Priest Targeted Rockland Boy's Need for Affection

By Noreen O’Donnell
Journal News
April 19, 2002

He was a teen-ager caught in the turbulence of adolescence when he was introduced to the Rev. Joseph L. Theisen.

The 15-year-old had lots of friends, he would later tell a psychiatrist, played lots of sports and performed well enough in school. But his family was not close, he said, nor were they openly affectionate.

"I don't think we did as much together as other families," he said.

The groping began within months, according to the psychiatrist's report, whenever Theisen, then pastor of St. Gregory's Church in Garnerville, engaged him and his friends in wrestling matches.

A year later, in the summer of 1981, the abuse escalated. During a monthlong trip to the beach, the priest had repeated sexual encounters with the teen-ager and his friends.

In 1994, after the young man and two other males confronted the Archdiocese of New York with their complaints against Theisen, the church paid them $20,000 each to compensate them for the abuse. They were told never to speak of the agreement or the abuse.

The following account of how Theisen wove himself into the fabric of one teen-ager's life — taken from documents covering five interviews that Dr. Alan J. Tuckman, a forensic psychiatrist, conducted in 1994 as part of the settlement — provides a portrait of how an adolescent distanced from his family makes a vulnerable target for sexual abusers.

"They look for youngsters who are desperately seeking more adult attention and affection," said David Clohessy, who heads the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They tend to zero on the children who want more caring adults in their lives."

The victim, who is now in his mid-30s and whose name is being withheld by The Journal News, declined to comment beyond the legal papers obtained by the newspaper.

According to Tuckman's report, the abuse by Theisen took place regularly for about two years, even after Theisen was transferred to another parish in the Bronx. There were rare encounters after the teen-ager went to college. The young man eventually brought an end to the sexual activity, though he still admired the older man.

He sought Theisen's advice on his career and looked forward to their discussions.

"I felt he was a brilliant man with a lot of suggestions on life," he told Tuckman. "He always gave me encouragement, even if I was drinking and not doing well with a job or my life. He always had positive words for me and good feelings about me."

By the time they met in August 1980, Theisen had already known the teen-ager's family for five or six years. They were introduced by an older brother who was friendly with the priest from a softball league. That, too, is typical, Clohessy said.

"Oftentimes, these men ingratiate themselves into the entire family," he said. "They get a feel for whether the child is apt to tell, whether the parents are apt to believe."

Later, when the young man had determined to end any sexual contact with Theisen, he remained acutely aware of how close the priest was to the rest of his family. Theisen drove up from the Bronx to visit them, and the young man took to avoiding his own house when he saw the priest's car parked there.

Years after Theisen had left Rockland, the priest continued to write letters to the teen-ager and regularly spoke to his mother on the telephone.

"My mother would have felt that it was wrong of me," the young man told Tuckman, referring to any attempt he might make to rebuff the priest's friendship.

Abusers frequently try to remain close to their victims long after the abuse ends, Clohessy said. Not only does it decrease the chance that the victim will come to view what happened as abuse, but the abusers are privy to early warnings that their behavior might be revealed — often when someone decides to seek therapy.

The pattern of the young man's seduction also was familiar, said John Aretakis, a Manhattan lawyer who has handled two dozen cases involving sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Church, and who later represented the young man in a lawsuit.

"The priests have a period of time when they're grooming their victims," he said.

They work to win their victims' confidence, behaving as a trusted peer who lets them have a beer or watch a pornographic videotape. Then they begin wrestling or giving massages, Aretakis said.

"It starts out with mild stuff and goes on to sexual stuff," he said.

By the time the young man spent his month at the beach in the summer of 1981, he had been seeing the priest every week for a year, stopping by the church rectory or the religion classes that Theisen ran.

Sometimes, the priest took out a group of teen-agers, other times the young man alone.

Once at the beach, the group would talk for hours before the priest started playing games with them. Theisen would cloak the sexual intent in claims that he was teaching the young men self-control.

"He would tell you to relax and he would walk his fingers like a spider over your body, telling you that you have to trust him and seeing if you had control," the young man said.

The behavior would turn progressively sexual. At the same time, the young man said he had begun drinking every day.

"I don't know why I let him, but I did," he said. "I had mixed feelings. I didn't feel bad, but afterwards I would wonder if I was gay or what's going on."

At one point, the priest filmed the group; at another, Theisen coerced the young man to perform a sexual act by holding a lighted cigarette near another teen-ager's genitals. After the trip, any sexual activity took place in the priest's car.

The abuse came to have a devastating effect on the young man's relationships with his family, friends, and later, his girlfriend, according to Tuckman's report. Wracked with poor self-esteem, he agonized over why he allowed the abuse to occur and only much later saw the behavior as manipulative.

"He would say that he loves me, and we're such good friends," the young man said of Theisen. "It wasn't love and friendship. It was an adult priest with kids, and that makes me mad."


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