Abused by a priest, now a champion of the church
By Dan Horn
June 25, 2017
|Michael keeps a copy of the check he received from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in a file in his basement. A tribunal set up to compensate victims of clergy abuse approved the payment.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
|Michael Vanderburgh starts his morning at his kitchen table, answering email before heading out for a day of phone calls and meetings.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
|The license plate on Michael’s red Prius reflects his mission for the church.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
|Michael leads a staff meeting about the One Faith, One Hope, One Love campaign, which so far has secured $75 million in donations and another $90 million in pledges for the archdiocese.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
|Michael participates in a weekly Bible study group with some of his fellow archdiocese staff members.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
|Middle school photos of Michael, around the time he was abused.|
Photo by Carrie Cochran
The letter is in a folder on the mantel, near a crucifix that once belonged to a Catholic bishop.
Michael Vanderburgh sits a few feet away, sipping coffee and reading email on his phone. The sun isn’t up yet on this early January morning, but he’s trying to get a head start on work while the kids are still sleeping.
Michael can’t remember the last time he looked at the letter. Years, probably. He found it in a cabinet in the basement over the weekend, stashed with some old bills and receipts. He isn’t sure how he feels about seeing it again.
It is not the kind of letter someone gets every day.
He reaches for the folder and opens it. “We recognize this was a difficult process for you,” the letter says. “We are certain that no amount of money can sufficiently compensate a victim of abuse.”
The letter arrived in March 2005 and is from a tribunal created by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to resolve clergy abuse cases. Michael, who was abused by a priest as a child, was one of those cases. The tribunal sent him a check for $21,600.67.
More than 100 abuse survivors got similar letters back then, along with similar checks for oddly precise amounts. Some survivors were angry, others forgiving. Some left the church, others stayed. None responded the way Michael did.
Two years after receiving the letter, he took a job with the archdiocese. And not just any job. As director of stewardship, Michael is responsible for the largest fundraising campaign the archdiocese has ever undertaken.
To date, the campaign has collected $75 million and secured another $90 million in pledges.
Michael gets that some people don’t understand why he does this, raising large sums of money for a church that once failed him so grievously. He has heard the questions.
How can you do it? How can you work for those guys?
He has asked the same questions himself.
The truth is, he didn’t get to this point easily or quickly. It took time. The way Michael sees it, people make choices every day that either move them closer to God or further away. He chose the path that led him here. He chose to love and trust, to show mercy and gratitude, and to embrace a faith strong enough to overcome his sorrow.
Those choices weren’t always clear, and sometimes they were so small they seemed insignificant at the time. But they are the reason he is preparing this morning to do the work of the church.
Michael sends a final email and slides his phone into his pocket. His youngest daughter is making breakfast in the kitchen. His wife is at work, his oldest son is at school and his two other children are still upstairs. They’re old enough to be on their own, but they need to get moving before he leaves.
Michael tucks the folder and the letter under his arm with the rest of his work papers and walks to the bottom of the stairs.
“Good morning!” he shouts up to his dozing children.
He hears some stirring and slips on his coat. Time to go. He has a busy day ahead.
Michael climbs into his red Prius with the “GIV MORE” license plate and plugs in his Bluetooth. He’s headed north for meetings this morning. It’s a long drive from his home in Dayton, so he’ll have time to make calls on the way.
Raising millions of dollars is not something done sitting in an office, working a 9-to-5 schedule. It’s done on the road and on the phone at all hours of the day and night.
Michael puts the car in gear and taps the phone. One of his first calls of the day is to a man who’s considering donating shares of stock to the church.
“Hi, it’s Michael Vanderburgh!” he says, mustering the cheeriest greeting he can on a cold, drizzly morning.
For a moment, he hears nothing but the windshield wipers sloshing back and forth. Then, an uncertain voice on the other end.
Michael laughs and introduces himself again, explaining the reason for his call. “Oh, thank you,” the man says.
They talk for several minutes about the possible donation and agree to talk again, which is how these conversations often go. Michael can’t rush the process. Even wealthy donors struggle with what to give and how to give it.
