Former Altar Boy Describes Years of Abuse, Then Years of Silence

By Richard Lezin Jones
New York Times
March 17, 2002

Mendham, N.J. - He has reclaimed his name, at least. Trust. Peace of mind. Those may come later. But Mr. Serrano, who was paid in a 1987 court settlement by the local suburban diocese to live in silence and anonymity, believes that now - especially now - he can no longer do either.

Not when each day seems to bring a new revelation about sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests. Not when the stories of so many others chillingly echo his own or when there is a chance that children are still being victimized today.

Mark Vincent Serrano, 37, says a priest in Mendham, N.J., molested him from 1974 to 1981. A court settlement kept him silent for years.

"These people, they've been able to survive through secrecy," Mr. Serrano, 37, said. "The truth is so important and secrecy is so damaging. Not just for the people who have experienced abuse, but everyone needs to see this horrific truth for what it truly is."

What it has been for Mr. Serrano is more than two decades of healing that included, first, coming to grips with his abuse, and progressing to counseling sessions, sorting through repressed memories that sometimes bubbled up as flashbacks and, now, speaking out.

While a young parishioner and altar boy at the Church of St. Joseph's here, Mr. Serrano said, he was sexually abused by its pastor at the time, the Rev. James T. Hanley. The molestation - a sad litany that Mr. Serrano said included groping, sodomy, oral sex and forced masturbation - lasted from 1974 to 1981, from the time he was 9 until he was 16.

"It was a ritual," Mr. Serrano said recently. "It was serial molestation, it was ongoing and it was long term."

In 1985, more than a decade after the abuse began, Mr. Serrano said, he disclosed it to officials of the Diocese of Paterson in a series of meetings and letters. A spokeswoman for the diocese, Marianna Thompson, said that Mr. Hanley was removed as a priest in 1986, "once the diocese had a reasonable standard of information" about the allegations, but that law enforcement authorities were not notified.

Since Mr. Serrano came forward, a measure has been enacted in New Jersey that requires church officials to inform law enforcement authorities of any reports of sexual abuse of a minor. Had that law been in effect earlier, Ms. Thompson said, church officials would have handled the case differently.

In the early 1990's, the Morris County prosecutor's office investigated Mr. Hanley, who is now 64, but decided not to pursue a case against him because the statute of limitations had expired.

The allegations were made public in 1995 when one of Mr. Hanley's successors, a maverick priest who broke with widely accepted church thinking, informed the parish congregation of the allegations.

Mr. Hanley, as he has since the allegations were made public, did not respond to requests for comment. No one answered the door at his northern New Jersey apartment, and Mr. Hanley, who has an unlisted phone number, did not respond to a hand- delivered letter.

Nearly a decade before the accusations against Mr. Hanley were made public, Mr. Serrano and his family sued the diocese and quietly settled out of court for more than $241,000.

As part of the settlement, Mr. Serrano and his family agreed not to discuss their case. But now, with the church under increased scrutiny nationwide for its handling of pedophilia accusations against priests, Mr. Serrano has chosen to come forward.

"The biggest barrier to break is continued secrecy," he said.

However, if recent events are any indication, at least some of those barriers are beginning to fall. Like Mr. Serrano, other victims of abuse across the country are making their own cases public. Often, they, too, are breaking confidentiality agreements, knowing that in the current climate they stand little chance of legal action for doing so.

The re-examination of church policies has been prompted in large part by disclosures in previously sealed court documents that church officials in Boston knowingly allowed a sexually abusive priest to continue religious work, and he molested other children.

That priest, John J. Geoghan, was convicted in January of molesting a 10-year-old boy. Last Monday, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay up to $30 million to 86 victims of Mr. Geoghan, who faces a second trial on additional criminal charges. In addition, an estimated $15 million had been paid to settle previous suits against Mr. Geoghan, The Boston Globe reported.

The developments in Boston have rippled across the nation and prompted a measure of soul-searching among dioceses, anguish among the devout and relief among those victims who feel they have suffered silently for far too long.

"This day was bound to come," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, based in Chicago. "What did Martin Luther King say? No lie lives forever."

Mr. Clohessy said that the events of recent weeks have focused attention on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy as few others have and have moved many victims to action.

"I'm seeing two things: desperation and hope," Mr. Clohessy said. "It's hard when you're a survivor to tell your parents, harder still to tell church leadership, and it's not any easier to tell it on the second, third or fourth times.

