Inside the Mind of a Monster: Child Sex Abuse of Franciscan Priest Revealed in His Own Sick Words
June 2, 2012
A 27-page 'sexual history' written by a defrocked Franciscan cleric provides a shockingly candid and detailed window into the troubled mind of a notorious pedophile priest.
Robert Van Handel is accused of molesting at least 17 boys, including his own 5-year-old nephew, local children in his boys' choir and students at St. Anthony's, a prestigious Franciscan boarding school in California where he taught.
The essay, penned for a therapy assignment and kept secret for years, is believed to be the first of its kind to be publicly revealed through civil litigation despite years of lawsuits targeting sexually abusive priests.
|Robert Van Handel, a defrocked Franciscan cleric, is accused of molesting at least 17 boys|
In the essay, Van Handel - who was himself molested by a priest at age 15 - describes his 'most beautiful' victim, a tanned and tow-headed child of seven, and talks about molesting a trio of brothers and taking nude pictures of the youngest sibling that were 'quite artistic.'
'Once, or perhaps more than that, I took him up into the tower which was stark concrete with steel barred windows and he posed as a prisoner with few clothes on. I took some photos of him tied up with a big rope,' Van Handel recalls of the 7-year-old. 'It was as though I could do anything with him that I wanted.'
Van Handel's narrative came to light as part of a $28 million settlement between the Franciscans and 25 clergy abuse victims six years ago that also called for disclosure of the religious order's internal files.
The accused priests fought unsuccessfully to keep their documents private in a battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The Associated Press obtained more than 4,000 pages, including Van Handel's 'sexual history,' from a plaintiff's attorney last week.
The priest would fondle his singers under the guise of tickling games or back rubs during one-on-one choir rehearsals.
He had the boys play dart games that ended in sexually charged wrestling. He rubbed the genitals of high school seminary students in their dorms and photographed young boys in the shower on a choir trip to Europe.
|Paul Palecek was molested as a Franciscan seminary student back in the 1960's|
'There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy,' he writes. 'Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.'
Van Handel, now 65, is a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County.
Seeing the document has been both painful and cathartic for those who recognize themselves in its pages. One victim said Van Handel's memories match perfectly with his own, despite the priest's vastly different perspective.
'It is really validating to read - in his own words - that what we've been saying really did happen. We had spoken the truth,' said the man, one of the brothers molested by Van Handel. He requested anonymity to protect his siblings, who are not ready to speak publicly.
At age 14, Van Handel entered St. Anthony's, the Franciscan junior seminary in Santa Barbara, where he was molested by a priest as he lay in the infirmary. The priest told Van Handel that the molestation would draw out his fever by making him sweat.
'While I don't think it is of crucial importance in my life, it is curious that this is nearly the exact activity I would perform 10 to 15 years later,' Van Handel writes. It wasn't until after high school, however, that Van Handel began to realize his sexual interests were abnormal.
He discovered pornography near his college seminary and purchased magazines featuring naked children. He used a telephoto lens to take pictures of young children splashing in the campus fountain and bought photography books featuring nude boys.
|Robert Van Handel was a 15-year-old seminarian at St. Anthony's, a prestigious Franciscan boarding school in California|
In 1970, he moved to Berkeley to pursue a master's degree and started a boys' choir for local children. There, he molested a boy of about seven, apparently his first victim. Around the same time, he molested his 5-year-old nephew.
In 1975, Van Handel was ordained and was sent to St. Anthony's, where he had been molested more than a decade before.
The young priest hated the assignment and started another boys' choir as a release - and was soon molesting its members.
He preferred boys between the ages of 8 and 11, he wrote, and their parents always dropped their children off as requested because they trusted the priest implicitly.
'It was clearly my choir and the fulfillment of my fondest dreams,' he writes. 'Now I understand that it was also a constant supply of attractive little boys.'
In 1992, the parents of one of Van Handel's victims wrote him a letter and copied in the Franciscan leadership. Within months, the priest was removed from the ministry.
Two years later, Van Handel pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor and sentenced to eight years in prison. There were at least 15 other cases too old to prosecute, according to a police report.