[Opinion] Ayala: Survivor questions San Antonio archdiocese for failing to 'walk with' victims after list of clergy abusers released in 2019
By Elaine Ayala
San Antonio Express News
February 04, 2021
|Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller fights back emotions as he reads a statement about the report on priests accused of sexual abuse of minors since 1947, on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. |
Photo by Bob Owen
If you ask Zac Zepeda how he’s doing, he says, “OK.” He just got his COVID-19 vaccine, he adds.
At 72 and retired from USAA after 30 years, Zepeda can look back at a life well-lived. He attended San Antonio College, served in the military during the Vietnam War and graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
He has been married for 44 years, “to the same woman,” he jokes, and they have two adult children.
Zepeda is a survivor of sexual assault and abuse. He was 12, in seventh grade at a Catholic school, when it happened. His predator was a young, popular Catholic priest named Michael J. O’Sullivan.
The first incident was in 1961 in the sacristy of Blessed Sacrament Church on Oblate Drive, he said. A sacristy is the room behind or near the altar where priests prepare for service and don their vestments for Mass.
The abuse ended in 1962.
“He was such a charming person,” Zepeda said, recalling that many children chose confirmation names in his honor, Michael or variants of it.
So, when Zepeda says he’s OK, it’s only in the context of all this — only in the way in which victims like him can say they’re OK, only in the way that such survivors manage to live, work and heal.
Two years ago, a tearful, sometimes angry Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller went before cameras and released a landmark list naming 54 credibly accused priests in cases dating back to 1941.
It was part of a national reckoning that came after decades of mostly newspaper reports of crimes and cover-ups that forced the Vatican to repent.
Since its list was released, along with a concurrent report by a commission that looked at the evidence and delivered damning conclusions, the Archdiocese of San Antonio has been mostly mum on the topic.
It has been hard to tell what it has done or continues to do to address these cases and others that likely surfaced after 2019, when some victims might have summoned the courage to report their priest abusers.
Dioceses statewide revealed nearly 300 perpetrators. San Antonio’s list was the longest.
It included 10 credible allegations against O’Sullivan, starting in 1962, when he was at Blessed Sacrament. He “re-offended,” was dismissed and ended up in a diocese in Georgia. He re-offended and returned to Ireland, where new allegations surfaced.
By 2006, 45 years after sexually assaulting and abusing Zepeda, actions were taken to remove O’Sullivan from the priesthood. He reportedly died in 2013.
Zepeda didn’t know his abuser was in Ireland when he vacationed there that same year.
Today, he’s the co-leader of SNAP San Antonio, a local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The archdiocese has responded to Zepeda in one way, legally. He says he’s closing in on a settlement with the archdiocese that will pay for his continued counseling, which he says has done wonders for him.
No punitive damages are being sought, he said.
Surprisingly, Zepeda never left the church and serves as a deacon at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Helotes.
He’d rather not speak of the details of his abuse, only that O’Sullivan told him what happened was “something special between us.”
Zepeda told no one for decades.
He says he’s “disgusted” with the archdiocese’s record since 2019. “The list seems to have become static. I don’t see a whole lot of movement from the archdiocese.”
SNAP San Antonio feels the same.
Like other survivors, Zepeda had hoped the archdiocese, especially the archbishop, would have reached out and “walked with” survivors.
He tried to get in to see the archbishop, he said. But every effort has been short-stopped. It “angers me,” he said. “It’s why I got active in SNAP.”
Zepeda says individual priests have shown compassion and have addressed centuries of misdoings. “But I haven’t seen it from the top,” he said.
García-Siller did apologize to victims in 2019. He was contrite and moving.
But that’s the thing about apologies. Sometimes, one isn’t enough to mend a wound and get it to heal. Sometimes, one apology can’t cover a crime so massive, a deceit so evil.
Zepeda, and other survivors I’ve recently interviewed for this and another upcoming column, say it’s time for church leaders to re-atone and update its lists publicly.
The word “repent” offers some advice in its prefix. “Re” means “again” or “back.”
It’s also a good time. Feb. 17 is Ash Wednesday, the start of weeks of penitence before the celebration of Easter.