A Constant Reminder

By Eric Mungenast
Trivalley Central
October 13, 2010

Eric Mungenast/Maricopa Monitor, Joseph Baca will appear on an upcoming episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show to share the horrors of his abuse at the hands of a catholic priest.

There's an idea about how certain experiences are univeral, ones that everyone, or at least large number of people, go through.

It's true to an extent, but the idea ignores the emotional differences and the little intricacies that make up an event. Rarely do two people go through an experience in the exact same manner, which makes their experiences similar only up to a certain point.

Joseph Baca's story is akin to the one for far too many people, one that has captured attention internationally in the past few years as more and more people become comfortable speaking about it.

When he was growing up in Winslow, Baca's priest abused him sexually for five years.

"Everything from masturbation to oral copulation to sodomy," he said. "It was horrible."

Next week, Baca will go on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" to talk about the abuse, how he overcame it and his efforts to try and prevent such incidents from happening again. Comprising the audience will be men who were sexually abused as a child and have a similarly awful story that has accompanied them for their entire lives.

Again, their stories are close, but not quite the same. Baca's story has an added wrinkle to it, something that makes his plight strangely unique.

"The ironic part is the priest is buried next to my mom and dad," he said.

Every time Baca visits his parents' graves, he has to see the monument to the man who put him through a seemingly endless period of torment. If this fact were part of a work of fiction, critics would deem it forced and unbelievable.

Rewind to Winslow in the 1960s to an approximately 7-year-old Baca and his parents. They are a Catholic family who attend church on Sunday and listen to the priest orate about God and the lessons imparted from the Bible.

Religious figures, like priests and rabbis and ministers, have great importance and prominence in many towns, and they tend to get to know the people who come to their services, as the priest did with the Bacas.

After two years, and after earning the trust of his parents, the priest began abusing Baca, doing things to him that no child should undergo. It lasted five years, five years of suffering at the hands of a man who allegedly spoke for God.

The word taboo does little to describe the attitude toward the topic back then, and Baca's pleas to his parents were answered with a succinct reply of "priests don't do that."

"Mom and dad lived and breathed the church," he said.

Some of that attitude, he said, was linked to a belief that priests, in a way, transcended the mortal and graced the divine. They were acting for God, and were nearly deities themselves.

He was not alone, though; he had support from friends who were abused by the priest as well, a group that is "still tight and close to each other" to this day. Baca and his friends were fortunate to have one another and to have their bond; it was unfortunate that they even needed it.

It ended when he turned 14, but the abuse led to behavior problems for Baca and his friends, including run-ins with the law. They were given a probation officer who had little pity for them after they told him about their past.

So Baca decided to start over and moved to California shortly after. As time shuffled forward and entered adulthood, the memories and feelings "went away."

They stayed dormant until 2002, when during one of a series of foster care classes, he watched a video of a 10-year-old who was molested by the stepfather, and told not to tell the mother.

For some reason, seeing the tape resurrected his buried past.

"And it just his me so hard," he said. "I started crying and I started hyperventilating. My wife thought I was having a heart attack."

The breakdown eventually led to 18-months with a "wonderful therapist" and his joining of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which reaches out to those who were abused by clergymen.

But traumatic emotional experiences are not like colds and broken arms, and a full recovery from what Baca went through is rare and often unattainable.

It does not help that the priest never received earthly punishment; he died in 1975 and left hundreds of victims, or Baca's preferred term of "survivors" in his wake.

"He got away with it," he said. "But he's answering to a higher authority now."

Return to Winslow in the present and the grave abutting where his parents rest, the one with the name of the man who spent five years committing ghastly acts against Baca.

He used the word "unnerving" to describe the visits, and he has difficulty even looking at the stone tablet adorned with the priest's name. So each visit includes a friend and family member whose responsibility is to place a towel on the headstone.

There was an option a few years back that would have removed much of the pain from his visitations: an offer by the church to have the priest's grave relocated.

"I said 'no, he's dead and he can't hurt anyone else,'" he said.

His reasoning involves shedding the importance and power the priest had, and stems from his faith. For Baca, Catholicism is about forgiving the sins of the mind and the sins of the flesh and forgiving the fallibility that's attached to humanity.

And Baca, in a way, has forgiven the priest for his trespasses, but has not quite forgiven the church for not atoning for its own sin of ignoring the many, many incidents of abuse throughout the years.

He's still Catholic, but he will not go back into a church until they admit wrongdoing and own up for years of denial that led to the abuse of far too many children.

It can't be easy to move forward as Baca has, which is why he works with SNAP to help people cope with the trauma, remind them there are still men of the cloth who are good and decent, and that "God has nothing to do with this."

"And they (priests) use the church and God to further their sexual pursuits," he said. "It's sickening."

And he particularly wants to ensure that abused children do not undergo the same experience he went through with his parents and the other adults in his life. It's the aspect of his experience he emphasizes the most.

"Parents and grandparents need to listen to their children," he said, adding they need to watch out for sudden behavior changes.

Fast forward to Oct. 20 to the inside of a studio in Chicago. Men with comparable stories will surround him as he speaks about the abuse he survived and that additional quirk that makes his story his story.

Baca likes the opportunity to speak to and with an audience that has endured what he's endured, and has told his story often. Yet "it's a bittersweet thing" for him to repeatedly revisit that part of his childhood.

It's not easy for him, but it's the best way to convey his message to adults to listen to their children, in hopes of avoiding the creation of an additional survivor with his or her own variation of an appalling deed.

"Hopefully, I'll help at least one person," he said.

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