How Adult Abuse Victims Are Treated by the Church

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[Editor’s Note: This is the second of a 2-part series on vulnerable adults being abused by clergy, and the poor response from Church officials to that abuse.]

In Part 1, we discussed how Steve Hayner was sexually abused by two priests in New York, which left him with deep, lifelong scars. In Part 2, we’ll discuss how Church authorities failed him at every step—both during and after the abuse—largely because, Steve believes, it would shine a light on a culture of predatory homosexuality within the priesthood. 

For a child or vulnerable adult, the best time to protect them from abuse is before it occurs—through strict safe-environment policies that prevent situations where adults are given the opportunity to commit abuse. But some twisted individuals will actively work around these policies, or laziness will erode their enforcement, and abuse will still occur.

In these cases, anyone with knowledge or suspicion should immediately act to protect the vulnerable—whether a child or adult. For Steve, he said there were opportunities for other priests to take notice and intervene, but nobody did. 

When the first abuse happened at his home parish, as described in Part 1, other priests who lived in the house did get suspicious and, on more than one occasion, someone knocked on the door of Fr. McGettigan’s room while Steve was being abused inside. One of the times, McGettigan opened the door and went out into the hall, leaving Steve undressed behind the door. He heard arguing, and then McGettigan came back, red in the face and angry, and he closed the door again. Nothing came of it, and Steve says he believes it was very unlikely that nobody was aware of what was happening.

Similarly, during the second abuse, when he was discerning being a brother with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he says the abuser bragged that the superior knew about his double life in the local gay scene but just looked the other way. These two failures by Church officials to protect Steve during the abuse were only the beginning.

Steve was also failed in the aftermath by the stingy compensation he received and the sense during the entire process that he was a problem to be dealt with, not a child of God under their care. Both the Diocese of Albany and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate determined Steve was due settlements for the abuse he withstood under each of them, but the amounts are a fraction of what is often given in such cases. 

The dollar figures can’t be printed because they are protected by non-disclosure agreements, but they hardly make a dent, considering the impact the abuse has had on Steve’s life, including the decades of revenue lost from inability to work, the cost of hospital stays, and the pain and suffering from multiple nervous breakdowns and dozens of suicidal episodes.

The inability to hold down a job did not just cost Steve financially; it deprived him of the chance to have a satisfying career and the dignity of work held up in Catholic tradition.

“Like everything I did, everything I’ve done, has been a struggle,” Steve said of the major panic attacks he had when trying to take some classes in college. “And I know people have gone through far worse than I’ve experienced, but in my case, every time I’d go to school, every time I’d do something, be around people, be around crowds, I’d meltdown.”

And one of the few part-time jobs he did hold for a period—at the Archdiocese of New York’s Trinity Retreat House from 1990 to 1998—was actually the scene of another major failure and betrayal Steve experienced from the Church. 

Soon after his second episode of abuse, he reported the incident to the archdiocese, and they sent him to Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont, New York, to be “debriefed” by the famous counselor Fr. Benedict Groeschel—a frequent staple on EWTN at the time and the author of many popular books. 

“I have a letter from Fr. Benedict Groeschel that says I was in shock when I came,” Steve said. “And actually, I spent three weeks in bed; I couldn’t get out of bed. I was in a major depression. I was hardly eating. They used to knock on my door and they’d leave food outside my door in a little room on the third floor.”

When he recovered enough to spend more time with the other residents, after about three months, he was invited to work at the retreat house. But he says he later found out it was far from a safe environment for a person recovering from clergy sexual abuse. 

Steve said Trinity “housed priests suffering from pedophilia, ephebophilia, and many other addictions,” and that “Benedict Groeschel primarily did work with men struggling with homosexuality, especially with priests or brothers. But I didn’t know that, nobody told me that, and I was hired by the summer to live and work there.”

