A weekend to forget: A Mount Carmel altar boy's story of clergy abuse
By Larry Parnass
January 19, 2019
| Michael Carpino and his wife, Vandi, in 2017. Carpino was serving as a Catholic altar boy for Mount Carmel Church in Pittsfield when, he says, he was sexually assaulted by the Rev. Richard J. Ahern on a weekend trip. Carpino later received a financial settlement from the Springfield Diocese.|
It was dusk when the car reached the hotel. A priest got out and went in to register and get a room key.
Another priest waited in the car. He wasn't alone. With him were two boys in their early teens who sported 1970s moptops. After a long drive from their homes in Pittsfield, they had no idea where they were.
Forty-six years later, one of them can close his eyes and put himself in those uncertain moments. In that car. In that hotel room. In that bed.
"The movie that I play in my head is what happened that night, with infinite detail," said Michael Carpino, who was 13 at the time. He's now 59 and lives in Colorado. "It doesn't leave you. It's a sentence for life."
On Feb. 10, the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the Springfield diocese, will come to Pittsfield to hear concerns about the Catholic Church's handling of clergy abuse, amid renewed and growing attention to the problem worldwide.
The bishop will settle into a seat blocks from the former Mount Carmel Church, where Carpino served as an altar boy for the Rev. Richard J. Ahern, a priest who spent six years in Pittsfield and was named as an abuser by multiple victims around New England.
Carpino won't be around to tell his story to the bishop. He moved to Colorado soon after graduating from the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s and has worked there in the high-tech field.
But he detailed his abuse in phone interviews with The Eagle this past week, nearly three years after he first posted on social media about his abuse.
"Yes, we can talk about my ordeal with Ahern," Carpino said when asked whether he was ready to share his story with readers of his hometown newspaper, which once employed him as a newsboy.
Today, Carpino works to help other survivors in the Denver area come to terms with clergy abuse. He appeared on a Colorado Public Radio forum in September, lending his voice to calls to eliminate the statute of limitations on crimes involving sexual abuse of minors.
Carpino is talking now, but it took a quarter-century for him to report his abuse to the church, joining what became a wave of complaints that led to hundreds of financial settlements in Massachusetts alone.
In 2008, the diocese paid Carpino about $80,000 as compensation for the assault Ahern committed inside that hotel room, which Carpino described in detail in legal interviews ahead of the settlement. Ahern died in 2001, after spending his last years forbidden from hearing confessions from children by his Catholic order, the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers, but otherwise unpunished.
"I cried all the way through the entire deposition," Carpino said.
The tears continued through more than a decade of counseling and therapy, as he worked, like all survivors of abuse and trauma, to take control of his story. Carpino says he has replayed scenes of his assault in countless therapy sessions as he worked to find a road back to trust.
"Slowly, over time, there was less crying and more talking," he said. "You never do get back to 100 percent of where you were before an assault."
Victims of clergy abuse acknowledge that their stories are hard to hear, nearly two decades after it was established that the Catholic Church concealed the depth of the problem and shuttled abusive priests among assignments, removing and hiding abusers.
Olan Horne, a survivor of clergy abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, says stories still need to be told. He likens it to the Bible parable about a man who kept knocking on a closed door in need of help.
"We keep knocking on the truth," said Horne, who lives in Chester. "People don't want to talk about these things. But they need to see the struggles. They need to own it."
David O'Regan, a clergy abuse survivor from Central Massachusetts, was 12 when, he says, Ahern took him on an overnight trip to Springfield. The priest checked into a hotel with the boy, who he appears to have groomed as a victim through two years of summer camps in Wellesley, and raped him.
This was a decade before Ahern and a fellow priest would take Carpino and another boy to another hotel. O'Regan's abuse continued for several years, over more than a dozen assaults.
"I was betrayed by someone I was supposed to look up to and held in high esteem," O'Regan said. "Those years, I can never get back. Our stories are so important. We live with so much shame and guilt, embarrassment and humiliation — and self-loathing."
It wasn't until 2002, after in-depth reporting by The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, that O'Regan, at the age of 52, confronted what had happened to him.
"I always talked around it. I was never able to tell my story," he said.
Carpino provided full details of his assault in his interviews with The Eagle.
"It shocks people to the reality of what truly went on and what transpired in an assault," he said. "It speaks the truth. I believe it helps children. People say, `Enough.' Society has an obligation to punish criminal behavior. It doesn't have anything to do with religion."
Carpino and O'Regan, who have met and discussed what Ahern did to them, believe that truth-telling can help victims who are still harboring secrets to come forward.
"To make the steps to begin their journey," Carpino said.
When Carpino got in the car that weekend in 1973 with Ahern and another priest, the Rev. Joseph E. Flood, it was President Richard Nixon's final year in office. Ahern was in charge of altar boys at Mount Carmel. He curried favor with young people in the church, Carpino recalls, whether overseeing their skinny-dipping swims at Camp Wyoma in Hinsdale or at church events. He allowed them to drink wine.
"He was teaching us how to break the law with a priest," he said. "The story is classic. He groomed me over the years. He befriended me over time. I thought he was a friend and someone I could trust. From what I understand, this is how these guys typically operate."
The day of the trip, Carpino reported to the church rectory and was surprised to find another priest there.
"I remember kind of stepping back and wondering who he was," Carpino said of Flood, a fellow member of the Stigmatine order.
A few hours later, the two priests and the two teens were stepping into the hotel room. Carpino recalls asking whether he and his young friend would be sharing one of the room's two beds. That wasn't what the priests had in mind.
"I'm going to sleep with you," Carpino remembers Ahern saying.