"So survivors are very reluctant to come forward unless they can potentially save some other kid," he said. "Now they're seeing what the secular authorities are doing about it. Now they're saying, 'Maybe it's worth the chance of more pain.' "

Often, though, legal experts say, victims cannot file criminal charges because statutes of limitations, which vary from state to state, have expired by the time victims are able or willing to discuss what occurred.

"That's the travesty," said Stephen C. Rubino, a lawyer from Margate City, N.J., who has represented victims in more than 300 cases of sexual abuse in about 50 dioceses.

Over the past week and a half, Mr. Rubino said, he has kept a tally of those who have telephoned his office. "Two hundred callers," he said. "And not a single one under statute."

"I'm being crushed," he said of the volume of calls. "It has broken down psychological barriers, decadeslong shells in people who now say, 'I'm going to talk about this.' "

One of them is Mark Vincent Serrano.

The fifth of seven children of a family of Catholics, the young Mr. Serrano, like most in his family, was deeply involved in activities at St. Joseph's in Mendham, west of Morristown in northern New Jersey. His father, Louis, a retired New York City police officer, was a longtime church lector, and his mother, Patricia, helped direct women's groups in the parish. Mark Serrano, like his siblings, was an altar boy.

Because the family was so active, it was not uncommon for priests like Mr. Hanley - or Father Jim, as he was then known - to interact a great deal with them. Among the faithful it was something of an honor for a priest to, for example, join a family for dinner or take children on field trips. Trust was not an issue.

So when Mr. Hanley began inviting the boy to the church rectory after school when he was 9, no one thought anything of it.

"As far as I was concerned," Mr. Serrano said, "I was hanging out with my buddy Jim."

In hindsight, Mr. Serrano said, he understands that hanging out was only a precursor to something more.

"He was grooming me," he said. "He had been grooming me from an early age."

It began with things like pizza parties. Soon, Mr. Serrano said, Mr. Hanley began letting him glance at pornographic magazines. Then, the two of them watched X-rated movies in an upstairs office in the rectory. Eventually, Mr. Serrano said, the priest began touching him.

"That's how these things work," Mr. Rubino said. "Most of the offenses are slow, tentative, and graduate into more serious, serious, serious conduct."

From there, as often as several times a week for the next seven years, the abuse raged, Mr. Serrano said. It left him with an assortment of horrific recollections that Mr. Serrano acknowledged he was still trying to cope with.

"I can remember the first time he exposed himself to me." he said.

"I remember an early time when he was introducing me to French kissing and the pungent, horrible taste that accompanied it."

Still another recollection: "He had these vibrators. I remember having that terrible feeling in my chest, when the adrenaline is rushing and your hair stands on end."

"It's this horrible dichotomy," Mr. Serrano said. "This man is telling you, 'It's good, it's O.K., it's our secret.' And as you go though this, there are these new sensations, and the context in which you're feeling them are bizarre."

Today, Mr. Serrano's parents regret that they did not see what was happening earlier. "It tore a hole out of my heart," Patricia Serrano said between sobs the other day. "There were some things that, unfortunately, we missed."

She has made it her mission to make sure other parents do not. She has sponsored speakers on the subject at St. Joseph's, where she and her husband, Louis, are still involved members, and she has organized seminars intended to raise awareness of the issue. "I pray to God that I can do the right thing next time," she said.

Louis Serrano is dealing with it in his own way. A little while back, he said, he knocked on the door of a nondescript apartment. Mr. Hanley opened the door. "Hey, Jim," he said. "I just want to let you know that I still know where you live."

He said the former priest simply stood there looking dumbstruck.

And Mark Vincent Serrano, who now lives and works in Leesburg, Va., continues with what he describes as a lifelong healing process. He realizes that he is luckier than some victims of sexual abuse. He is married with three children, and he and his wife, Stacy, are expecting a fourth. He is also the president of ProActive Communications, a public relations and governmental affairs consulting firm.

Yet he still grapples with the issues from his abuse and is still sorting through his feelings about the church. And he is determined to spread his message.

"I was talking to someone I know who's Catholic - I mean, a dyed-in- the-wool, beat-your-chest Catholic," he said. "I asked him what he thought about what was happening in Boston. He said, 'Isolated incident.' Then I told him about my situation.

"When I finished, I got up to leave. He took my hand. Said he was sorry," Mr. Serrano recalled. "I said, 'Don't be sorry. Just be aware. Just be aware.' "


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