Man abused by cleric as a child launches health program to turn ‘pain into power’

The Guardian [London, England]

June 9, 2023

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Mac McCall’s molestation case led to conviction of Catholic cleric and now he hopes to help children, the elderly and those recovering from substance abuse

After pressing a criminal case which led to the conviction of a Catholic cleric who admitted molesting him as a child, the son of an influential Louisiana politician is trying to convert his “pain into power” by building a physical and mental health fitness program for schoolchildren, the elderly and people recovering from substance abuse.

Mac McCall – whose father, John Young, once ran for lieutenant governor of Louisiana – recently publicly identified himself as the victim of the late Virgil Maxey “VM” Wheeler III, in one of the most contentious cases involving a decades-old clerical molestation scandal in his home town’s archdiocese.

A prominent attorney, Wheeler was friends with McCall’s father – once president of Jefferson parish, with more than 440,000 residents – and his mother, Mary Lou McCall, a local TV journalist.

Wheeler was ordained as a deacon in 2018. In 2020, Mac told authorities Wheeler sexually abused him between 2000 and 2002, when McCall was aged 10 to 12. The politically heated case generated allegations that prominent New Orleans Catholics tried to pay off and pressure McCall and his family to drop the matter. Last year, it culminated in Wheeler pleading guilty to four state charges of indecent behavior with a juvenile.

Wheeler, 64, agreed to serve five years of probation, avoid contact with McCall and register as a sex offender for 15 years. In April, he died of pancreatic cancer.

McCall chose to publicly reveal his identity and outline how Wheeler’s abuse led him to develop drug addiction and struggle in relationships with friends, family and women. Deciding to come forward to authorities after learning Wheeler had become a deacon has been healing, he said.

“For 20 years of my life, I was locked in my own mental prison,” McCall said on the day Wheeler pleaded guilty. Now, though, “I am very grateful for this journey – because it has given me the strength I need to change the world.”

McCall has launched a non-profit, Lion Heart Community, and an affiliate Lion Cubs program, he recently told the Guardian. The foundation and program offer help to senior citizens, children, people recovering from substance addiction and the unhoused, designing workout plans, building healthy diets and managing emotions through guided meditation, breathing exercises and positive affirmations.

McCall built the foundation and program as an offshoot from a gym he started, named Fighting Spirit. McCall told the Guardian he had shown his “Full Spectrum Health System” to gym clients and a local Catholic school whose students he described as underprivileged. He also outlined plans to introduce the curriculum to four more schools for the 2023-24 academic year, which would involve him taking over physical education classes twice a week for 12 weeks.

McCall said he was developing a workbook and a cellphone app to keep children engaged. He also said he had raised funds but planned to pursue corporate sponsors and investors.

“I want to share with the world that anybody who’s been through any type of trauma can get through that trauma,” McCall said. “They can turn that pain into power, no matter how big or how small your trauma was.”

His dream was not only to reduce obesity and the mental health problems which plague people around the country, but also to “redesign the entire physical education system in America”.

McCall’s decision to reveal his identity is likely to set off shock waves among the political and pious in a region with about half a million Catholics. His father was a Jefferson parish prosecutor from 1997 to 2004, sat on the elected council until 2010 then was president until 2016. He has been out of office since his run for lieutenant governor ended in defeat.

After her career in journalism, Mary Lou McCall worked with the late New Orleans archbishop Philip Hannan to produce faith-based documentaries and shows. Mac McCall said public speaking skills inherited from his mother and father helped him win a school competition by recreating a coach’s impassioned half-time speech.

“I always gravitated toward this, even since I was a kid,” he said, adding that he thinks of that competition when pitching Lion Heart and Lion Cubs, all while pursuing a career in acting, directing and screenwriting.

One of the films that McCall eventually hopes to make would be about the late New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, whose attorney at one point was Wheeler’s father.

A civil lawsuit filed by McCall against Wheeler said Mary Lou McCall tried to report to archdiocesan leaders that Wheeler tried to coax her son and another boy into his bed on a ski trip. John Young accompanied his son to a 2020 meeting with the archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, in which McCall fully described what Wheeler had done. Aymond removed Wheeler from the ministry. Prosecutors later charged him.

The New Orleans archdiocese has declined to add Wheeler to a list of more than 70 priests and deacons who have worked or were ordained locally and have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults.

The release of that list in 2018, which Aymond said was an act of transparency and contrition, led to a wave of lawsuits against the archdiocese. It later filed for bankruptcy protection, which remains pending.

On the day Wheeler pleaded guilty, McCall said he had forgiven his abuser but not forgotten what he did. Hours later, Wheeler backed out of a seven-figure settlement to which he verbally agreed with McCall.

A will prepared by Wheeler aimed to donate much of his money to institutions including the church. A university and a local hospital network identified as beneficiaries told the Guardian they had no intention of accepting any gifts from Wheeler.

Both a priest and a worshipper at the church where Wheeler was assigned before his removal as a deacon also resigned from roles managing the late cleric’s estate after the Guardian reported on the intended donations. A local real estate developer is now the executor of Wheeler’s estate.

McCall’s ability to successfully try or settle the suit – now being handled by attorneys for Wheeler’s estate – appears to hinge on whether Louisiana’s state supreme court upholds the constitutionality of a 2021 law. That law eliminated filing deadlines for child sexual abuse victims to pursue damages in civil court.

At the time Louisiana’s government enacted that law, the only entity which expressed opposition to it was the state’s Catholic bishops conference.

McCall told the Guardian that he was confident the state supreme court “will make the right decision … for all survivors and all people”.

McCall added it would be impossible for him not to suspect corruption in favor of the church if the law is struck down.

“This is more than just a political issue,” McCall said. “This is a human issue.”

In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International