Some are happy supporting efforts like “One Faith, One Hope, One Love,” the big campaign that’s so far raised $75 million for all sorts of Catholic causes. Others prefer more specific giving. A favorite summer camp, maybe, or a new gymnasium for a beloved grade school.
Michael is the intermediary who matches a donor’s dollars to the church’s needs. This is more than a financial challenge. It’s a spiritual one. He must schmooze and slap backs the way all fundraisers do, but he also must understand how donors want their gifts to reflect their faith.
He can only succeed if people trust him. Not only with their cash or stock, but with their relationship to the church itself.
It’s the kind of trust people don’t give away. It’s earned. And like any valuable commodity, it can be won or lost.
Michael knows this better than most.
Which is why he’s sometimes amazed to be here at all, traveling for hours on dreary days like this to promote the church. How can he do a job so dependent on trust when trust is often the first casualty of child abuse?
Michael struggled for years to trust again. First, as an angry 12-year-old boy who’d been victimized by a priest his family had known for years. Later, as a restless adult who quit law school and bounced from job to job.
He never abandoned his church, but he was wary. Especially of priests. He didn’t vilify them, but he thought too many acted as if they shared God’s infallibility when they really were just as flawed as everyone else.
Michael had seen it himself. He’d been the boy who believed not only in the church, but in the charming, gregarious priest who led it on Sunday morning. He’d been the boy who sought refuge from tumult at home and instead found a predator.
Michael knew, as many victims do, what it meant to suffer alone and to feel a sudden anger or sadness he couldn’t explain. He’d fight and yell over trivial things, over nothing at all. Once, he paced an empty house for hours after school, car keys in hand, considering whether he had time to fill the garage with enough carbon monoxide to kill himself before his father got home from work.
Michael had never reported his abuse. As a kid, he was confused about what had happened and assumed no one would believe him. By the time he was old enough to understand, he figured there was no point.
And then, suddenly, Michael wasn’t alone. News of widespread clergy abuse in Boston spread quickly in 2002, igniting scandals in dozens of cities, including Cincinnati and Dayton.
Everyone was talking about it. His abuser had never been charged with a crime, but he’d left the priesthood years later after being accused of abusing another boy. Maybe, Michael thought, reporting his abuse would help other victims feel less alone. Maybe it would help him.
He decided to call the archdiocese. When the Rev. Joe Binzer got on the line, Michael was cordial, matter-of-fact. He’d thought carefully about what he would say and didn’t want emotion to get in the way.
“I would like to bring this to your attention,” Michael said.
He said the priest sexually abused him when he was 12. It was awful, Michael explained over the phone, but he believed other victims had experienced far worse.
Not long after he reported the abuse, Michael started going to counseling and volunteered to sit on the lay committee that reviews the church’s handling of abuse cases. While others picketed church offices, Michael went inside.
He still attended church every week. He’d married a Catholic and was raising his kids Catholic. He’d decided that while he might not be able to trust institutions or people to do the right thing, he could trust God. And he felt God wanted him to stay in the church.
He began reciting the same short prayer every morning.
“Lord, take my brokenness and make something beautiful today.”
Many of his fellow abuse survivors thought he was crazy. They grilled him at support group meetings, demanding to know how he could associate with a church hierarchy that had protected abusers at the expense of children.
Some called him naïve, some called him worse. They were hurting. Everyone was. They didn’t understand his work with a church many had come to see as the enemy.
“This is our church,” he told them. He said they should fight for it, not abandon it.
The meetings got worse. Some survivors stopped attending because Michael was there. Eventually, they asked him to leave.
Around that time, Michael spotted a job notice in the newspaper: Director of Stewardship at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He saw it as an opportunity to take his work with the church further, to make a bigger impact.
He thought he was ready for it. He was a college-educated former cop who’d gone on to work in finance and fundraising. He knew his way around a spreadsheet and he could make a sales pitch with the best of them.
But he also knew the archdiocese job would be more complicated than any he’d had before. He wouldn’t just be doing some volunteer work for the church. He’d be raising money for it as the abuse crisis played out. People were angry. Some were withholding contributions.
