Church Report Tells One Story, Victims Tell Another

By Robert Huber
Philadelphia Magazine
May 20, 2011

Now we know. It was the ’60s that did it, that had Catholic priests raping children. The problem is pretty much solved, because we’ve all moved on from that terrible time when Laugh-In and miniskirts morphed into assassinations and rampant drug use and a mass exodus away from life as it was lived in the Eisenhower years. That sad, corrosive time was what caused five percent of America’s diocesan priests to molest children.

It’s in a report just out, commissioned by the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

I’ve noticed a weird collision. Recently I’ve been talking to men who were sexually abused by Catholic priests. They’ve spent a long time—decades, sometimes—figuring out what happened, and exactly who, or what, was responsible. Their Church (and I’m being kind here) wanted nothing to do with them. This new Church-inspired report says that too: “Diocesan leaders responded to acts of abuse, but with a focus on the priests and not the victims.”

It’s never fair to pit people—mere individuals—against big, rich, powerful institutions. It’s not a fair fight. But a strange thing is happening. The people are, just maybe, starting to win.

With every PR missive that comes out of the Church, guys like John Salveson loom a little larger. Salveson lives in Bryn Mawr, and runs his own business helping companies recruit and keep talent. He’s got a story, one he’s published. Here’s a piece of it:

The summer before I began attending my parish high school, Saint Dominic [on Long Island], in 1969, I met Father Robert Huneke, a new priest in our parish. He was young, smart, funny and sarcastic. He had us call him Father Bob and quickly became popular among my church and school friends.

Father Bob spent most of his time with young people. He was the sponsor of our Folk Mass group and was instrumental in getting us all to sign up for “Christian Awakening,” a weekend retreat program involving several Long Island parishes. He let us smoke cigarettes around him and criticized the other parish priests in front of us. He swore. He was like no other priest I had ever met. …

In fall 1969, Father Bob invited me to go with him on a weekend trip to Virginia to visit a family that had moved out of our parish. I jumped at the chance. I was 13 years old and incredibly impressed with myself for being invited on such a trip.

Father Bob and I shared a bedroom at the home in Virginia. During the night, he got into my bed and began to perform oral sex on me. As I awoke, I became terrified and stunned. I was profoundly shocked, without any idea of how to react to his behavior.

The next morning, we left the home in Virginia and started the drive back to New York. Over breakfast, Father Bob told me that what “we” did was okay. He explained that it was okay to show love for each other, and that God accepted and encouraged it. I was nearly unable to speak. I remember feeling responsible for the abuse almost immediately. I also remember feeling nauseated. I had absolutely no idea what to do. It never occurred to me to tell another adult what happened.

As time went on, the abuse continued. Father Bob was expert at making me feel special and completely dependent on him. I was also terrified of him and lived for his approval. He was a priest. I felt that I had no choice but to do exactly what he wanted. He used his considerable influence over me to be sure I continued to comply.

This was the start of seven years of sexual abuse, which included most any sexual activity between two males that you can imagine.

Eventually, when he was 20 years old, John Salveson was able to say no to Father Bob, and make it stick. But it took him a long time to deal with what had happened. He drank heavily. He floundered generally. Eventually, though, Salveson was able to speak very clearly, to himself and to those who cared, about what had happened to him. Now, in talking to him, he feels like one of those rare people who tell you exactly what he believes, that he has come to a place where honesty is not a virtue but the only option.

The Church’s report says the sexual-abuse crisis has largely run its course. What a weird collision: PR pronouncements from a gigantic institution smacking against the brutal purity of John Salveson—and other victims who are speaking. There is certainly much more to come.


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