JERSEY CITY (NJ)
NorthJersey.com [Woodland Park NJ]
April 26, 2021
By Deena Yellin
[Photo above: Keith Rennar Brennan speaks about the abuse he endured at St. Paul The Apostle Roman Catholic Church, in Jersey City, and what he has done to try to help other survivors. Monday, April 19, 2021. — Kevin R. Wexler, NorthJersey.com]
At first, Keith Rennar Brennan felt flattered by the attention lavished on him by the director of his church choral group.
“After only a few weeks of being in the group, he started calling me every night and we’d meet every week,” Brennan said of the music director at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City, where he grew up.
But starting at age 14, the yearlong friendship evolved into sexual abuse. It took Brennan a year to summon the courage to report the situation to a church deacon. Instead of offering help, the cleric plied him with drugs and alcohol and also assaulted him, said Brennan, who later reached a $125,000 legal settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.
The Hudson County man, now 59, would be more than just an abuse survivor, however. He was one of several witnesses whose testimony helped convince the state to reopen its statue of limitations for sex crimes, opening the door to hundreds of lawsuits in recent months.
Now’s he’s among a group of survivors featured in a new Discovery+ channel documentary, “Groomed,” that focuses on the manipulative techniques used by predators to gain the trust of victims.
“It was very liberating for me,” Brennan said of participating in the film. “It’s always been my intention to help both men and women see that healing from sexual assault and abuse is possible, and that finding their voice begins their own healing journey.”
The Newark Archdiocese declined to comment about his case specifically but said in a statement that it “remains fully committed to transparency and to our long-standing programs to protect the faithful” and to “bring closure to victims.”
The documentary, which debuted last month, focuses primarily on the story of filmmaker Gwen van de Pas, a San Francisco business consultant who says she was 11 when her swim team instructor began abusing her. Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.
About one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point in their youth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the documentary, one in 10 people have been victims of sexual assault and over 80% of these victims knew their attacker. In almost all of these cases, the attacker uses a method called “grooming,” where the aggressor intentionally builds an emotional connection to gain the trust of a victim.
In the case of van de Pas, her abuser wrote affectionate letters and lavished her with gifts and attention. She enjoyed it all, she admits in the film. Although there were times when he frightened her, she didn’t realize that what he was doing to her in the shower after swim practice constituted child sexual abuse. Later, she would question whether she was to blame.
“He would give me cards and gifts and letters and say, `Gosh, I know you are 11 but you are actually 18 in the way that you behave,’ ” van de Pas recalls in the movie. “After learning about grooming, I was really angry. Why had I never heard of this before? Why don’t we all know about this?”
For years, she would suffer anorexia, nightmares and panic attacks.
The movie follows van de Pas as she returns to her hometown in Holland to confront her pain and seek justice. The director says she told her parents about the relationship as it was happening. In an emotional scene, her father tearfully explains that he never alerted the police because he feared for her emotional well-being.
The 84-minute documentary also shares intimate interviews with others who have experienced child sexual abuse, including Brennan.
“The depth of the grooming was incredible,” Brennan said of his abusers. One of them “bought me plane tickets.” Having a priest visit his devout Irish Catholic family at home “was like having Jesus Christ visit us,” he said. “My family went to confession. He knew what all of our sins were.”
Brennan suffered years of panic attacks, depression and an eating disorder after his mistreatment. “You think you’re the only one,” he said in an interview last week.
In an eerie scene, the pedophile van de Pas interviews explains that abusersintentionally search out the most vulnerable. “You have to pick the right child: Who do I think I can train?”
Van de Pas says she was bullied in school and felt insecure about her appearance. Brennan felt vulnerable because his parents were always fighting.
Van de Pas is able to come to grips with what happened when she realizes it wasn’t her fault, that her abuser was not just an innocent who fell “in love with an 11-year-old,” but a pedophile who would do this to others. She eventually gathers the courage to report her abuser to the police. The case is still pending.
Brennan, now happily married and a luxury fashion designer in North Jersey, has tried to turn his pain into something positive.
In 2011, he produced his own documentary, “Of God and Gucci,” exploring the impact of his sexual abuse. It premiered at the Golden Door International Film Festival in Jersey City, and he’s now writing a memoir about his experiences as a survivor of abuse.
He also provided powerful testimony in 2010 and 2018 before the New Jersey state Senate Judiciary Committee about the need to extend the state statute of limitations on lawsuits for child sexual abuse. The change took effect in December 2019, allowing people to sue up until age 55 or within seven years of when they realize their abuse caused them harm.
Previously, abuse survivors had only two years to pursue litigation and a victim of child sexual abuse had only until age 20. More than 350 suits have been filed against the Catholic Church alone since the change.
Brennan’s alleged abusers, musical director Keith Pecklers and cleric Thomas Stanford, have both been named by the church as “credibly accused.”
Pecklers became a priest and Jesuit scholar and a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He has been a frequent commentator on Vatican affairs for various media outlets. His name was on a list released in 2019 by the Northeast Province of Jesuits of priests who were credibly accused of abusing minors.
He remains in ministry because the incident occurred while Pecklers was a minor, a Jesuit spokesman told ABC News in a 2019 report. Pecklers is not allowed access to minors, the spokesman said.
Stanford was ordained in 1979 and has served in multiple assignments including in Little Ferry, Oakland and Ho-Ho-Kus, according to a list published by the Newark Archdiocese of credibly accused clerics. Stanford has been accused by multiple victims and was permanently removed from the ministry, according to the report.
Neither man responded to calls or emails seeking comment.
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.