Sex 'Vibes' Permeated Seminary,
[Photograph is reproduced from the Ray & Anne Higgins Archive. We thank them for their assistance. BA.org is solely responsible for this web posting. See also 11 Friars Molested Seminary Students, Church Inquiry Says, by Seth Mydans; and Silence Hid Evil Secret, by Victor Inzunza and Morgan Green, Santa Barbara News-Press, December 5, 1993.]
Los Angeles, Dec. 1 - This morning, liberated by the release of a detailed report about the sexual abuse he and other students suffered for years at the hands of Franciscan friars, Michael Higgins danced.
He danced to the music of the Grateful Dead, the music he had played as a teen-ager when he was away from St. Anthony's Seminary, where, according to the report, 11 friars abused dozens of boys over two decades and, as Mr. Higgins put it, the students spent their lives "fighting off priests."
The music was about all the things his abusers took away from him, said
Mr. Higgins, who is now 26. "It's about women and meeting teen-aged
girls and kissing and getting kissed and just dancing and having a lot
of fun," he said. "It's about doing normal teen-age things and
having normal teen-age sexuality. It's about the stuff that would have
made me feel normal, feel part of society."
Like other former student, Mr. Higgins said his life has been a chaos of drugs, alcohol, broken relationships and shameful secrets since some of his teachers and religious mentors at the seminary made him their sexual plaything.
And even today, he says, his vindication is only partial. Though the church says it has paid out $90,000 for therapy to the 34 victims who have come forward, their victimizers are also receiving therapy. They face no criminal charges because California's statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases has expired.
[Photo Caption: Michael Higgins outside his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a copy of the report about the sexual abuse he and dozens of other students were said to have suffered at the hands of friars of St. Anthony's Seminary. Photo by Scott Robinson for The New York Times.]
Despite the catharsis of the release of the report this week, the consequences continue for former students like Mr. Higgins, who said he still has nightmares about the school.
Mr. Higgins, who now drives a taxi while studying at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said it was still too painful to describe the abuse he suffered. But he said sexual tension had permeated the small boarding school. The abusers mentioned in the report made up one-fourth of the 44 friars who served at the seminary from 1964 until it closed for financial reasons in 1987.
"The sexual vibes in that school ran rampant through every nook
and cranny in those halls," Mr. Higgins said. "They consumed
the entire school. Just being in the presence of that place was hideous.
It was overwhelming. You couldn't not see it."
It is this overt nature of the abuse, and the equivocal mea culpa offered by the church, that infuriate Mr. Higgins's father, Ray Higgins, a retired manufacturer who was one of six members of a commission that investigated the abuse at the request of the Franciscans.
He said he now questions the assertion by Roman Catholic church officials that they knew nothing of the abuse over the years, and finds cowardice in the statement by the regional leader of the Franciscan order, the Rev. Joseph P. Chinnici, that "the facts were distorted by some of the victims."
One of the most destructive acts by the offending friars, the elder Mr. Higgins said, was that they placed the burden of guilt on their victims.
"The boys were powerless, and they were made to feel this guilt," he said. "They asked themselves, 'Is it my fault that I am making this priest violate his vows?' "
And most hurtful, the elder Mr. Higgins said, was the betrayal by the friars of the trust placed in them by both parents and students, and the blow they delivered to their Catholic faith.
"On the day of enrollment, each set of parents is told that the Franciscans are taking over as the sons' primary family," he said. "Our duty as parents has become secondary to theirs. This is very, very difficult for parents to agree to do, and we really struggled with that, but we went ahead because we thought we were doing the right thing."
One result of the experience is that his son, who once hoped to become a priest, now says, with the disorientation that characterizes his life: "My faith can be classified as sort of neo-pagan Buddhist Hindu kind-of-Christian New Age makeup. I approach my faith a lot like I approach my emotions. I've tried them all on, and it's confusing."
And his wife, Anne, who has nursed her son through the agonizing flashbacks of a victim of abuse, cannot shake her bitterness, saying: "I can never forget this and I will never, never forgive them. Only God can forgive them. I'm not capable of that."
The memory that still causes the elder Mr. Higgins to weep when he tells of it was when his son, in his second year at the seminary at age 16, begged to be allowed to leave but was unable to tell his parents about the abuse.
"He was crying, and he said, 'Why won't you let me come home?' " the father recalled, and he and his wife, ignorant of the reason, made their son stay at the seminary until the end of the school year. "It really hurts now."
Then in 1989, when one friar, Philip Wolfe, was convicted of oral copulation with a student and sentenced to a year in jail, Mr. Higgins said, "We felt sorry for the victim and his parents. We said, 'Thank God it was not our son.' "
But all the while his own son was showing the symptoms that Mr. Higgins now understands can be the signs of sexual abuse. "He had drug and alcohol problems, rejecting authority, rejecting us," Mr. Higgins said. "He carried a knife. He dressed real tough-looking. He would sleep on the couch with the TV on. All of these things that we didn't understand. We wondered, 'What did we do wrong? Why does he do these things?' "
Questions like these prompted Mr. Higgins to ask his son about his experiences
at the seminary, and, with other parents, to pressure the Franciscans
into forming the committee on which he became the representative of the
The younger Mr. Higgins said he had blocked many memories of the experience from his mind, like details of the sex education class that was taught by one of the priests who abused him. And to his disappointment, he said he still cannot muster the courage to face the men who molested him.
One time not long ago, he said, he saw one of his abusers talking with another man on the campus of his college. "I pulled my hair down over my face and pulled my collar up over my neck and stuck my head practically into my jacket," Mr. Higgins recalled. "I shuffled past him as fast as I could, because I just got that scared."
But try as he might to fend them off, Mr. Higgins said, his memories of St. Anthony's come back in his dreams, sometimes for several nights in a row.
"I dream that I have been sentenced to one more year at St. Anthony's
because I have not paid off my debt to Catholicism," he said. "And
I'm there again, not being able to have a normal life, having to put up
with these continual little sexual innuendoes, surrounded by that unhealthy
sexuality, constantly fighting off priests."
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