At his job interview, a church executive who didn’t know about Michael’s history with abuse asked how he’d respond if a donor complained about the crisis.
“As an abuse victim myself,” Michael said, “I’d be really mindful of their concerns.”
The executive looked stunned, then quickly changed the subject. A few weeks later, Michael got the job.
It’s 9 a.m. and the coffee shop is crowded and loud. Michael leans forward, elbows on the table, so he can speak without raising his voice.
“This kind of work is a whole new level,” he says.
Cathy Campbell sits across from him, nodding. The meeting is Michael’s first of the day, and he’s glad to see her. Cathy worked with him on the archdiocese’s campaign before joining another Catholic charity.
They’re here to talk business, but quickly turn to a more personal conversation about why they chose jobs that combine their faith with a skillset that would be useful in any Fortune 500 company.
“To be in that environment,” Cathy says, “it’s empowering.”
Michael sips his coffee and smiles. He knows what she means. He’s overseen budgets before, he’s run major campaigns before, but the work he does now feels different.
He tells Cathy he thinks he knows why.
“I’ve never known joy outside my faith,” he says.
It took Michael decades to reach that conclusion, to decide his faith grounded him in a way nothing else did. But he also knows faith can be shaken by tragedy or misfortune, and sometimes it can be rejected outright.
Michael learned that lesson even before a priest abused him. He learned it in the same home where he learned to love the church in the first place.
His mother, Mary, raised Michael and his eight siblings as any devout Catholic mother would. Church on Sunday. Baptisms. First communions. Grace before meals.
It was a traditional Catholic upbringing in every way but one: His father was an atheist.
An astronomer and mathematician, Richard Vanderburgh had faith only in what he could see or measure. He flew combat missions in the Korean War and tracked satellites for the military. He traveled the world, played piano and mapped the constellations on a giant plastic globe he’d built himself.
But nothing Michael’s father had seen or done gave him reason to believe in anything other than the power of nature or the ingenuity of man.
Michael’s mother, who grew up in Hungary during World War II, watched neighbors die in the streets and lost playmates to Nazi bombs. But while she emerged from the war with a stronger faith, convinced her life had purpose, Michael’s father drew different conclusions from his wartime experience.
As far as his father was concerned, he didn’t come home from Korea and start a family because God had plans for him. He came home because the bullets missed him and his plane stayed in the air.
For the most part, Michael’s dad tolerated the believers in his midst. He sat silently while the family prayed at the dinner table and didn’t complain when the Nativity scenes went up at Christmas.
But as his children grew older, he challenged them to defend their beliefs. Faith is irrational, he’d argue. There is no evidence of God and believing without evidence is foolish.
When Michael, the youngest child, said science couldn’t explain everything, his dad said that was no reason to embrace the supernatural. When Michael said the universe must have come from someone or something, his dad asked him where God came from.
“If it’s not observable, if it can’t be measured, you can’t say it exists,” his father would say.
Michael chose to believe anyway. He couldn’t explain why, not with the logic his father demanded. But he could sense it, when he prayed, when he took communion, when he gazed at night at the same stars his father saw through very different eyes. He felt a peace and a presence as real as the ground beneath his feet.
The debates were mostly civil, but his dad became more strident as he grew older. He’d walk out during prayers and skip funerals and weddings held in churches, including the weddings of all his children. He also was a heavy drinker, which didn’t help. He could be hard to be around.
Michael eventually stopped talking to his dad about faith. He stopped talking to him about a lot of things.
Years later, in the final months of his father’s life, Michael began visiting him in hospice. Despite the drinking, his dad had stayed fit for most of his life, working out and eating right. He seemed frustrated and surprised that his body was breaking down, even though he was 82. He thought he had more time.
Michael watched the agitation grow, and the fear, too. He wondered what it must be like to believe this life was all a person had and all he ever would. It occurred to him that faith is a gift not everyone chooses to accept.
His father held to his convictions to the end. As far as Michael knew, he never prayed or asked anyone to pray on his behalf.
