the world but me. Both worked.

I was devastated, depressed and petrified that he was coming to Notre Dame, but what could I do? He ended up staying for the remainder of my Notre Dame years, eventually becoming rector of Grace Hall. His control over my self-esteem and decision-making continued to be as complete as ever. He insisted that I serve as a resident assistant in his dormitory. As a senior, I left Alumni Hall and became an R.A. at Grace. After six years of this abusive relationship, I was simply unable to create enough sense of self to say no to this assignment. Still, I hated the idea of doing it.

At the start of my senior year, I told Father Huneke I could no longer allow our relationship to continue. I had tried this many times before, but his shouting or crying always won me over. This time I was done. I was 20 years old, and I’d had it. He threatened to fire me, treated me horribly and tried all of his old tricks. I was so disgusted with myself that I didn’t care anymore. I wanted it to be over. He never touched me again.

Moving On
I stayed at Notre Dame to get a graduate degree and then moved to Philadelphia in 1978. I arrived with no friends, a professional job and a good-sized drinking problem. I was engaged at the time to a woman who was a year behind me at Notre Dame, but it was not going well. We eventually ended the relationship. I was on my own.

It wasn’t until I entered a serious relationship with the woman who would become my wife that I began to realize the nature of my relationship with Father Bob. I had done my best to forget about it, but I found that it continued to haunt me. As I spoke to my future wife, Susan, about what happened, it began to dawn on me that I was not the responsible party. I had been abused and taken advantage of. It came to me slowly. It helped explain my horrible bouts with depression and my relationship problems. It also helped explain my unlimited anger against the Catholic church and all it stood for. I still wasn’t ready, however, to make the connection between my prodigious drinking and the abuse.

In 1980, at age 24, I understood that the relationship with Father Huneke was more than just a strange aspect of my life. It was abuse, and it was having a major effect on my life as an adult. As I tried to deal with its impact through therapy, I began to think about what Father Huneke was currently doing. Was he still abusing other people? Was he still at Notre Dame? I became obsessed with stopping him and protecting any future victims.

I wrote to Bishop John McGann of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island in 1980, telling him of my abuse and asking him to let me know what had happened to Father Huneke. I shared my concern about other potential victims and told him of the devastating effect the abuse had on my life. I did not ask the bishop for money or support of any kind. I just wanted him to be aware that he had an abusive priest in his diocese, and that I wanted the priest to be removed, treated or monitored in some way.

Bishop McGann did not reply to my letter. So I sent another, this time registered mail. I got a call from his secretary, who set up a meeting between the bishop and myself. We met on Long Island in summer 1980. The bishop seemed sympathetic and supportive. I did notice that he was uncomfortable with our talk, but who wouldn’t be? God knows I was. He promised to “take care of it.”

That meeting began a nine-year battle to have Huneke removed from active ministry. During those nine years, the bishop moved the priest from parish to parish. He assigned him to an all-boys high school. We corresponded: I insisted that the church needed to remove Huneke, and the bishop insisted that there were no other victims and I should let it be. I knew there were other victims—in fact, the bishop wrote me that Father Huneke told him that “this matter” had not been a problem for two years (since 1978). His abuse of me ended in 1976. By his own admission, there were other victims. The bishop didn’t want to hear about it.

In 1988, I decided that the only way I would get the diocese to take action against Father Huneke was to expose his abuse publicly. Before I did so, I knew I had to tell my parents and brothers of my abuse. Up to that time, only a few people in my life knew what had happened to me. With my therapist’s and my wife’s encouragement, I told my parents. Both were, and are, active, committed Catholics. They were devastated, angry and confused. But they supported me, as did my brothers.

My first attempt to “go public” and expose the abuse involved speaking to a reporter at Newsday, Long Island’s most widely read newspaper. The paper wouldn’t publish the story. The reporter, a religion writer assigned to the story, told me I seemed more like some sort of “teacher’s pet” to her than an abuse victim. The editors suggested that if I located other victims they might consider an article. That evening I took out my high school yearbook and began to call people I suspected might also have been abused. By the end of the evening, I had a list of about 10 other victims of Father Huneke.

