Church Sex Abuse Victim Sheds His Anonymity to Help Others
By Tony Messenger firstname.lastname@example.org
Columbia Daily Tribune [Missouri]
May 16, 2004
[See also Mike Weg's Thy Child's Face.]
Terrible abuses. Torture. Corruption. Cover-up. Culture of secrecy.
These are the words being tossed around as we discuss the horrific prison abuse scandal in Iraq.
Mike Wegs uses the same words to describe an institution he used to love.
Wegs grew up in Moberly. His youth - and much of his adulthood, really - was taken away from him in Hannibal. Now he lives in Minneapolis, and he's trying to put the pieces of his life back together.
You've read his story, perhaps, but didn't know it. Two years ago, he was known as one of the many John Does who accused disgraced Bishop Anthony O'Connell of sexual abuse while he was a seminarian at the now-closed St. Thomas Seminary. The Hannibal seminary trained generations of Roman Catholic priests in Missouri, but to Wegs and some of the other impressionable boys who were manhandled and abused by a pedophile they called "O.C.", the place might as well have been a prison in Abu Ghraib.
Wegs' John Doe lawsuit is among 13 proceeding against O.C. in circuit court in Hannibal. Other priests from the seminary have been accused as well. Wegs doesn't expect to win. But as the church and its membership try to heal from the scandal that exploded first two years ago in Boston, spreading to St. Louis and other dioceses around the nation, Wegs is speaking out publicly to send a message that he believes is important to the healing.
Things were as bad in the Jefferson City diocese as anywhere else in the nation, he believes, and the cover-up continues. Wegs was inspired to go public with his story after seeing the verbal abuse heaped upon fellow O.C. victim Chris Dixon, who also has ties to Mid-Missouri. Dixon, a former deacon at Sacred Heart Catholic Church here in Columbia, was the victim who caused O.C. to step down from his leadership position in the church. Wegs thinks there have been countless other priests and bishops who protected the O.C.s of the church for decades and still operate with impunity.
On May 5, he, Dixon, fellow victim Matthew Cosby and two John Does set their sights on another target when they sent out a letter to other potential victims - as well as reporters across the nation - seeking to offer help if more men feel the need to come forward with their tales of abuse.
Their target this time is Jefferson City Diocese Bishop John Gaydos.
The men don't accuse Gaydos of abuse, but they believe that even today, as he talks of healing, the bishop is more concerned with protecting the church's reputation and the other abusers hiding away than he is with helping the victims of the worst scandal of abuse in the church's history.
"The actions" of those who have protected and hidden the abusers, Wegs says, "has been pretty outrageous. ... Gaydos is cut from the same piece of cloth. ... He's part of the good-old-boy network."
Wegs doesn't take lightly his criticism of the church. Many of the priests in the Jefferson City Diocese are former pastors of his or people with whom he went to seminary. It's his generation - Wegs is 50 - that is moving into positions of leadership in the church. But he speaks out because he knows how hard it is for men who have been abused to speak about the horror of it - particularly if they live in small communities like the ones that dot the Mid-Missouri countryside.
"If you are living in a small town in the middle of Missouri, whether it's Moberly or Boonville, men aren't going to come forward because of the stigma attached to it," he says.
Since his letter went out, Wegs says, he's spoken to or e-mailed several men who were abused at Hannibal. The men live all over the nation, in Alaska, in Virginia, in Florida. When he and his colleagues wanted to send this letter to support silent victims, they say they sought the help of Gaydos, asking for names and addresses of past seminarians at St. Thomas, a school the bishop closed two years ago this month.
Gaydos wouldn't provide the list, their letter charges.
"These were innocent young boys who had their whole future ahead of them. It was robbed from them," Wegs says. "The reason they won't help us is because they want to lay the blame elsewhere."
Gaydos spokesman Mark Saucier says he's not even positive the men asked for the list.
"They've had some problems with truth," he says. The bishop "has no recollection nor any record of a request for the alumni list." Besides, Saucier says, Gaydos sent out his own letter to former seminarians in March 2002 urging victims to call him personally if the diocese could help them in any way.
On Tuesday, Wegs will take his advocacy to a new level.
He'll be in Jefferson City, speaking to reporters from the steps of the church's chancery.
He'll urge victims to come forward and ask that the church turn over all records related to sexual abuse, particularly at St. Thomas, to an independent legal party so the ultimate truth can be known.
"That's the only way you're going to cure the situation," Wegs says of the healing he knows Catholics crave. "None of these people will ever be punished. None of them will ever go to jail."
O.C. is living a secluded life on a luxurious Southern plantation. Wegs is living his life determined to help every one of his victims. Some of them, he believes, are still living with their pain right here in Mid-Missouri.
A national study of priest abuse cases from 1950 to 2002 released earlier this year indicated abuse in the Jefferson City diocese occurred at a higher level than the national average. At least 6 percent of those priests in the local diocese were at one time or another accused of sexual misconduct.
Wegs wants to know how many victims were left behind and how many of the predators and the men who protected them are still in power.
He knows his quest doesn't make him popular in the church he still calls home, but he's unwilling to stop.
Many of the men who hid the abuse are now overseeing the so-called healing process, he says.
"They are accomplices to the crimes," Wegs argues.
The head of a national review board set up to oversee the church's response to the scandal agrees. In a March letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Illinois Appellate Court Judge Anne Burke chided the holy men for getting in the way.
"Those who said the bishops were never serious about breaking free from the sins, crimes and bad judgments of the past will be vindicated," she wrote.
Those are stinging words, especially coming from a Catholic. But they're true, Wegs says. On Tuesday, his very public crusade of enlightenment will continue. His creed is simple:
"They can't make this go away."
Tony Messenger is a columnist at the Tribune. His column appears on Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday. He can be reached at 815-1728 or by e-mail at email@example.com.