After abuse, addiction, and recovery, Mike McDonnell works to help others
By Isabella Simonetti
January 3, 2021
Photo by TOM GRALISH
|Mike McDonnell holds a picture of himself when he said he was 12 years old at his home in Bristol, PA on September 17, 2019. Mike was 12 years old when Rev. Francis Trauger sexually abused him at a Bucks County parish|
Photo by DAVID MAIALETTI
Mike McDonnell understands how victims can lose their way.
He was abused by two Catholic priests, one of whom was later convicted, a dark secret that traumatized him so much he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, two of his three marriages failed, and he stole about $100,000 from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — a crime for which he served nearly a year in jail.
But through recovery, and maintaining his Catholic faith, McDonnell, 52, has rebuilt himself as a victims advocate as he tries to help others. He’s now a local leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“He’ll take phone calls at all hours of the day and night,” said Shaun Dougherty, a board member of SNAP and a fellow advocate. “He’ll talk victims through any problem that they have. He’ll find resources for them if they need it. He’ll help guide them in any way that he can.”
Many of the victims McDonnell supports have suffered unemployment, divorce, the loss of a home, or addiction.
“I’m able to validate what they are sharing with me,” McDonnell said. “They’re getting an understanding that someone else has walked the same path.”
McDonnell is open about his past, admits that he’s a flawed man who has made mistakes.. “‘Veritas vos liberabit’ is inscribed up there,” he said, pointing to an inscription on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia building. “That means, ‘The truth will set you free.’ Isn’t that ironic?”
The abuse started when McDonnell was 11, working in the rectory of St. Titus Parish. The job was offered to McDonnell and several other boys by a resident priest who McDonnell said would ask him explicit questions about sex.
Such special attention and inappropriate questions are common, said Paula Kane, a professor of contemporary Catholic studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
“They would do these things that seem like a pretty straightforward process, and one that you as a parent might not suspect,” Kane explained. “Then the priests might begin to ask the boys explicit questions that led to sexual abuse.” After the priest’s probing questions came the groping, McDonnell said.
Ken Gavin, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declined to comment on the details of McDonnell’s allegations.
McDonnell says he was abused a second time in 1980 by Francis Trauger, who was a St. Titus assistant pastor.
Trauger was laicized after an allegation of sexual abuse by a minor was substantiated in May 2005, according to Gavin. The former priest is serving an 18- to 36-month prison sentence after being charged with molesting two boys at St. Michael the Archangel Church.
McDonnell hid his sexual abuse, and as a 12-year-old, he started drinking, taking sips of his father’s beer.
“I wanted to feel numb,” he said. “I wanted to take that shame, guilt, embarrassment that I was processing myself and anesthetize.” Drinking, he said, made him feel “complete, instant relief.”
By 18, McDonnell was drinking daily. He was an alcoholic by 21.
McDonnell was married and divorced twice before he sought treatment for alcoholism.
He entered a 12-step program in 2005, where he met his third wife, Debra, who he says gave him “tough love.”
The fourth step in the program is to address fears and resentments. He had stopped drinking, but had to face how his abuse led to his addiction.
McDonnell’s sponsor recommended reporting his abusers to the archdiocese, which he agreed to in September 2006. But the criminal statute of limitations on McDonnell’s case had expired, leaving no legal recourse. The church, however, offered to pay for McDonnell’s therapy. Angry with the outcome, McDonnell sought revenge for the years of pain the church caused him.
While working for the Bucks County Council on Alcoholism, McDonnell submitted fabricated invoices using company fax machines. He collected over $100,000 in payments from the Catholic Church.
“I substituted all the desire that I had to drink alcohol [with] all the desire that I had to spend money,” he said.
McDonnell was charged with theft by deception and illegal use of a communication device, and served 11½ months in jail on a work-release program. McDonnell also relapsed and reentered a 12-step program in 2014.
Since 2002, the archdiocese has dedicated more than $15 million to victims’ support. In 2011, the archdiocese opened the Office of Investigations to ensure that abuse allegations are reported to law enforcement.
Since serving out his sentence, McDonnell has focused on helping others through victims advocacy. He also works full time as a practitioner for Access Services Incorporated, which provides support for people with special needs. Still, he says he can’t remember a week since 2018 that he has not received a call from a person alleging abuse.
“The Church consistently urges anyone who has been abused, no matter when the abuse occurred, to come forward and report that abuse to law enforcement,” Gavin said in a statement.
McDonnell remains a devoted Catholic and attributes much of his recovery to his faith.
“It was my foundation of faith that kept me and allowed me to get through those traumatic periods,” he said. “Those were those moments of grace that I realize now that God said, ‘I’m gonna help you get through it. It might be awhile, but I’m gonna help you get through it.’”