The newspaper was still uncomfortable with the story, despite my new revelations. I gave up on Newsday and explored whether I could sue the church as a way to expose them. I spoke to a few lawyers, and they told me I had no chance to litigate. One told me that if I were a “drooling idiot” whose life had been irreparably harmed by the abuse I might have a chance. He was concerned that I was too normal—married with three children and a successful career. Where was the harm?

Finally, I decided that the only way to remove the priest was to do it myself. I wrote an open letter to the parishioners of the parish in which Father Huneke served, telling them of my abuse and their bishop’s knowledge of it for nine years. My father and two brothers and I stood outside his church on a Sunday morning in July 1989 and handed the letter to people as they left Mass. I had called the television news outlets, and NBC had a camera crew and reporter at the church. They captured the near-riot that ensued as parishioners shouted at us to leave the church grounds. Parishioners attacked the cameraman, injuring him, and tried to grab the microphone from the reporter. The dramatic story was the lead for both the 6 and 11 o’clock news that evening in New York. The diocese issued a meaningless statement. But the priest was removed. He had actually been reassigned a few weeks earlier, when Newsday had called the diocese regarding the story they were considering. But he was finally gone. It had taken me nine years.

I met a few weeks later with an angry Monsignor John Alesandro, chancellor of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. He berated me for the actions I had taken but said the priest finally had been confronted. Father Huneke had admitted to his abuse of me and supplied a list of other victims.

During this nine-year period of trying to expose the priest, I faced many difficult questions. What would it do to my relationship with my parents and brothers to tell them of the abuse? What about all my aunts, uncles and cousins—all committed Catholics? How would they react? What about my work? My career was beginning to take off. Did I really want to become known as a victim of sexual abuse by a priest? What would my clients say?

What if the church sued me? What if Huneke sued me? The reason my wife didn’t hand out the letters with me that morning was because I was advised by a lawyer that if she wasn’t there with me, and we got sued by the church and lost, at least we could probably keep our home—since it was joint property. These were the kinds of decisions I faced in deciding to go public.

Through it all, the church in which I grew up, the Roman Catholic Church, treated me like the enemy. No one ever apologized for what their priest did to me. In fact, no one ever even admitted in writing that he had abused me. No one ever asked how my life was or what effect it had on my family and me. No one offered to pay for my therapy or speak to my despondent, grieving parents. No one asked me about my spiritual life and whether this had shaken my faith in God. Diocesan officials reached out to only one other victim abused by Huneke. They told him he could get free counseling with a priest at Catholic Social Services. He declined. The rest they ignored. To this day, in 2003, they have never done any of these things.

My Life Today
I subscribe to the “baggage” theory of mental health. I believe we all enter adulthood with a certain amount of emotional baggage from our families and early life experiences. Some of us have very little, others a fair amount. My experience is that abuse victims enter adulthood with steamer trunks on their backs.

What kind of baggage did I get? Poor self-esteem. Depression. A belief that I will be “found out” as an imposter and that I have fooled everyone into thinking I am a capable, healthy person. Relationship challenges. Trouble with intimacy. Difficulty with authority figures. A sense of humor that can be a little too biting. Alcoholism.

Part of my baggage theory is that you can shed baggage as you progress through life or you can choose to keep it and slog along. I’ve tried to shed as much of mine as I can. I’ve worked through a lot of these things, with a lot of help from a lot of people, and will continue to do so. Actually, I consider myself incredibly lucky and certainly not worthy of or interested in pity. I have a wonderfully supportive wife and three terrific children, whom I love and who love me. My parents and brothers have supported me without question. I am a partner in a successful business. I’ve been given the gift of sobriety. Life is good.

But I can’t sit on the sidelines and watch the Catholic church resist doing the right thing. A large part of me wants to let it go, to forget about it. Many people have advised me to do so. But I feel a strong personal, ethical responsibility to help other survivors and to try to hold the church accountable. It borders on obsession at times and takes its toll in my personal life.

Today, I volunteer as the regional director of the Philadelphia Chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). SNAP is dedicated to helping heal survivors of clergy abuse and works to hold the church accountable for its actions.

I became active in SNAP in 2002 as the crisis got the attention I expected it to get in 1989. I went to Dallas to be with other survivors at the U.S. bishops’ conference. I began to talk to the media again. I was featured in an article in Newsday and also in the local Philadelphia media. I truly became and continue to be public about my abuse.

