It’s My Turn
Father Robert Hoatson is co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, Inc., a non-profit charity based in New Jersey. He is currently working with several clergy sexual abuse victims in the Rockaways.
It is clear that the clergy sexual abuse scandal has disappointed, disillusioned, and disengaged many Catholic faithful, especially the young. It has also energized many faithful Catholics to action, among them the Rockaway chapter of Voice of the Faithful, which has as its first goal the support of victims of clergy sexual abuse. This small but committed group has ensured that victims of clergy abuse will not be abandoned and that any and all victims who wish to tell their stories will be guaranteed a compassionate and listening ear. They continue to assist victims and their advocates through what appears to be a lull in widespread media coverage and reports of cases of abuse. I urge the Rockaway peninsula not to be deceived by such developments, since cases of abuse in Rockaway continue to emerge despite the seeming dearth of news reports of such.
Recently, Thomas Trager, a Marianist religious brother and director of St. John’s Home in Rockaway Park, was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing a teenage boy who was in his care. His arrest has resurfaced more dramatically the issue of sexual abuse by religious figures in the Rockaways, in particular. The Rockaways has had its share of sexual abuse by clergy and religious persons, and it behooves all residents to resist being agitated by these reports of what they sometimes perceive as anti-Catholic bias or Churchbashing. Instead of being agitated by these reports, Rockaway residents should commit themselves to being educated about clergy sexual abuse in their backyard and beyond. The Brother Thomas Trager arrest provides an opportunity for all on the peninsula to learn more about sexual abuse of minors, its causes and effects, and its prevention and elimination.
There is a tendency for citizens of a community such as the Rockaways to “circle the wagons” when a trusted and respected member of that community is arrested for a heinous crime such as child sexual abuse. The temptation is to deny the crime, defend the perpetrator, and blame the victim. It is also tempting to distract others from being educated about the seriousness of the act of child sexual abuse. It is my hope that the good people of the Rockaways will resist these temptations in the matter of Br. Thomas Trager. While there has been no determination of guilt or innocence in the case, it is incumbent upon all to remain open to the possibility that, indeed, sexual abuse did occur at or near Saint John’s Home and that the perpetrator was a respected religious authority.
In order to be educated about the issue of clergy sexual abuse, and in order to resist the cynical conclusion that another money-grubbing liar has charged a Church leader with sexual abuse, I urge those in the Rockaways to understand what happens when sexual abuse by a religious figure occurs and how difficult it is for someone to come forward to tell a story of abuse. I also urge all of you to remain open to the possibility that we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of sexual abuse at Saint John’s Home or elsewhere, for that matter. Research indicates that up to 90 percent of children who have been sexually abused will never tell their stories. This is a time for education so that victims might be better served and Rockaway children might live in a safer environment.
Approximately 12 years ago, a group of more than 100 Rockaway residents protested outside Saint John’s Home about assaults on senior residents and high school students by some young men assigned to Saint John’s Home. During that protest, three residents of Saint John’s Home approached leaders of the protest to report that they had experienced sexual abuse at the home. Leaders of the protest have reported these matters recently, and, to their credit, they admit to not believing the young men at that time. However, in light of recent events at St. John’s, there is reason to be concerned that there may be other victims. More than likely, the young men who reported abuse in 1998 are in their 20s or older, so there could be victims out there who have been living with the horrendous effects of sexual abuse. Perhaps those men have heard about Br. Tom’s arrest, will realize they are not alone, and make the decision to report whatever abuse occurred 12 years ago or more. They should know that all of us will be there to assist in their recoveries.
Approximately two years ago, a courageous man from Rockaway Park decided to go public about his abuse. That man was featured on the front page of this newspaper and told his story of horrific abuse as a child at a local Catholic school. This victim knew he was taking a big risk in terms of his reputation and comfort. As soon as his photograph and story appeared in “The Wave,” he received a host of responses. Some felt he should have kept silent; too few congratulated him for his courage. Some of his so-called “friends” stopped talking to him, and others crossed to the other side of the street when they saw him coming. Today, he has mixed feelings about what he did because he found that many neighbors and friends didn’t like that he went public and embarrassed the church. What he did was courageous, plain and simple, and he deserves to be treated as the hero he is.
The most profound effect of this man’s public revelation, however, was the fact that at least a dozen more cases of clergy sexual abuse came to light. His poignant story prompted many men and women to report their abuse and begin their healing. The reason why the Rockaway community doesn’t know about these people is because they do not yet have the ability to go public with their stories. It takes years for survivors to even begin to deal with their abuse. Hopefully, they will come forward and inspire other survivors to begin their healing.
One victim who came forward as a result of the “Wave” story of two years ago was abused in a Catholic high school. He made that important phone call and began his healing process. Three of those new victims were abused at three different Rockaway parishes. A city of New York worker saw the Wave story and admitted that he was abused by a priest, and a brother and sister who live in Rockaway were moved to reveal that they had been sexually abused in Ireland. Another victim has successfully held a religious order member responsible for serious abuse. These are but a few of the many victims who came forward as a result of the heroic public action of one survivor.
This is how recovery from clergy sexual abuse (and all sexual abuse) works. One victim tells his story and other victims read about it. Then, they realize they are not alone and garner the courage to tell their stories. And the process continues. Healing becomes a reality. Why is going public so important and in many ways the only option for victims? In New York State, the answer rests in antiquated laws.
In most sexual abuse cases in New York State, the statute of limitations has expired criminally and civilly, and victims cannot hold their abusers accountable. Abuse victims have a very narrow time limit for coming forward and reporting their stories, but the research is very clear. It takes decades very often before abuse victims are able to begin to deal with the effects of the abuse. They are left with two alternatives in New York State; namely, remain silent and continue to wallow in the living hell they experience on a daily basis, or tell their stories to the public so they and others might heal.
The survivor of abuse whose photo and story were featured in “The Wave” was responsible for more than a dozen victims of clergy sexual abuse coming forward to begin their healing. We will perhaps be hearing from some or all of these victims in due time. One thing is sure: the New York State legislature must revise the laws of the State to allow victims of sexual abuse to report their abuse and hold their abusers accountable “whenever” they are ready.
By going public, victims attempt to educate, not agitate. They are breaking a silence that has lasted, in many cases, for decades. The last thing victims need to hear is that they should stay silent. Remaining silent about sexual abuse is a death sentence. Victims need their voices and they need them to be heard. That is why we want the young man from Saint John’s Home to know that we affirm him, support him, and consider him a hero.
What we also hope will happen now is that anyone who was sexually abused as a child or minor will come forward, break the deadly silence, and begin to heal.
Anyone reading this who was sexually abused at Saint John’s Home, a local Rockaway parish or school, day care center, family home, the beach or any other location is urged to come forward and get the help you need. You can be sure we will listen.