Memories Worse Than Nightmares

By Brett Larson
Milles Lacs Messenger
March 19, 2009 nightmares&catid=34:current-news&Itemid=76

For Jeff Athman, recovery from sexual abuse has taken decades

When Jeff Athman was in his early 40s, he began a downward spiral that cost him his job and nearly his family. A darkness previously unimaginable overtook him.

He woke up crying, shaking, his mind full of gruesome images. During the day, he was obsessed.

"I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't walk, I couldn't run," Athman said. "I couldn't stay awake. I couldn't be around people. It was continuous."

He'd start crying at work. He'd fall asleep on the job. At night he'd lie awake, remembering. The memories were worse than nightmares. Gruesome. Brutal. Evil.

"Abuse" is too mild a term for what he was remembering. Jeff Athman was raped. Many times, in several locations, for several years. From the time he was nine or 10 until he was 13 or 14, Jeff was abused — raped — by a Crosier brother. Here. In Onamia.

Jeff and Peggy Athman were married for over 20 years before the traumatic memories of sexual abuse began coming to the surface.
Photo by Brett Larson

The memories were so powerful that he knew he had get help. "Without doing something about it, I'd be living in a cardboard box, or I'd be dead," Athman said.

Jeff Athman, who now lives in Bloomington, came from a large Catholic family. His parents were prominent members of Holy Cross Church and the Onamia community. Like countless generations of Catholic boys, including some of his own brothers, Jeff became an altar boy.

When he was preparing for services, one of the Crosier brothers, Brother Greg, took a special interest in Jeff — making sure he looked his best, complimenting him about his appearance, helping him perform his duties correctly.

He knows now that it was all part of the abuser's pattern: He was grooming his next victim, winning him over with hugs and attention.

It was an atmosphere of love and acceptance mixed with mystery and fear. He remembers making a mistake during a service. "The priest said if it happened again, I'd get my f---ing head knocked off," Athman said.

The grooming went on for about a year, Athman recalls. Then it progressed. An innocent tour of the seminary would end in a dorm room or an attic where the touching became more intimate, more sexual.

Authorities on sexual abuse say it results in pleasure for young boys discovering their sexuality. It leads to confusion and isolation.

For Jeff, there was something good about it, something enjoyable, yet it wasn't something any of the other boys were talking about. "Oh my God," he said, suddenly animated. "There's so many kids out there who don't have a clue of the trouble their friend is in."

Jeff didn't know if it was wrong, especially since the perpetrator was associated with the church. "This was a man who made you look good and feel good, and he's working for the establishment that your parents use for the foundation of your upbringing and their lifestyle," he said. "People wonder why you don't walk away, but he made me feel good. How can it be wrong?"

The church was the center of his family's life — more important than school or work. Life revolved around daily prayers, weekly services and annual rituals like Lent and Good Friday. "I was more exposed to religion than government by a long ways," Jeff said. "The government didn't run my life. The church did."

Jeff's gruesome memories are not confined to the walls of Crosier Seminary. At some point, he recalls, he was taken to "the cabin," a Crosier-owned retreat on the east side of Mille Lacs. He remembers driving into the driveway, but he doesn't remember being there or going home. His memories of what went on are sketchy, and he's not sure he wants to open the door any wider. His therapist has told him he doesn't need to go there. Jeff will say this: "It's illegal for me to burn it down, or it would be down. It was nothing more than a horror home for little boys."

Other men who have come forward had similar stories of the cabin and a house in Minneapolis that Jeff was taken to, a place Brother Greg referred to as his mother's house. Jeff went there on a weekend trip to a Twins game. He has no memory of the game, but the memories of what went on in the house have come into focus during the last eight years.

He is hesitant to talk about the graphic details, but they emerge piecemeal in conversation. Imagine the worst things that can happen to a 10- or 12-year-old boy. That's what Jeff remembers.

Peggy stuck with Jeff through some difficult times.
Photo by Brett Larson

Climbing out

Through years of therapy, Jeff has learned that during those formative years, a boy's brain is being "hard-wired." Jeff believes his wiring was altered by the abuse.

He has also learned that sexual abuse victims come to a fork in the road: They become abusers themselves, or they become protective of the vulnerable and those around them. Jeff was one of the lucky ones.