I now meet new victims regularly. I also meet the parents and spouses of victims whose loved ones have not been able to deal with their abuse and are ruining their lives and families. Many are just coming out, after years of hiding and denial. Their stories are outrageous and heartbreaking and fuel my anger.

Virtually every person I have ever met whom a Catholic priest has abused has gone to the church for help. I have never met one who felt the church took care of him or her properly. Instead, the victims have been lied to, ignored, berated, condemned and mistreated. We even have a word for it—revictimization. It is a common experience. A small handful have sued the church and won. Most have given up, bested by the lowest form of hardball legal tactics employed by the church. The Catholic church continues to behave with arrogance and aloofness. Don’t believe me? Go online to www.Poynter.org. You will find the “Clergy Abuse Tracker,” a daily compilation of stories across the nation about the sexual abuse crisis. Read the stories. Learn what the church is really doing.

What has driven us from the church are our experiences with the bishops and cardinals who supported and sheltered the abusive priests. There is nothing so devastating for a victim as going to the church for help and being treated as a legal adversary. I am not referring to victims who sue the church. They are at least partially ready for the treatment they receive. I am talking about the vast majority of victims who go to the church for help. What they want is simple and inexpensive. First, they want the church to acknowledge that they were abused by one of their clergy. Second, they want an apology. Third, they often want some help paying for the resources they need to try to get their lives back.

The thing they want the most, however, is the thing that is most scarce. They want the church to reach out to them with compassion and support. They want to be folded into the arms of the church and nurtured and supported through recovery. They want to be asked how they are doing, how their family is coping, how their parents are. They want someone to put aside the concern for the image of the church and focus instead on helping them to heal. In my 23 years of working on this issue, I have never met a person who has had this experience with the church, or anything even approximating it.

A Simple Solution
The solution to this crisis is simple and inexpensive. However, it requires a fortune in courage and moral commitment.

The bishops and cardinals who shielded, supported and protected the abusive priests in their midst need to acknowledge their actions and have the integrity and courage to step aside. The people who step into their shoes need to reach out to the survivors of abuse, welcome them into the church and find out what they can do to help them. They need to proactively inquire into the spiritual and emotional health of the survivors and their families. They need to do whatever it takes to get them well—through therapy and support in their parishes. They need to let every member of their diocese know the names of the priests who have abused children and try to find out if there are other victims of those priests who have not yet come forward. They need to invite victims of abuse to come to their churches to speak to the parishioners about their experiences. They need to stop parsing words, splitting hairs and listening to their lawyers. They need to settle their lawsuits with victims fairly and quickly.

If the church had done these things when the victims of its abuse had first come forward, it would have avoided the millions of dollars worth of lawsuits it has incurred. Its bishops and cardinals would also be sleeping better at night, and its good and holy priests, who are legion, would not be so embarrassed to be priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It would still have the voice of moral authority and credibility in America, rather than being a punch line for late-night comics. And people like me, who went to them for help, could say to ourselves “I was abused, which was awful, but I was saved and nurtured by my church when I came forward.”

In 1996, I was traveling by train from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. When I got on the train in Union Station, I saw Father Hesburgh sitting by a window with an empty seat next to him. I quickly took the seat and introduced myself as an alum. As the train pulled out of the station, Father Hesburgh began to regale me with stories from his life at Notre Dame. As he spoke, all I could think of was whether I should tell him what happened to me, to see what he thought about it. I decided to tell him. He listened intently and asked a few questions. His demeanor changed entirely. He looked to me to be angry and disturbed. When I finished my story, he told me he wished I had come to him when I was a student. He said he would have removed the priest immediately.

Father Hesburgh got off the train in Baltimore. He reached above me for his travel bag, shook my hand and started to walk down the aisle. About halfway off the train, he turned and walked back to me. He said “If no one has said it to you, I apologize for what happened to you.” No one had ever said that to me. To this day, he remains the only priest who has said it. It meant more to me than he will ever know.

John Salveson is co-founder and principal of Salveson Stetson Group, a retained executive search firm in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Susan, have three children (including a son, Peter, who will be a junior at Notre Dame) and live in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He is one of 12 plaintiffs in a lawsuit recently filed against the diocese of Rockville Center. Huneke died of cancer last year.

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