But Michael prayed for him anyway, silently, at his bedside, until he was gone.
The rain slows as Michael exits I-75 near Tipp City and begins looking for the road to the cemetery.
It’s late morning now and his meeting with Cathy went longer than expected, but he has time for a quick visit. After a few minutes, he spots the entrance to St. John’s Cemetery, pulls onto the narrow drive and parks his car.
Michael scans the gravestones on the hillside before getting out, making sure he’s in the right place. The temperature is dropping and the wind is picking up.
He finds the flat granite stone a short walk from his car.
“Rev. Francis A. Massarella,” it says.
Michael met Massarella, better known as “Father Frank,” not long after his dad died in 2010. Michael had just sent invitations to donors for an upcoming event when he realized there’d been a mistake.
Frank shouldn’t have got an invitation because he was on the list of priests disciplined for abusing children. He’d admitted to molesting young girls decades ago and had been barred from active ministry for years.
Michael would have to rescind the invitation. The church wouldn’t want a child abuser showing up for the festivities.
He could have called, but Michael thought he should deliver the news in person. So a few days later, while on the road for other business, he stopped by the nursing home where the 95-year-old priest lived and knocked on his door.
Michael introduced himself and Frank nodded, as if expecting him. “I know why you’re here,” he said.
The priest didn’t protest being uninvited to the event and asked Michael to come inside. As they talked for a bit about the church and Frank’s life, Michael was struck by how normal he seemed. Frank was engaging, bright, even charming.
He wasn’t a monster in any obvious way. He was a man who had done monstrous things. This somehow made him more frightening to Michael, but also more interesting.
Frank, though never charged with a crime, had been ordered by the archbishop to live a life of “prayer and penance.” He no longer could present himself publicly as a priest.
As he was preparing to leave, Michael stopped at the door and asked Frank if he could visit again sometime.
He was immediately aware this was an odd question. Michael never wanted to see his own abuser again, let alone talk to him, yet here he was trying to arrange another meeting with a priest who’d committed similar, terrible acts.
Maybe, Michael thought, seeing Frank again could help him better understand what happened to him as a child without confronting his own abuser.
Frank said yes. He’d be happy to see him again.
Michael began visiting about once a month, and Frank seemed to look forward to seeing him. Sometimes Michael just talked to him, and sometimes he helped the priest with simple tasks that had become difficult because of old age, such as paying bills and writing letters.
Early on, Michael told Frank he had an ulterior motive for spending time with him.
“It’s important for me to know about your history,” he said.
When Frank asked why, Michael told him he’d been a cop for years in two small towns and had taken courses on child abuse, which was true. He didn’t tell him he’d been abused himself. Sharing that information might have made Michael feel vulnerable, like a victim, and he wasn’t a victim anymore. He was a survivor who had questions.
“OK,” the priest said. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Michael didn’t want details about the abuse itself. He was more interested in Frank’s mindset. He wanted to know how a man could do what he did while professing to believe the same things Michael believed about the church and its teachings.
The answer was not comforting. “It was my weakness,” Frank explained.
The more Michael questioned him, the more it became clear the priest had detached himself from the abuse, which Frank saw as a regrettable failing that didn’t diminish his ability to be a good priest in every other way.
Was he sorry? Michael never asked. He was reasonably certain Frank never appreciated the damage he’d done, but even if he had, the answer didn’t matter. His victims weren’t there to hear it, and forgiveness was not Michael’s to give.
Yet, over time, he had mercy for this man. He chose to continue to see Frank even after he’d asked all the questions he could think to ask.
He wasn’t sure why, but he believes now it’s because Frank, despite the evil he’d inflicted, was trying in his own, inadequate way to be better. He wrote essays about humility and obedience. He contributed to Catholic causes. He sat every day and said the prayers of penance the church had ordered him to say as part of his punishment.
Michael asked him once why he did those things, even though no one, including the church, checked to make sure he did.
Frank looked at him, incredulous, as if the answer was obvious. “I want to be the priest God intended me to be,” he said.
