33 Years' Silence Broken
Priest's Sex Abuse Haunts Area Man
By Yonat Shimron
News & Observer [Raleigh, North Carolina]
April 17, 2004
After the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh handed him a check for $120,000 last month, J. Michael Woods thought he might be able to put his past behind him. But two weeks ago, he read in the paper that a former North Carolina priest was charged with sexual abuse.
This time, Woods decided, he could no longer keep silent. He had a horrific story to tell, and he wanted to tell it.
It has been two years since the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal broke, but Woods, 43, is just beginning to recover from sexual abuse by a priest 33 years ago. Raleigh Bishop F. Joseph Gossman said that Woods' complaint is credible and that he has received a similar complaint about that priest from someone else.
"I felt he had lost his life," Gossman said. "I would apologize to him and to other victims one more time and ask for their forgiveness and their prayers."
Woods, who grew up in Durham and attended Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, says his story boils down to this:
Beginning at age 11, he was repeatedly molested by a priest.
That priest was Monsignor James E. McSweeney, who died in 1999. Woods said that for three years, McSweeney took him to Kerr Lake and to the beach and performed sexual acts with him. When McSweeney couldn't get away, he forced Woods to commit those acts in the rectory and even in his car.
For the church and the victims, these are trying times.
Few suspected McSweeney of sexual abuse. After all, he served as chancellor, or chief administrative officer of the diocese, and later as vicar general, the bishop's right-hand man.
But he was perhaps better known for his financial acumen. When he died at 74, McSweeney had amassed nearly $1 million, most of which he left to the diocese. A formal man who wore elegant clothes and was a devotee of sacred art, he had a gift for organization and a knack for business.
For Woods, there's another twist to the tale. At age 25, after suffering a breakdown, Woods turned to the church for help, talking about his abuse to another Durham priest with whom he met privately for counseling. That priest was the Rev. James J. Behan, whom the Philadelphia district attorney recently charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and indecent assault on a boy two decades ago.
"It made me feel I had been victimized all over again," Woods said. "No wonder I wasn't able to overcome it."
One day at the lake
It all began with a nap. On a trip to Kerr Lake in 1971, Woods said McSweeney asked him to get some rest after a morning walk.
Woods protested. He was too old for naps. McSweeney insisted, Woods said, and also told him to unbutton his pants since it was better for his breathing.
A reluctant and somewhat bewildered Woods did as he was told. McSweeney was not only a father figure to him, he was his direct link to God. McSweeney trained Woods as an altar boy and was grooming him, he said, for the priesthood. For a boy with spiritual inclinations, that relationship was precious.
So he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. After about 20 minutes, Woods heard McSweeney enter the room, sit on the bed and move his hands down Woods' pants. Woods lay there with his eyes closed, terrified.
That evening, Woods said, McSweeney suggested the two of them sleep in one bed. Woods refused. But his refusal was short-lived. The following morning, McSweeney insisted the two take a shower together.
"Externally, I kept my composure," Woods said. "Inside, I thought I would die."
In the car on the way back to Durham that evening, Woods said McSweeney told him that in God's eyes they had done nothing wrong. Still, McSweeney told Woods, he should keep it a secret since others would not understand their special relationship as God did.
That relationship continued after McSweeney was appointed administrator of St. Joseph of the Pines Hospital in Southern Pines in 1973. Their last encounter was in McSweeney's home in February 1974. That weekend, Woods remembers, was the worst.
"He was telling me it's OK," Woods said. "Everything within my soul told me it was wrong. It created an unbearable conflict for me. How do you have a stable life when you're that conflicted?"
Woods spent the next 33 years running from the pain. He dropped out of N.C. State University after one semester. He took classes at Greenville Technical Community College in South Carolina but never graduated. He was accepted to Clemson University but never went.
Inside, Woods said, he felt numb. He had few friends and no confidants. After a short courtship, he married his first serious girlfriend. At her parents' request, the couple married at Holy Infant Catholic Church in Durham. The Rev. James J. Behan officiated.
One evening Woods watched a TV movie about a high school coach who molested a student. His son was crawling on the floor.
The flashbacks started rolling, and the panic set in.
"Looking down at my toddler, I thought, I couldn't protect myself. How can I prevent this from happening to him? "
It was then that he turned to Behan for help.
Although Behan was consoling, Woods said, he never revealed any conflict of interest. Nor did Behan inform McSweeney's superiors about Woods' allegations. Instead, Woods said, Behan suggested McSweeney and Woods work out their problems — an idea Woods feared would never work.
After two years of counseling, Woods left the church — for good, he thought. He divorced, remarried and divorced again. For a brief time, he struggled with alcohol and cocaine.
"I went through the rest of my life looking for something to fill the void and hide the pain I was feeling," he said.
Only recently has his life settled. He works as an environmental compliance technician in Research Triangle Park.
In 1999, when his parents told him McSweeney had died, Woods couldn't feel a thing. But three years later, when he read that Behan had been removed from his duties as a priest, Woods was dumbfounded. The feelings of betrayal welled up, and this time Woods decided to do something about it.
He sent an e-mail message to the diocese and said he had an allegation of child abuse to report.
For Woods, it was a breakthrough. In a report on sexual abuse prepared for U.S. Catholic bishops by New York's John Jay College, researchers cited a study that found 42 percent of men never disclose having been sexually abused. Those who do wait years after the abuse occurred.
The day Woods sent his e-mail message, the bishop dispatched Monsignor Gerald Lewis, then the vicar general, to meet him. Lewis suggested professional help and said the diocese would pay.
Since 1992, the diocese has removed three priests, including Behan, and has received credible allegations against 10 others — all of whom are retired, dead or no longer in the diocese, Gossman said. In February, the diocese reported it paid $321,138 in settlement costs, legal fees and therapy associated with the scandal.
On March 11, the diocese settled with Woods. He would like to use the money to get an education, but mostly he wants to help others.
"If my voice can in some way help minimize someone else's suffering, then I can handle the consequences," Woods said.
As for returning to the church, Woods isn't sure he can. The last sentence of the legal settlement he signed with the diocese reads in part, "I acknowledge there has been no admission of any wrong doing."
Woods understands why diocesan lawyers inserted that language. But he isn't so sure he wants to return to a church that required it.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.