Praise for a Priest in Abuse Inquiry Angers His Victim

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
March 2, 2003

He is a shy but articulate high school senior, emerging from teenage awkwardness and a suicidal depression he is certain was brought on by 18 months of sexual molestation by a Long Island priest. He remained silent while his abuser, the Rev. Michael Hands, was publicly identified and prosecuted.

But now he says he is angry and wants to speak out. That, he says, is because Father Hands later attributed his actions to his own abuse by a priest years ago, and was praised for giving important evidence to a grand jury investigating abuse in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

"I felt that as a perpetrator in this situation he was being treated more like a victim than I was," the young man, who at 17 is still a minor, said in an interview on Thursday. "I just felt my whole situation has been minimized."

[Photo caption: A victim, 17, at his lawyer's Midtown office, objects to praise for his abuser, who cooperated with prosecutors. Photo by Nicole Bengiveno.)

The grand jury's report, which was released on Feb. 10, discusses the Hands case at great length, as well as the diocese's attempts to deal with Father Hands's own accusation that he had been abused as a seminary student. The report said that the only reason the priest's own abuser was removed from the ministry was that Father Hands had refused to remain silent about what he had suffered. In comments to reporters last month, the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, cited Father Hands's cooperation.

On Friday, Father Hands's lawyer, Peter Rubin, said that had it not been for the priest's cooperation with the grand jury, "there probably wouldn't have been an investigation that was fruitful."

As for the young man's concerns about the favorable publicity that Father Hands has gotten, Mr. Rubin said, "The victim has every right to complain, but the victim also has acquiesced and consented" to a plea agreement with prosecutors. That agreement is expected to result in the priest's serving a two-year sentence in a county jail.

The young man acknowledged that. Nevertheless, he said: "I feel my story hasn't been told at all. It just seems like there is an unfair spotlight on him going through so much, that he was victimized."

One purpose in talking publicly, he said, is to warn others about Father Hands's predatory nature. "That was my No. 1 goal throughout the whole thing, to protect as many people as I can," he said.

The tale of his abuse, which took place in several Long Island parishes from August 1999 to early 2001, is similar to the accounts that have emerged nationwide in the last year. But it stands apart in several ways, too. Most of the newly reported abuse cases had occurred years, if not decades, earlier, and few abusers have offered as much cooperation to law enforcement.

The case is also a vivid reminder of how all parties in the scandal -- victims, guilty priests, innocent priests, bishops -- are, in a sense, vying for sympathy, or at least for what they consider a fair hearing.

The young man's decision to speak out also reflects the powerful need of victims to raise their voices in an effort to preserve their dignity, even about events that are tightly moored to silence because of shame and embarrassment.

In this case, the young man is a college-bound member of the National Honor Society, an A student at a Catholic school on Long Island, an artist and a member of the school's tennis team. Though he is 17, he looks about 13, his age when the abuse began. He wore a striped tie, a white button-down shirt and gray pants -- his school uniform -- during the interview at the Midtown office of his lawyer, Michael G. Dowd.

He described his suffering: a suicide attempt last May, self-inflicted cuts on his arms, paralyzing depression, a succession of medications, misplaced guilt. "My life has been a complete hell," he said, adding that he plans to sue the diocese, Father Hands and church officials.

Father Hands, 36, has requested permanent removal from the priesthood and will soon be behind bars. In agreements with prosecutors in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, he pleaded guilty to sodomy and endangerment charges and faces sentencing in Suffolk on Tuesday. The young man said the priest had sex with him an average of once a week.

The teenager's family has promised not to oppose the agreement, partly to avoid the trauma of a trial, but also because Father Hands let Mr. Dowd question him under oath about the diocese's workings. The teenager was especially angry about the priest's claim that he was not the pursuer, but the pursued.

The victim denied that, adding: "If I had tied him up in chains and pulled his clothes off, it wouldn't have made a difference. I was 13, in the eighth grade and confused about my sexuality. He just took advantage."

Father Hands also sent an Internet message to a friend of the victim's brother, saying he wanted to tell his side of the story, the young man said. "Never, never an instant of remorse, no apologies," he said. "He still just doesn't get it."

The young man said he was also disturbed by an article in Newsday last month, in which Mr. Rubin is quoted as saying that Father Hands sometimes does not think his behavior was "wrong."

Because of the Internet message, and because he subscribed to pornographic Web sites after he had admitted wrongdoing, Father Hands was ultimately denied the six-month sentence that had been part of the original plea agreement. Mr. Spota withheld his recommendation for the shorter sentence.

Equally troubling to the young man is the notion that Father Hands's abuse by another priest while a seminarian was the root cause of the abuse that he perpetrated.

Although he was molested by Father Hands, the young man said, "at 17 years old, I'm still not attracted to 13-year-old boys."

He said, "He used that excuse to abuse me for a year and a half.



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