Frank died in May 2014, at 98. He had few living friends or relatives, so Michael agreed to help plan his funeral. He ordered an oak casket with a cross carved onto the top. He picked the stone marker for his grave.
A few dozen priests and parishioners came to the funeral Mass, and Michael read a Bible passage from Acts of the Apostles.
“Everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
After the service, Michael drove to St. John’s Cemetery and stood in the grass as they lowered the casket into the ground.
By early afternoon, the rain is again slapping Michael’s windshield as he travels north on Ohio 127. He’s in Mercer County now and the farmland outside is flat for as far as he can see.
Michael spots the cross-tipped steeple of St. Henry’s Church and pulls into the parking lot. His business here today is simple.
He’s come all this way to say thank you.
The Rev. Tom Hemm greets Michael at the door and lets him in. Tom is in charge of five small parishes here, which means he’s the guy Michael works with on fundraising activities.
They sit in Tom’s office and review the numbers from the One Faith, One Hope, One Love campaign. The news is good. Tom’s parishes are on target to collect almost double their goal.
“To see you take this on,” Michael says, beaming, “is truly inspiring.”
The relationship wasn’t always so warm. As the campaign ramped up in 2014, Michael and his team approached every pastor in the archdiocese with their plan to raise money.
Tom didn’t like the plan. Hated it, actually. He thought it would alienate his parishioners by giving them a recommended donation amount from the main office in Cincinnati. He wanted to take a softer approach, and he wanted to use his own volunteers.
Michael was skeptical. He couldn’t have a bunch of priests running their own versions of the campaign just because they thought they knew this business better than he did. They didn’t. If priests could raise cash by saying “Jesus wants you to give,” the archdiocese wouldn’t have hired him.
Michael liked most of the priests he worked with, and he liked Tom. But he was concerned the resistance he was getting was a symptom of arrogance, the kind that he believed sometimes got priests into trouble.
He’d seen it before, under different circumstances. When priests and their bishops assumed they knew what was best, when they ignored evidence to the contrary, they made mistakes. Sometimes, big ones.
So Michael gave Tom an ultimatum. “If we do this my way and it doesn’t work, that’s on me,” Michael told him. “If we do this your way and it doesn’t work, that’s on you. And there are consequences.”
Those consequences included his parishes missing out on a share of money raised by the campaign. To Michael’s surprise, Tom took him up on the challenge. He’d oversee the campaign himself and craft it to reflect his people’s sensibilities.
It worked. The pledges came in larger than expected and were paid off faster than expected. One farmer even used a share of his soy bean crop to cover his donation.
“Sometimes,” Tom told Michael, “beans are worth more than money.”
Michael marveled at the way Tom handled the campaign, and he learned from it. Tom wasn’t arrogant and he didn’t consider himself infallible. He was just a good leader. A good priest. He understood his parishes and his people.
Michael knew most priests worked as hard for their parishes as Tom did. Still, he worried. He understood the power priests can hold over their people, and he didn’t want them to forget it.
So a year later, in 2015, he agreed to speak to a small group of seminarians about his work. They were expecting a speech about fundraising or managing parish finances.
But Michael wasn’t interested in that. He told them they needed to be grateful for the opportunity to lead a parish and serve their people.
And he told them they had no idea what they were getting into. The real world was nothing like the seminary, he said. The real world was full of suffering and worry and challenges that would test them as never before.
They needed to make wise choices, he said, because priests are broken like everyone else. They are capable of great good, but also great evil.
“This could happen to you,” Michael told them, his voice rising. “Don’t think this only happens to other people.”
Then he told them how he knew. He told them he’d met priests who had the same aspirations they did, who had sat where they were sitting now, confident they would become the priests God intended them to be.
And they fell short anyway. They hurt people. One had hurt him.
“I’ve been through all kinds of stuff,” Michael said. “I don’t want that to happen to you.”
When he’d finished, the seminarians sat silently for a moment, staring. Michael looked at them and felt he’d been heard. He wasn’t sure how well he’d delivered the message, but he was grateful for the opportunity to do it.
