Victim's Tale of Abuse by Priest Draws Big Response:
ND Graduate Helps Others Who Also Suffered

By Margaret Fosmoe
July 4, 2004

SOUTH BEND -- John Salveson didn't know what to expect when he poured out his heart for publication.

He knew some people would be angry about his revelation of abuse by a Catholic priest, and others might not believe him.

What he received was a flood of support, thanks and revelations by others who secretly had suffered abuse years earlier and never told a soul.

"I got a lot of heart-rending letters from people who had been carrying this around for years and years," said Salveson, 48, a University of Notre Dame graduate who lives in Pennsylvania.

Salveson told his story for a Tribune article published in May 2003.

Salveson described being sexually abused starting at age 13 by a priest from his home parish in Long Island, N.Y., and his later efforts to have the priest removed from ministry.

When Salveson enrolled as an undergraduate at Notre Dame in the 1970s, the priest -- the Rev. Robert D. Huneke -- followed him and took a rector's job at the university, where the abuse continued.

"It was the worst thing I could imagine," Salveson recalled in the Tribune interview.

Salveson told his story again in a first-person piece that was published last summer in Notre Dame Magazine, the university's alumni magazine.

His article recently won a grand gold medal for best article of the year for 2004 from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. It was among 203 entries.

Because the abuse began in childhood and he was raised to revere priests, Salveson said he lived in awe and fear of Huneke. The abuse continued until, at age 20, Salveson confronted the priest and told him the abuse was over. Huneke was furious, he said, but that ended it.

Salveson later spent years trying to get the Diocese of Rockville Centre (N.Y.) to acknowledge the abuse and remove his abuser from ministry. Huneke eventually resigned from the priesthood and died in 2002.

Salveson said he received 40 or 50 e-mails in response to the magazine article. About half were from individuals who had suffered abuse or were related to an abuse victim, he said.

Some told Salveson they were moved by his story to address their own abuse, either by reporting it to church leaders or civil authorities.

One 79-year-old woman wrote that she was abused decades ago in elementary school but had never told anyone, Salveson said.

Salveson said he also heard from some of Huneke's other victims.

The article drew an unprecedented response, prompting about 75 phone calls, e-mails and letters from readers, said Kerry Temple, editor of Notre Dame Magazine.

All but about a half dozen responses were supportive of Salveson and of the magazine's decision to run the piece, he said.

"John's was one of three or four articles we did on the issue (of clergy sex abuse). His story put a human face on the issue. I think that's why it made the impact it did," Temple said.

Salveson said he didn't receive any negative letters, although a few notes to the magazine suggested that -- as a young adult -- Salveson should have taken responsibility sooner to end the priest's abuse.

Salveson said he encouraged people who told him they were victims of sexual abuse at Notre Dame to contact Carol Mooney. Mooney, until recently a Notre Dame vice president and associate provost, was chairwoman of a university committee appointed to meet with victims of sexual abuse on campus or people who raised issues of past abuse.

Mooney recently left Notre Dame to become president of Saint Mary's College.

Describing her as "extremely responsive," Salveson praised Mooney and her efforts to help victims. "Everybody I sent there who went to see her said they were

really glad they went," he said.

Salveson first went public with his story in 1989. Frustrated by the diocese's refusal to remove Huneke from the ministry, Salveson, his father and two brothers stood on the sidewalk outside the church where the priest was then serving as pastor and passed out letters to parishioners describing Huneke's history of abuse.

Their public protest drew some media attention, and the diocese then removed Huneke from parish work.

The public attention didn't last long. Within a day or two, the story disappeared.

People in those days were still largely in denial about the extent of the problem of abuse by clergy, as were the media, Salveson said.

Last year's magazine article reverberated in Salveson's childhood parish of St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

In the article, Salveson recounted meeting with Monsignor John Alesandro, then chancellor of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, several weeks after he distributed the letters to parishioners about Huneke's history of abuse.

The monsignor berated him for his actions, Salveson wrote.

Ironically, Alesandro a few years ago was shifted to a role as parish priest at St. Dominic.

When a St. Dominic parish member read in Salveson's magazine article about Alesandro's role in the Huneke matter, the article made the rounds of parish members. A group of parishioners is demanding that Alesandro be removed from the parish, but the bishop thus far has refused, Salveson said.

Salveson spoke to 450 parish members at a meeting in Long Island in April.

Most of those who attended are mainstream, committed Catholics in their 30s and 40s, he said. "It was amazing the anger and the resolve in the crowd," he said.

Salveson is part of a pending lawsuit of at least 25 men seeking $300 million in damages for alleged sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

At times, it was depressing to deal with the volume of the letters the magazine article generated, Salveson said, but he was gratified that many who wrote are seeking help or taking action.

Mostly Salveson is glad he went public, although he finds it trying at times.

"You pay a price in terms of emotional energy. It keeps it all very fresh, and it becomes a central part of your life," said Salveson, who is volunteer director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national support group.

The issue of abuse by clergy doesn't dominate Salveson's life, but it never quite goes away.

He lives in suburban Philadelphia, where for more than two years a grand jury has been investigating how the archdiocese responded to allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy.

Salveson said the Catholic Church still isn't acknowledging the extent or depth of the problem of sexual abuse by priests. He believes the church is trying to shift attention to other issues, such as whether communion should be withheld for Catholics who support abortion.

"If you want to know how the church feels about the crisis, just look at the pope's appointment of Bishop (Bernard) Law," Salveson said, referring to Pope John Paul II's recent decision to appoint the disgraced former Boston bishop to a highly visible post in Rome.

"Those who are supposed to protect kids from rape didn't do it," he said.

For Salveson and other advocates, some of their attention is now shifting to civil institutions that could help.

"It's still against the law to rape kids. We are focusing on getting more grand juries (formed)," he said.

Salveson draws a comparison between victims of priest sex abuse and prisoners who were abused by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In the case of Iraq, one American already was convicted and sentenced to prison, and several others face charges under military court-martial. There is talk of reparations for the victims, Salveson noted.

Meanwhile, cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have been exposed dating back as far as 50 years, he said. "And there's never been a government hearing or a bishop indicted (for that abuse)," he said.

"When you are treated like you are above the law," Salveson said, "then you act like you are above the law."