For more than 20 years, he repressed memories of the abuse and the rapes. During his teen years, he got in fights both to protect his family and friends and to express the rage inside. "I was mad at the world, and I didn't know why," he said.

"From my mid-20s until my 40s, I self-medicated to excess," he went on. He had forgotten the abuse, but there were always signs — secret thoughts that scared him and made him ashamed. Things he wouldn't share with anyone.

His wife, Peggy, said, "He lived what looked to everyone else like a normal life." She sometimes wondered about the stories he told of his childhood — the anger, the fights — but never had an inkling of the trauma he would eventually remember.

Jeff said they were the Joneses everyone else wanted to be. But when the memories returned, he completely lost the ability to function. He eventually got fired. "That's where all the excelling gets you," he said. "It doesn't get you diddly."

It was the fall of 2000 when the downward spiral started. "There was no way I could medicate enough to keep it from hurting," he said. The pain was not just mental, but physical as well, which he's learned is a common symptom in abuse victims.

The dark period lasted two or three years, until he finally got the help he needed. He found a psychologist who specializes in helping men who have been sexually abused, and his legal case was taken up by attorney Jeff Anderson — one of the nation's leading advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Since then, it's been like a long climb out a deep hole, with many ups and downs and plateaus.

Jeff told Peggy about the abuse eight years ago and told friends and family four years ago. When the memories started coming back, he would talk to Peggy about them, unsure if they were real. As they both became convinced, they dealt with some who doubted and others who thought he should "drop it, get over it, move on," he said. He lost a friend and experienced tension with family members.

It was only recently that Jeff could look in the mirror and say the words describing what happened to him. For years, he could only answer "yes" or "no" when his therapist asked him questions. "I could do that," he said. "But to sit there and tell you the graphic details — that was 12 months ago, and I'm 51 and a half years old. It is so life-changing."

A $1.7 million settlement between the victims and the Crosiers last month has given him a sense of vindication. Seeing the order admit the crimes of its members meant a lot. The day of the press conference announcing the settlement was difficult, but when it was over, a feeling of peace came over him. "It was like I took a shower and washed all the s--- off," he said.

On a mission

No matter how bad things got, Peggy stuck with him. "I'm an optimistic person. I believe in angels, and I believe it will all be okay," she said. "When we met, I felt like I had known him my whole life. Even on the worst of days, we could always make each other laugh."

Peggy says she skipped over some of the stages of grief and went right to anger. "I'm mad at that guy for hurting my Jeffy," she said. "And I'm mad at the Catholic Church for not doing anything about it."

Jeff says he still hasn't go tten angry at the man who abused him. "If I saw him on the street, I'd call him 'Brother Greg,'" he said. "I wouldn't walk up to him and call him an asshole."

But the anger seems close to the surface. "These guys are monsters," he said. "He doesn't deserve to ever be able to smile again."

Jeff and Peggy (who was also raised Catholic) have stopped going to church, but they haven't stopped believing. They call themselves "spiritual," but they have nothing good to say about the leaders of the Catholic Church who allowed this to happen.

"When you put your money in the offering plate," Jeff said, "a percentage of that is paying for defending and harboring the rapists — to defend these guys and hide them and give them a place to live." The Catholic Church, Athman says, has spent over a billion dollars defending priests and brothers in lawsuits.

Jeff and Peggy don't like the word "closure." Jeff likens his situation to that of a soldier who has been on the front lines. He'll never get over what he's seen or done, but he's reaching the point where he can understand it and move forward into the future, helping those who are now in the heat of battle.

He describes himself as being on a mission to educate people about sexual abuse.

Jeff knows there are many other victims going through the same thing he went through. So far, 100,000 victims of clergy sexual abuse have come forward. It's estimated that only one in five tell their stories. If that's true, a half million people have been abused by clergy.

There are 39 million victims of sexual abuse in the country, he says, his voice gaining in volume and his body becoming tense. "Think if those 39 million had good childhoods," he says. "Think of what a great world we'd be living in."

Jeff Athman believes there are other men who suffered the same things he did in the Onamia area. "I bet there's 30 within 10 years either side of my age," he said. He is willing to talk to anyone who needs to tell their story. Call the Messenger for Athman's contact information.


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