“Thank you,” he said.
Michael parks his car on the street in front of his house and gathers his things. It’s dark now, after 6 p.m., but his day isn’t over.
His youngest son is at Cub Scouts. One daughter is at musical practice and the other at swim team practice. He and his wife, Ann Marie, still have some running around to do.
Michael doesn’t mind. He loves this, all of it, even after a long day like this one. His family. His work. The carpools and concerts and an old house filled with the sound of young voices and feet scrambling up and down creaky stairs.
He opens the door and walks inside, around his father’s old grand piano and past the crucifix that once belonged to Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.
The crucifix was a birthday gift from the retired archbishop, who led the church when Michael was a child and who, years later, apologized for its failure to protect children like him. He is the same archbishop who hired Michael to do the job he does today.
Michael takes the settlement letter out of his bag, carries it down to the basement and tugs open the old filing cabinet. He slips it back in its place and slides the door shut.
A few days later, Michael decides to tell his oldest son, Leo, about the letter in the basement. Leo is 18 and will be going off to college soon. Michael thinks he should know this about his father.
So he stays up one night until Leo gets home from work at the sandwich shop down the street. Michael tells Leo he’s been talking to a reporter about his job, but also about the clergy abuse crisis.
“Why would they talk to you about that?” Leo asks.
“Because it happened to me,” Michael says.
He waits for questions, including some version of the one he’s heard so often since taking the job with the archdiocese.
How can you do it? How can you work for those guys?
But the question never comes. And as he sits with his son in the family room, it occurs to Michael that people have been asking him the wrong question all these years. Knowing what he knows, living the life he’s lived, how could he not do the work he does?
His faith has guided the choices he’s made, and those choices have built this life and this family. They have put Michael here tonight, under the same roof with a wife and children whose love validates those choices every day.
Leo seems to understand this, maybe better than Michael. He doesn’t ask the question because he doesn’t have to.
They talk for a while longer, but not about Michael’s past. They talk about school and college and the scholarship Leo just won. They talk about what comes next.
Then Michael tells his son he loves him and heads upstairs to bed. It’s getting late and he needs to get some sleep.
Tomorrow will be a busy day.
About Michael Vanderburgh
Title: Stewardship Director and Chief Development Officer, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, since 2007
Job description: Oversees fundraising activities for the archdiocese, including the One Faith, One Hope, One Love campaign, which has raised $75 million and secured another $90 million in pledges.
Family: Married with four children
Residence: Dayton, Ohio
Education: George Washington University (MA in Political Management), Wright State University (BA in Urban Affairs), Sinclair Community College (AAS in Law Enforcement)
About this story
This story was reported over six months and is based on church records, archival material and interviews with Michael Vanderburgh, relatives, associates and church officials.
Vanderburgh’s cooperation with this story came with one condition: He asked that the priest accused of abusing him not be named, because he believed doing so would put too great a focus on the abuse, rather than the life Vanderburgh has lived since the abuse. The Enquirer agreed to this request, but only after reviewing church and public records, interviewing church officials and contacting the accused priest.
The archdiocese’s “Tribunal to Compensate Victims of Sexual Abuse” reviewed Vanderburgh’s case in 2005 and deemed it credible. Vanderburgh said he was abused in 1984, when he was 12, and described the abuse in detail to the tribunal. The tribunal, consisting of an attorney and two judges who did not work for the archdiocese, determined Vanderburgh should receive compensation of $21,600.67. The priest in question was accused years earlier of abusing another child in an unrelated case and had been barred by the church from presenting himself publicly as a priest. Based on the accusations, the church pursued proceedings with the Vatican to defrock the priest, or to permanently remove him from the “clerical state.” According to the archdiocese, the priest voluntarily requested laicization, or his permanent removal, before the Vatican heard his case. He was permanently removed in 2006. The accusations against the priest were reported years after the accusers said the abuse occurred. No criminal charges were filed.
When contacted by The Enquirer, the now former priest declined an interview. In an email, the former priest said he read Vanderburgh’s account and did not “remember the situation he described and still believe it never happened.”