Compensating a Broken Spirit

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star
July 17, 2007

I still remember meeting clergy abuse victim Jim O'Brien two years ago, before he received any settlement money for the sexual abuse he endured while a shy high school student in Marana during the 1980s.

Like other victims of Catholic clergy abuse, O'Brien had private, tortuous personal struggles throughout much of his life. He'd admired and loved the priest he said would later abuse him.

So much did he revere the Rev. Kevin Barmasse that the first year they met, O'Brien dressed as a priest for Halloween. O'Brien said less than a year later, Barmasse sexually molested him during private prayers.

I was on my way home from vacation yesterday when I learned about the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' $660 million settlement with victims of clergy abuse — a record amount that includes $7.5 million to five men who were once Tucson area altar boys. Jim O'Brien is among those men.

O'Brien and the others will receive $1.5 million apiece, an amount that will be in addition to nearly $500,000 they already received from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

The reason is the sexual abuse they say they were subjected to by Barmasse, a priest who was in his 20s when he led youth groups at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on the Northwest Side and at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Sierra Vista.

So when I heard the news of the Los Angeles settlement via an airport television, I immediately also heard comments from fellow travelers about how much money the victims are getting and how some of them were "cashing in" or "hitting the jackpot."

But the victims are not merely names and numbers. It's difficult to really understand what they went through I certainly don't.

What appears to be true is that the victims' spirits were broken by someone to whom they gave complete trust — a gift that many of them will never give again.

Ask any of the attorneys who represent victims of clergy abuse and they will tell you that their clients suffer depression, substance abuse problems, and can't trust authority figures.

Some attempt suicide. Others wind up in prison.

O'Brien, who is now 38, told me that while he was growing up his family was "hard-core Catholic."

"My parents were divorcing at the time," O'Brien said, recalling high school. "Father Kevin and I started hanging out. He was fun. He gave me friendship cards, mementos."

Barmasse took O'Brien to Phoenix to see Pope John Paul II in 1986. When O'Brien was having trouble studying for confirmation, Barmasse took him to a hotel for a "retreat."

"I was a geek. I was nothing throughout high school. So it was nice having an older person think I was cool," O'Brien said.

O'Brien recalls private prayer sessions with Barmasse that eventually escalated to molestations.

After graduating in 1987, O'Brien began drinking a lot. He was charged with driving under the influence and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He went through a string of failed relationships.

"I don't know if it's me or something I do, so, maybe it's the trust factor, but I don't really know," he told me.


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