And so it was. Not long after, the priest told Carpino it was time for bed. The lights went out.
"He began to assault me and had me touch him," he said. "I could tell that [his friend] was being raped, based on what was going on in the room."
After Ahern climaxed, Carpino said he lay still, afraid of waking the priest and having him initiate another assault. The boy listened to the priest's breathing.
"I was like frozen in bed," he said. "I remember lying in the bed and asking myself, `How do I get out of here?' I didn't want to wake the monster. The biggest fear was that he would come back at me."
In the morning, the priests awoke and talked about who would shower first. Carpino's friend went into the shower with the other priest.
While they waited out in the room, Carpino said, Ahern took a pillow from the bed and put it over the boy's head. He recalls struggling for air.
"I was literally fighting for my life," Carpino said. In what he says has been as many as 15 years of therapy, Carpino has come to an understanding of what that was about.
"He was sending this message that I have power over you and could kill you at any time," Carpino said.
The struggle wasn't over. When it came to be Ahern's turn to use the shower, he insisted that Carpino join him. Carpino says he somehow found the courage to do something young men at the time didn't do with priests. He said no.
"I was already assaulted," Carpino said. Though Ahern didn't force him into the shower, he made the teen stand naked on the bathroom tiles while the priest went in.
Then they were all sitting at breakfast, the two priests beside each other on one side of a booth, appearing to enjoy themselves.
"I remember them laughing and giggling — I'm sure it was at what they did to us," Carpino said.
He recalls feeling angry that his friend had not warned him of what the priests were up to; he believes this other teen had been assaulted before.
Later that year, Carpino earned the rank of Eagle Scout. His mother wanted him to include in a news release that he was a Mount Carmel Church altar boy. He resisted, but couldn't tell her why.
A mother's pride couldn't be held back. She called the paper and added eight words to his bio. The article ran under a photo of a smiling teen wearing a sash filled with Eagle badges.
"My heart sank when it happened," Carpino said. He worried that the wording might inspire others to serve the Catholic church. "And then they end up being assaulted, like I was."
Years later, as awareness grew of widespread clergy abuse, his mother asked him if he had been assaulted. He said no, not wanting to subject her to the pain of knowing.
"It's amazing, as time goes by, the things you discover that you do because of the assault," he said. "It takes a long time to wind down. The thing Ahern shattered for me is trust.
"It probably stopped me from trusting anybody until I got into good therapy," Carpino said. "I lived the life of a lie. I was pretending that everything is OK. I was running and hiding. My mental stumbling block was, I wanted a movie to tell what happened in the Catholic Church."
Then "Spotlight" debuted. The month that film won an Oscar as Best Picture led Carpino to comment for the first time about his abuse. It was more than a decade after he had described his abuse to a church lawyer. But it was his first public disclosure.
"I found a sense of vindication watching this movie because the Catholic church betrayed many innocent victims and our story was being told," he posted on Facebook in February 2016. "The details of my assault are not something I will share here but I would have no issue with sharing should it help with the cause of protecting children. That is why I am coming forward today."
Survivors need to find a safe place in which to tell their stories, Carpino told The Eagle. "My safe place was that movie winning Best Picture. I'm living on and can still talk about it — and do talk about it."
"It's your own trust in yourself that gets destroyed," he said. "It's pulled out of you when someone sexually assaults you. I very much trust my gut today. It puts me in a very healthy place."
For O'Regan, Ahern's grooming of him as a victim played out over two years of summer camp, when the boy was finishing elementary school, well before the priest's assignment to Pittsfield in 1969.
The priest would praise and compliment the child.
"I was getting the attention that I wasn't getting at home," said O'Regan, who said a parent suffered a bipolar disorder. "He was filling a psychological need for me. This priest took an interest in me and made me feel good."
At a parents' day at the Wellesley camp, Ahern brought out a brochure. Its cover showed O'Regan, then about 12, bouncing on a trampoline. Having made inroads with the boy's parents, Ahern was able to get their permission for O'Regan to accompany him on a trip to Springfield.
Despite all the earlier flattery from the priest, O'Regan said the man's mood shifted. On the drive, Ahern needled the boy about his courage. "I bet you're a sissy," O'Regan recalls him saying. Then he heard something even more ominous. "We'll find out when the lights go out," O'Regan remembers Ahern saying.
Once at the hotel, O'Regan put on pajamas that his mother had bought just for the occasion, wanting her son to make a good impression. But the priest made fun of them. And then, O'Regan says, he was raped.
"I was alone. I had no escape. I was 12 years old and really didn't know what was happening to me. I was thinking, `Is this how bad boys get punished?' "
The abuse continued. O'Regan says he was violated 14 or 15 times, usually on trips to New Hampshire — where Carpino believes he was assaulted — or Maine.
When the Spotlight team's stories began to tear off what Carpino calls the "Catholic combover" about clergy abuse, O'Regan, now 68, went into a depression, spending weeks on his living room couch, not bathing or shaving.
"The memories were coming back into my life," he said. "There was a lot of anger. I was screaming at my wife."
Like Carpino, O'Regan eventually found his way to the truth of what had happened to him.
"It was a secret I've lived with so long," he said. "Suddenly, in my head, I'm seeing my perpetrator raping me — flashbacks to all the things I'd forgotten about. It took a terrible toll on me. I just had a terrible, terrible time. For a lot of years, I never wanted to go to Springfield."
But today, after years of healing and activism, O'Regan is a survivor.
"I've come out on the other side of this. I am the total sum of what happened to me in my life," he said. "And I happen to like the person that I am today."