A Watkins Glen Man, Deeply Scarred by Abuses That Happened in 1966, Confronts His Memories

By Jennifer Kingsley
Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY)
June 9, 2002


It was August 1992 and John Hayes was sitting with friends in a small cafe in Saratoga.

As a priest walked by their table, Hayes blurted out, "Priests molest children."

His friends were horrified. Hayes himself was shocked: "I didn't know where that came from or why," he said.

Hayes, who had already been in therapy for a few years, told his therapist about the incident and then dismissed it.

But a few months later, in November, Hayes picked up a book written by Jason Berry, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and Sexual Abuse of Children." It brought back memories hidden deep in his childhood in Watkins Glen about being sexually abused by a Catholic priest.

"I could relate to everything in that book," Hayes said.

He said feelings of nausea and anxiety swept over him. In a panic, he called his therapist.

"My therapist told me the feeling I experienced that day is what I felt then," Hayes said.

Hayes, 45, now assistant district attorney in Schuyler County, also sought a legal remedy to the acts committed against him as a child.

In 1993 he filed a complaint and eventually settled out of court for $70,000. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and the former priest who has admitted to abusing Hayes paid the bill. In the past several months, similar incidents of abuse have come to light nationwide, and so have allegations that the Catholic Church knew it had problem priests and quietly moved them from parish to parish.

Although Hayes' settlement with the diocese included a stipulation that he not comment publicly about the abuse or the settlement, he said he decided to do so anyway as part of his healing process.

Hayes is angry because he feels the Catholic Church has gone for decades "acting with callous indifference to all concerned, not offering an apology or an acknowledgment of the abuse, opting instead to pay for silence."

Hayes, who grew up in Watkins Glen, said the church "must suffer the children whose lives it ruined, suffer the pain they bear into old age, and suffer, too, the consequences of its ignorance."

A secret for more than 30 years

John Hayes' parents, Carroll and Elizabeth Hayes, often brought members of the clergy into their home, including John Gormley, pastor of St. Mary's of the Lake in Watkins Glen.

"(Gormley) was a charismatic, compassionate man and we welcomed him into our family," Elizabeth Hayes said. "He was an easy fit, often bringing books for the children."

Gormley became a frequent guest in the Hayes family home and was liked and admired by John Hayes, who was 9 at the time.

But in 1966, Gormley said, he was going to be reassigned to St. John Evangelist Church in Clyde.

Hayes made it clear that he wanted to be an altar boy, and he wanted Gormley to teach him. What Hayes says happened next continues to haunt him.

On at least two occasions that Hayes can recall, Gormley sexually abused Hayes in the boy's Watkins Glen home, in his own bed.

After a dinner party one evening, Gormley slipped into Hayes' bed and told the boy he needed to lie down with him.

Gormley then fondled Hayes. "I remember him placing my hand on his own genitals and thinking 'Ugh, what is that?'" Hayes said. "It was almost as if I checked out of my body at that point."

Hayes remembers focusing on the ceiling and a painting, but the other details aren't clear.

"I thought what was going on was an unbelievably bizarre, almost surreal thing having to do with being an altar boy," Hayes said. "This is a secret, that's what he told me. A secret between (Gormley), God and me. So I didn't tell anyone."

A trip to confessional follows abuse

A similar incident occurred when Gormley took Hayes on an overnight trip. While Gormley admits now that he knew what he was doing was wrong, the 9-year-old Hayes didn't know what was happening.

The day after the second incident, Gormley, then 33, took Hayes to confession at a nearby rectory.

Once inside, Hayes said, Gormley went into another room with a priest, and he remained there for some time.

"I didn't know what to think," Hayes said. "I thought this was a test to prepare me for being an altar boy."

Hayes believes Gormley told the priest what had transpired the night before.

When it was Hayes' turn to go into the confessional, he said the other priest simply asked him if he was OK. Hayes said he told the priest he was all right and the priest responded by saying, "Well, there's really nothing we need to talk about."

Hayes said no one informed his parents about the sexual abuse and he repressed the memories for nearly 30 years.

Priest seeks counseling, leaves church

As Hayes planted the memory deep in his mind, Gormley sought help.

Gormley, now 69, said he wished he'd been given the appropriate guidance and help when he first asked for it in 1957 while he was at St. Bernard's Seminary in Rochester, when he recognized his attraction to boys.

The diocese would not comment about Hayes or Gormley, but offered a general response.

During the 1950s and 1960s sexual abuse wasn't thought of as a psychiatric problem; it was considered more of a moral lapse, treatable with retreats and spiritual counseling, said Michael Tedesco, spokesman for the Rochester Diocese.

"(Sexual abuse) is widely understood now, but the understanding was much different during that time period," Tedesco said. "The literature (then) was much different than today.

"It was thought the behavior could be easily corrected," Tedesco added. "Looking back now, that's not the case. We know it has to be dealt with differently."

Bishop Matthew Clark of the Rochester Diocese said officials are trying to learn signs to be alert to when reviewing priests' records.

"We're learning from our mistakes," Clark said.

During the era Gormley was ordained, there was no preparation for a life of celibacy, he maintains. "It was just assumed that you understood," Gormley said.

Gormley said that while he was at St. Bernard's Seminary there was no psychological screening for seminarians.

That has changed over time.

"We've been doing that for years," Tedesco said.

In July 1993, Clark acknowledged the problem of sexual abuse among clergy and wrote a letter to members of the diocese, stating, "Relatively few clerics engage in such destructive behavior, but the mere possibility of abuse demands that diocesan policy and procedures in this area be clear and widely known."

At that time, Tedesco said, a priest facing allegations of sexual abuse would be removed from a parish, stripped of his responsibilities and placed in a supervised clerical or administrative setting.

This year, Clark has taken the policy one step further, Tedesco said.

Priests who are disciplined for allegations of sexual abuse can no longer hold any position with the church, nor can they live in diocesan housing, Tedesco said.

"Anyone with those types of behavior would never be allowed to continue in ministry today," Tedesco said.

Former priest, victim reflect on past

For John Hayes' mother, Elizabeth, the remedies now offered by the Catholic Church have come too late.

"If the Catholic Church had been a little more stringent at the time, things would not have snowballed the way they have," Elizabeth Hayes said.

The Hayes family left the church during the late 1970s, many years before they learned about the sexual abuse that occurred in their home.

Hayes said he doesn't go to church anymore. Instead, he said, "I see God through nature and the kindness of others every day."

Gormley also left the Catholic Church and the priesthood in 1971.

"It was a liberating experience," Gormley said. "I don't feel any hatred or anger toward the church; I just want to move forward, maintaining my health and contributing to life."

Gormley said the secrecy of the Catholic Church "has to go." He also said he feels compassion for those who are suffering.

Hayes said the sexual abuse and emotional trauma are the reasons he never married, had children or became involved in an intimate relationship.

As for others who have been sexually abused, Hayes said, "They lost their God, their trust and their self-assurance. They lost peace of mind. They lost more than anyone who has not lived in their skins can ever know."

Local priests accused

The following priests who served in the Southern Tier have been implicated in a nationwide sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church:

" The Rev. Joseph Brodnick, chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital in Elmira, resigned in April after it was learned he was accused of sexually abusing a teen-age girl in Ohio in the 1970s.

" The Rev. Thomas W. Burr, pastor of St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, resigned in May because of an allegation of sexual misconduct that was more than 20 years old.

" The Rev. Thomas Corbett, who was working in an administrative job at the Diocese of Rochester's tribunal office, was removed from his post in May. He allegedly abused an Elmira girl in 1974 and '75 when she attended religion classes at St. Mary's Church on Elmira's Southside.


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