Quest to Heal Leads Abuse Victim to Face Old Demons
By Caryle Murphy
March 20, 2006
On a balmy, hint-of-spring day last week, Michael Donovan drove his rented car slowly past Holy Name School in Northeast Washington, where a billboard read, "He who angers you, controls you."
The 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired businessman from California was on a mission into his past, a mission to banish his own anger and regain control. A mission of healing.
Almost 50 years ago, during Donovan's eighth-grade spring break, he was sexually abused at Holy Name by Thomas S. Schaefer, then a 30-year-old, newly minted Roman Catholic priest.
Schaefer went on to molest at least 20 more boys in the Washington Archdiocese, according to church officials, before pleading guilty in 1995 in five of those cases. Only one other priest in the archdiocese, Robert J. Petrella, had more known victims, officials said. About 25 people have reported being molested by Petrella. The two priests were responsible for more than a third of the 123 reports of sexual abuse by clergy in the archdiocese's 59-year history.
For decades, Donovan kept quiet about his traumatic experience, confiding only in his current wife. But in 2003, determined to be counted in a national survey of the church's abuse problem, he informed the archdiocese of Schaefer's 1956 misconduct. He learned then that he was Schaefer's earliest known victim.
"It took me 47 years to raise my hand," Donovan said. "These are things that get buried in people's lives. But they don't forget it."
Donovan, who served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, recalled that the priests who took his initial calls apologized immediately, which "was really heartfelt by me. Nobody had ever apologized to me for what happened."
He decided that he needed to do two things to "face the dragon I need to face." One was to meet Schaefer. The other was to visit the room at his old school where the abuse occurred.
Psychologists and victims' advocates say it is common for survivors of child sexual abuse to want to meet their abusers, partly because the once-powerless child becomes the empowered adult controlling the encounter.
Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist whose clinic has treated more than 4,000 people abused by professionals, including teachers, doctors, psychiatrists and clergy, said that "at least half of child abuse victims want to physically see or visit with the offender. . . . They feel that any kind of clarity about why those things happened can help healing."
Donovan asked the archdiocese to pay for him and his wife to travel to see Schaefer. In June 2004, the archdiocese sent him a check for $3,000. It has also paid for his psychological counseling, Donovan said.
Donovan has retained a lawyer who is negotiating with the archdiocese for a financial settlement.
After his 1995 conviction, Schaefer was sentenced to 16 years in prison by Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge William B. Spellbring Jr. But after Schaefer had served less than five months, the judge suspended the rest of the sentence and released him to a facility for priests with psychological problems.
Now 80, Schaefer lives in Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, Mo., about 30 miles from St. Louis. Run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order of men, the center is a community for priests who cannot engage in active ministry "for personal, health-related, psychological, social or canonical reasons," according to its Web site.
He is not allowed to leave the community unsupervised, Washington Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said, adding that "the archdiocese pays to keep him in that facility.
"He's asked several times to return to Washington. . . . He'd like to die here," Gibbs said. "And we have declined because we want to ensure that he never returns to this community where he harmed children." Schaefer is not receiving a church pension, she said.
Schaefer did not respond to a message left with a Vianney official seeking comment.
Donovan and his wife, Sharon, met Schaefer in St. Louis. A psychologist treating Schaefer was also present, Donovan said.
Schaefer, who is tall, thin and balding, was aloof, the couple said in separate interviews. "We were expecting to find a feeble, old man in poor health," said Sharon Donovan. "He seemed to be a vigorous . . . quite a dapper man. Well-dressed, well-groomed, urbane, quite distant, quite cavalier about the whole thing."
Schaefer did not admit doing anything wrong with Donovan, both said. But Sharon Donovan said he told her husband, "I'm sorry for anything I might have done to hurt you."
Donovan recalled that Schaefer "said that he had found his peace with God and that God had forgiven him."
Their meeting also included this: "He had no recollection of me," Donovan said. "Zero."
Initially, Donovan said he felt "elation" that he had "conducted myself as a gentleman. . . . I came away feeling empowered. But a few weeks later, it hit me like a ton of bricks," and he sought professional help for an emotional breakdown.
What Schaefer could not recall, Donovan could not forget.
The pale, redheaded priest at Holy Name favored him, Donovan said, often taking him out of class to spend time together because, as Schaefer told the nuns, he thought Donovan might have a vocation to be a priest.
Schaefer also knew Donovan's love of wrestling, and during spring break in 1956, when no one else was in the school, he suggested that they wrestle. But the priest showed up saying that he had forgotten his wrestling gear and asked whether they could wrestle "Greco-Roman style," or nude, Donovan said. "I gave no thought to the impropriety of it," he said.
As they wrestled for the next three-quarters of an hour, Schaefer got increasingly excited and aggressive, finally attempting to sodomize him, Donovan recalled. "At the very end, I was fighting someone who was trying to rape me," he said.
He said he struck the priest with an open-handed slap across the face. "I expected a lightning bolt from God because I'd hit a priest, but he immediately stopped and whimpered," Donovan said.
The building where he attended eighth grade is now a day care and parish activity center. On his visit, he quickly found the musty auditorium where he played a munchkin in the "Wizard of Oz" and the old basketball court "where I proved what a terrible basketball player I was."
But the low-ceilinged room, with its dusty wrestling mats, that he had come to see was not there. A layer of concrete covers the brick wall where, as Donovan recalls, there used to be a door to the room where he was molested.
He said he was not disappointed.
"I feel very good about being here. . . . It completes what I had to do. I've got what I needed out of it," he said. "There were many good days here. There was only one bad."
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