Aaron: Grappling with Abuse and the Papal Visit

By Lawrence Aaron
The Record
April 27, 2008

He was trying to run away from something inside him — the corrosive emotional residue from many years of sexual abuse.

AT SOME POINT during the 13 years when Johnny Vega was living in Wallington, his marriage started falling apart.

He'd be sullen, angry, incommunicative, confused and so depressed that he tried suicide three times.

Vega had moved to Wallington from Paterson during his 20s to escape a terrible feeling that he couldn't shape into a cohesive thought. But neither the move, the marriage nor anything else helped, he said, because he was trying to run away from something inside him — the corrosive emotional residue from many years of sexual abuse.

"It affects the entire family. It almost ruined my marriage," Vega said. "My wife didn't know anything until just four years ago, when I finally came to realize what happened to me and started telling her. She put all the pieces of the puzzle together."

Vega says his first abuser was a priest, and the second a church deacon he mistakenly trusted to help him out of the entanglement with the priest.

Vega had repressed the memory of multiple sexual assaults that occurred while he was an altar boy at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Paterson. He accused the Rev. Jose Alonso, who is now deceased, and church deacon Carlos Guzman of sexual attacks over a six-year period.

Ranging from fondling to violent sexual assaults, similar experiences were being revealed by thousands of grown men who forced the Catholic Church to confront an epidemic of rampant sexual abuse.

Suspicions linger that the church hierarchy shields predatory priests from prosecution. Vega, 44, is not convinced that Pope Benedict XVI was sincere earlier this month when he expressed concern about American priests who were sexual predators. Vega didn't hear an apology in the pope's words. Neither did I.

Taking ownership

What I did hear, however, was the pope taking ownership of the problem in a way many bishops failed to do. At several stops during his historic journey to the United States, the pope's statements made it clear that he wants bishops and priests to police the situation vigorously.

But poorly chosen words may have weakened his message. Saying he was "deeply ashamed" and that abuse allegations were "badly handled" left his views open to misinterpretation.

The pope should forcefully condemn the actions, threaten to punish bishops who become accomplices and offer structured support for victims. The church loses so much by not participating in prosecuting clergy accused of using the power of religion to betray parents' trust.

The pontiff also lost points for mentioning the contradiction inherent in trying to protect children "when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today." His argument leaves room for the predatory clergy to escape blame.

Acknowledgement of the problems, nevertheless, was a welcome change from the silence with which these cases have been greeted in the past. The pope's public position might prevent future situations in which the priestly vows are misused as license to sexually assault boys.

A study prepared for the Catholic bishops by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 estimated the number of priestly predators at nearly 4,500. The number of abuse victims approached 11,000.

"My personal feeling [about clergy abuse] is that we haven't scratched the surface yet," said the Rev. Robert Hoatson, 56, a priest relieved of pastoral duties by the Newark Archdiocese after he filed a lawsuit criticizing the church's handling of abusive priests.

Hoatson worked in Bergen County as a priest and educator for several years, starting in 1998. He served in Hackensack's Holy Trinity Parish as principal of the school and associate pastor.

He is a dangerous man from the church's point of view, because he speaks with an insider's voice — not only as a priest but as a victim of sexual assault at the hands of priests. Hoatson says his own sexual victimization started when he was an 18-year-old junior seminarian. He's more forgiving than Vega, but says the pope's words are not enough without a firm plan of action.

Scars remain for years Deeply scarred, men and women victims are still traumatized 30 and 40 years after they were abused. The lasting pain is chronicled in a newly released book of photos and personal essays, "Crosses: Portraits of Clergy Abuse" (Trolley), by Record photographer Carmine Galasso. "Some psychologists have called it soul murder, and how do you get your soul back?" said Hoatson, whose picture is on the cover. His organization, Road to Recovery, helps abuse survivors heal.

Vega is also in the book. He shared in a $5 million settlement with 27 others who sued Paterson and another diocese, and he now helps other victims through Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Hoatson said, "I think my vocation in the priesthood has been defined by this sexual abuse crisis, and I think this might be my life's work. I see myself functioning as a priest but also ministering to clergy abuse survivors."

Lawrence Aaron is a Record columnist. Contact him at Send comments about this column to


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.