Abuse, Shame and Secrets

By James E. Causey
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 6, 2009

When Leonard Sobczak was sexually assaulted by Father James Nichols 43 years ago, a speck of malignancy was inserted into his brain.

Not a tumor, but something just as debilitating. As he matured, the malignancy sprouted constant memories of the assault. And these thoughts consumed him.

They affected his relationships. He says he's "spiritual," but he no longer attends church.

Nichols had several victims. Some may never come forward.

After four decades, Sobczak finally felt it was his time to do just that.

Sobczak, a former Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission member, spoke in detail to me for the first time about the assaults, how it affected his life and why so many victims of rape never speak out. Last week, he acknowledged he was assaulted by Nichols.

Confusion, guilt, shame, inability to express feelings. These are why many victimized men keep their suffering secret.

Who do you talk to after being assaulted as a child? Who would understand?

Male rape is not widely discussed because we live in a male-oriented society. After all, real men don't get raped, right?

Wrong. They do, many of them when they are boys. Experts believe it is America's most underreported crime.

Sobczak was assaulted by Nichols when he was a 13-year-old altar boy at Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Milwaukee. He remembers how cunning the priest was.

Nichols had a degree in child psychology. To this day, Sobczak believes Nichols obtained the degree to get closer to children.

He may be right.

Peter Isely, of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said many pedophiles study children so they can go undetected for years.

Sobczak told his parents of the assaults. They believed him but felt powerless to act. After all, few people spoke out against the Catholic Church. Followers believed the church held the keys to heaven.

So the Sobczaks were forced to live in their own private hell. Leonard Sobczak coped with this the best way he knew how - by pretending it never happened. He stored it away in the depths of his brain.

It wasn't until he received counseling that he discovered how much his life was affected. Sadly, many victims never get such help. Rape victims suffer in different ways. They need counseling to figure things out.

Society's view on assaults on males is also different. That needs to change.

Equally important: Passing the Child Victims Act. The proposed legislation, which in the last session of the state Legislature was kept from a vote, would remove the statute of limitations in civil cases involving child sex abuse.

Predators have benefitted from the lack of this law. For them, it's a waiting game. Wait long enough - depend on their crime having induced fear, shame and secrecy - and they are free from civil liability long after they abuse their victims.

Passing the Child Victims Act would open a window for victims to file suit regardless of how long ago the crime was committed. And it could be the only way many of these perpetrators ever will be identified.

The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese also should release the full list of clergy who have offended. Isely told me there are at least 30 names that have not been released, mostly of those in religious orders.

Nichols was charged in the sexual assault of another child in the 1980s but never served time. He died of cancer in the late 1990s.

Changing state law and releasing clergy names will not end child sexual abuse. But we won't know just how big this problem is until more victims come forward.

Coming forward is not easy. Imagine having to go to authorities, a friend or family and saying: My name is (fill in the blank,) and I've been raped.

It may be the hardest thing anyone ever has to do.

Memories may not fade, but secrets revealed can help the healing begin.

James E. Causey is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer and columnist. E-mail:


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