Survivor's Story: Local Catholic Describes Impact of Priestly Sexual Abuse on His Life
By Mark Zimmermann
May 30, 2002
(Editor's note: The following article includes some material that is not appropriate for children.)
Walking outside of church after Sunday Mass or in other social situations, Bob Burns has heard people discussing the priestly sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. He has heard people question why people are coming forward now, to report such abuse, decades after it happened. He has heard people criticize victims as just wanting to destroy the Church, and he has heard people say that the victims are just out for money.
At times, Burns has wanted to join those conversations, to correct mistaken ideas people have expressed about victims of priestly sexual abuse. But talking about the subject, even to one's closest family members and friends, is very difficult. He knows, because he himself was abused by a Brooklyn priest in 1974. The priest, who admitted to the abuse, died four years ago.
"Anyone who comes forward is looked at as attacking the Church or as an enemy of the Church. The reality is, we just don't want it to happen again," he said in a recent interview with the Catholic Standard.
Burns and his wife Sheila live in Montgomery Village with their four surviving children. The family lost a child to miscarriage, and another child was stillborn. Burns, a graduate of the Naval Academy, is now 42 and works as an engineer. He and his family attend St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood.
In the summer of 1974, Burns was 14. A trusted friend of his family, Father Thomas O'Rourke, offered to drive him to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, knowing of the youth's interest in attending the academy. That evening, the priest checked into a Chevy Chase Hotel, while the teen waited in the car. The hotel room only had one bed.
"I was 14, very young and fairly naive," Burns said.
During the night, Burns said the priest fondled him.
"I literally froze into a catatonic state," he said. After the abuse happened, Burns said he "didn't know what to do." He was in a new town, hundreds of miles from his family's Long Island home. A priest who over the years performed baptisms and weddings for his family and joined them for dinners and on vacations, had attacked him in the night.
"I went into the bathroom for awhile and thought about running away. Where was I going to go?" he recalled. He said he felt almost physically ill. The priest never mentioned the incident the next morning. "I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen next," Burns remembered. The priest then drove the youth back to where the family was vacationing in New Jersey. On the second night alone with the priest, the youth barricaded the door of his guest bedroom with furniture. "That's how I slept that night," he said.
When Burns was reunited with his family, he found himself unable to tell them what had happened. "It was so confusing, so devastating... the only way to survive it, was to bury it, not forget it. I buried it very deeply," he said. "The impact in terms of loss of trust, betrayal, the damage done to my own sense of self and (my) relationships with other people was devastating. You've got to put up a lot of walls. You don't let people near you."
Burns grew up in a middle-class family, a traditional Catholic family with five children that often had priests and sisters as dinner guests. He and his brothers and sisters attended Catholic elementary and high schools. He described Father O'Rourke as "the young priest that befriended families," and he has since come to believe that the priest targeted him for abuse. The priest once took him ice-skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City, and was alone with him on other occasions prior to the abuse. The Burns family had vacationed at the priest's beach house on the south Jersey shore.
He graduated from the academy, where he said he had trouble dealing with some of the stresses he faced, which he traces to the abuse. Still unable to tell his family what happened, Burns did tell his parents not to invite Father O'Rourke to his graduation party, or he would not come.
"I've had nightmares about this for 30 years," he said, noting that he has battled feelings of depression and anger. The abuse "definitely damaged my belief in the Church," Burns said, adding the betrayal he experienced has tarnished his attitude toward priests and other authority figures. He said he has a hard time accepting it when people say it was God's will that certain things happen in life. "It took away that sense of solace someone might get when praying to God for guidance, help or intervention of some kind," he said.
Burns finally had the courage to warn his family about Father O'Rourke after learning he was serving as a visiting priest at "my brother's parish, and he had a young son." But he said, " I couldn't come out and give them the full story," and he believes his family didn't understand what he was trying to say at that point.
In 1992, with the loving support of his wife, Burns contacted Church officials about his case, after hearing media accounts about James Porter, a former Massachusetts priest accused of being a serial abuser. An official from the Archdiocese of Washington wrote to him expressing "sorrow and empathy for the terrible experience that you described," and offered pastoral support. Cardinal John O'Connor of New York wrote him back saying "the suffering you describe is unutterable. Because of the serious nature of the situation you describe, it is indeed imperative that it be immediately addressed, even after all these years."
Burns was referred to the Diocese of Brooklyn, where Father O'Rourke served. That diocese paid for some counseling for Burns. The priest, who had been serving as pastor of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in the Carroll Garden section of Brooklyn, underwent evaluation. Msgr. Otto Garcia, Brooklyn's chancellor, told Burns that the priest admitted committing the abuse, but he said it was a one-time incident.
Msgr. Garcia, now Brooklyn's vicar general, said in a telephone interview last Friday that the priest did admit to the abuse. "It was very troubling for him. He recognized the effect it had on someone who trusted him," he said. The evaluation then recommended that the priest be returned to ministry, and he was.
"It was the first allegation against him. We had nothing else," Msgr. Garcia said. "If we had gotten another allegation, other actions would be taken." Now the Diocese of Brooklyn reports all such allegations to the local district attorney's office. In mid-April, it gave prosecutors reports on 36 priests whose personnel records showed an allegation of abuse of a minor within the past two decades.
Msgr. Garcia said it is "absolutely horrible" to hear of priests abusing their position of trust in such a way, and he praised victims for having the courage and strength to come forward.
Burns said that after recent media coverage of the Church scandal, he called the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, and an official with the Special Victims Bureau there told him that two other alleged victims of Father O'Rourke had recently contacted them. The abuse reportedly occurred in the 1960s. Officials at that bureau did not return phone calls to the Standard about Father O'Rourke.
Now Burns believes the priest was a serial abuser, a predator who chose his targets. In 1993, he wrote to Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily, opposing the diocese's decision to return the priest to ministry.
Now, he said, he is very angry, that Father O'Rourke apparently lied about the abuse being a one-time event, and angry that diocesan officials believed him.
"I didn't understand how someone who could do that, could go back as a priest... He could have gone to prison," Burns said.
He said that just as a psychiatrist who sleeps with patients should lose his license, and a police officer who steals should lose his job, a priest who abuses minors should not be returned to priestly ministry. "I do hold the Church and priests to a higher standard," he said.
The priest suffered a heart attack while driving a car and died in 1998 at the age of 60.
For Burns, the wounds of abuse suffered almost three decades ago remain with him, every day. "It never goes away. It does color most of who and what you are at times," he said. "This is not a surgical scar that heals - this is a lifelong wound."
Speaking of how abuse can destroy someone's childhood, he says, "You're taking someone at one of the most formative stages of life, (when they are) not able to deal with it, or (during) puberty when so many things are confused, and you're ripping them to shreds."
Like others who have been sexually abused, he said he prefers to be called a survivor, not a victim. "When you make the transition from the person that has a wound inflicted, to a person trying to heal, you shift from victim to survivor. When you start to fight back, you become a survivor. That's how I would define myself today. I am a survivor."
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