Seminary life was a nightmare, victims say

By Morgan Green
Santa Barbara News-Press
December 5, 1993

[See also the main article of this feature and links to the other articles. This article was scanned from a copy of the original newspaper in the Ray & Anne Higgins Archive. We thank them for their assistance. is solely responsible for this web posting.]

"It's simple in here. It's an insane place with insane rules."

Michael Higgins, one of the 34 men who were sexually abused as boys at St. Anthony's Seminary, considers the quote from a prison movie as a perfect description of how it was to be a youth who dreamed of being a priest, but who was instead sexually molested by his religious mentors.

As a seminary boarding school student, Higgins felt trapped, as did scores of other victims in the 23 years before the school closed in 1987.

"Living in that place was for all intents and purposes, like living in a jail," said Higgins, a target of what he calls the predator priests. "On a day-to-day basis you just get through. You find ways to deal with (abuse). You try not to think about it, try not to do anything about it."

In a report issued Monday after 11 months of investigations, a special inquiry board refused to detail incidents in order to protect victims' privacy. The report also hid the identities of the 11 molesting priests. The Franciscan Order, which paid for the study, required the secrecy.

The report sketched numerous composite examples of abuse at St. Anthony's to illustrate the facts in abuse incidents. Here are samples:

• A priest summoned a boy to his room to discuss his academic troubles. The friar lectured the boy then performed oral sex on him. The boy left dazed. His grades plummeted. He abandoned his hopes to be a priest and left the seminary.

In some cases, victims, thinking they were the only ones, didn't recognize the signs of abuse in others.

"I look back at high school now and see weird relationships (between a student and a friar)," said one victim who wished to remain unidentified. "Suddenly the student would not come back after a weekend, and you'd never see him again for the rest of your life. Now I can say, 'Aha!'."

• A friar separately called in boys for supposed hernia examinations. He had them strip and fondled them. The friar had one boy take a shower on the pretext his hygiene was poor, then performed manual and oral sex on him. He threatened him with expulsion if he told. The boy kept silent.

"I was confused, embarrassed, humiliated, afraid. The belief structure says this guy isn't going to harm you. Then you think, who's going to believe, me over a priest who's next to God?" said John McCord, 37, who lives inthe Carmel Valley.

"You're taught to virtually submit to whatever these guys tell you. You don't question authority. You speak when you're spoken to. Raise your hand and keep quiet," McCord said. "You're taught to admire priests as godlike."

• On a camping trip, a student sleeping next to a friar felt the man unzip his sleeping bag and climb on top of him. The frightened boy pretended to sleep. He rolled over and dislodged the aroused friar. The boy stayed awake all night out of fear. Thinking that no one would believe him, he remained silent about the incident.

"At that age, you don't know. You don't have the ability to make a decision on what's right or wrong. You're a blank slate," said the anonymous victim. "I considered him my counselor, my friend. But I was abused, lied to, betrayed. You can think of every nasty word in the dictionary to describe the experience."

Some victims had nobody to tell, even if they mustered the courage, because the abuser was the person the seminary assigned to a boy as the man with whom he was to discuss his problems.

Some boys also felt deep guilt because they thought they had made the abuser break his religious vow of chastity.

"I was scared of them, and scared about what would happen to them. Being molested is about power," said Higgins, now 22 and a UCSB senior. "I was afraid of my own power, made to feel afraid of my own power. I held the keys to these people's lives, and it scared the hell out of me.

As men who have acquired the strength to break those bonds ofsilence, some victims intellectually recognize their abuse as a thing of the past and are carrying on, slowly healing with the help of free therapy offered by the board of inquiry.

Many still suffer emotionally. One said some of his pain comes from simply remembering he was a child overwhelmed by horror: "The worst of it is, if I'd known to tell, and told, just think of the damage I could have prevented."


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