Ryan O'Connor: For priest abuse victims, church — and law — must change
By Ryan O'connor
October 12, 2018
|Ryan O'Connor, 47, of Verona prays in a pew at St. Paul Cathedral, Monday, Oct. 9, 2018. O'Connor, originally from Johnstown, is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. In spite of his history of abuse at the hands of two priests, O'Connor still attends Mass at St. Paul and credits his faith with helping him overcome the trauma of the abuse he endured.|
|Ryan O'Connor, 47, of Verona is shown here in a childhood photograph. O'Connor, originally from Johnstown, is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. In spite of his history of abuse at the hands of two priests, O'Connor still attends Mass at St. Paul and credits his faith with helping him overcome the trauma of the abuse he endured.|
I am a practicing Catholic, which means I attend church regularly. I accept Holy Communion. I pray with my fellow parishioners and our parish priests. In addition, my wife and I made the decision to send our two children to our local Catholic school.
I am also a survivor of child sexual abuse. When I was 10 years old, I was repeatedly molested by a priest at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Johnstown. For years, I was broken from the abuse. I turned to drugs and alcohol.
But I never gave up my faith in God. And I never gave up my faith in what my church can be — and should be. So, yes, I continue to be a Roman Catholic.
My downward spiral ended in 2005 when I met my wife. I prayed for help and for support and for someone to help me deal with these demons. I believe those prayers were answered by God in the form of my wife.
Other survivors, like me, continue to believe. This continued faith does not mean we do not want the opportunity to confront our abusers in a court of law. My faith empowers me to ensure that the priests who committed abuse — and the church that protected them — are held accountable.
My abuse, and the abuses of so many others that were detailed in grand jury reports that have been issued in Pennsylvania, go back decades. The cover-up of these abuses reaches to the Vatican and, according to Attorney General Josh Shapiro, to the papacy.
We need to change the church to ensure the faithful continue with their faith — and we need to change state law.
In 1997, I first shared my experience with the Cambria County District Attorney’s office, and was told that because of the time that passed between my abuse and when I was able to come forward, the law prevented them from doing anything to help. There was no authority to pursue a case.
I also shared my experience that same year with the monsignor at my home parish, Our Mother of Sorrows, and it was explained to me, in so many words, that “we all have our proclivities.” I was advised to go home, pray and move on.
Again, the very direct message was that nothing could be done, and perhaps more importantly, that nothing would be done. That answer cannot be acceptable. It cannot be the way things work any longer. I am one of thousands of survivors who have been denied their day in court.
Lawmakers must agree on legislation that includes all the major elements of the recommendations included in the grand jury reports.
Those recommendations include tightening the law that requires teachers, clergy, police and many other professionals to report abuse and eliminating age limits for victims of sexual abuse in childhood to file criminal complaints. The law now requires they be made by the age of 50.
Effective legislation must also include changes to our state’s statute of limitations. The fact is that the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and the Catholic Church are actively fighting against any change that would afford me the opportunity to pursue justice in state courts.
In addition, state courts have rejected repeated efforts to hold the clergy and the church accountable. The courts have ignored that the church engaged in a decades-long fraud to cover up the fact that they were placing children in harm’s way.
I have waited 40 years for this day to come, but now is the time. Harrisburg must act, and the church has got to change. Today, God willing, I will be in church, and I will offer a prayer for all survivors and their families.