Steve said, most disturbingly, he was asked by Trinity’s director, Rev. Eugene Fulton, to drive a notorious child predator, Fr. Ed Pipala, around on errands. He said during the drives they were alone together for extended periods, and Pipala would describe the club he started, known as “the Hole,” which he used in order to groom young boys from his parish. A New York Times article from the time says Pipala was convicted of abusing multiple boys in these clubs and was sentenced to eight years. 

Records show that Pipala was “on leave” in 1992 from his previous parish work and was sentenced in 1994, so if the archdiocese did place him at Trinity at this time, Steve would have been there as well. Crisis reached out to the diocese’s communication team for more information on Pipala’s whereabouts at this time, in order to verify Steve’s story, but did not receive a response.

“He turned out to be one of the worst pedophiles in the history of the Archdiocese of New York. They asked me to drive the guy on errands, knowing that I was there because I had been abused. All these years later, I’m extremely upset that they would do that to me.”

He says he has no ill will toward Groeschel, who he thinks was a saintly man, or toward Fulton. But he also said he thinks it was extremely reckless of them to house a victim and a perpetrator of sex abuse under the same roof and have them interact alone. It also made him wonder why he was invited to live and work there in the first place.

“Did he think I was gay because of my age? Did he think I’d fit in there? I don’t know. He never told me; nobody ever told me that the house was ever used for that.”

A 2006 article in Larchmont’s Journal News said the community was up in arms over the Archdiocese of New York’s “Shepherd’s Program,” which planned on housing priests accused of sexual abuse at Trinity Retreat House. The archdiocese backtracked on the program after the public pressure and a community meeting, but Steve believes their comments were carefully crafted to hide the fact that this retreat house had been used for this purpose for many years. 

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, says, “No priest accused of sexually abusing a minor is currently at Trinity Retreat,” and that they would not send anyone to Trinity “if we know that he has been found to have committed an act of sexual abuse of a minor or if there has been a substantive allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.”

The last failure of the Church is how Steve says he was treated when he took the entire situation outside of New York, when he reported it to the USCCB and to individual bishops. When he was acknowledged at all, he says, it was not with respect.

He said he used the new system on the USCCB website that was set up to report bishops. Because reporting a bishop within your diocese would create conflicts of interest, the system is supposed to add some accountability by bringing a bishop from another diocese to provide an outside eye. But after Steve sent a long description of what he’d endured, and over 20 documents to back up his claims, he’s heard nothing on how his complaints are progressing. 

“They haven’t gotten back to me; they say it should be resolved in the first 90 days, and it’s been over a year,” Steve said. “This is an institution examining itself, so it’s comical and deeply sad at the same time.” 

He said, in a last-ditch effort, he sent another complaint, this time reporting the president of the USCCB, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, because the “bishop-reporting hotline is a fraud.”

Crisis reached out to the USCCB to ask about their version of these events and was told by Chieko Noguchi, their director of public affairs, that “When individuals file a report against a bishop through the Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service (CBAR), they will receive an email acknowledging receipt of the report and containing a case number. At any time, the status of their report may be tracked through that case number. By all indications available to us, the software is working properly in getting reports to their proper destinations.”

Steve did receive a case number and the confirmation of receipt of the complaints, but no further response, he says. 

“The Holy See, which oversees investigations of bishops, has taken multiple measures recently to address the issue of sexual abuse and bishop accountability for the global Catholic Church, and these are measures that include support for survivors, timely investigations, whistleblower protections, conflict of interest bans, reporting systems, and compliance with civil laws,” Noguchi said. “In doing this, Pope Francis has emphasized the ongoing work of the Church in keeping all children and the vulnerable safe. We have made much progress, but we also know that the painful experience of survivors calls us to continual improvement.”

But as a vulnerable-adult victim, Steve said he does not think this system is working effectively to keep bishops accountable. 

“That was the final blow in terms of me trusting anyone within the Church,” Steve said, adding that it made him realize “the cavalry is not coming.”

“The only one who I’ll trust and the one to bring me back and to accept me is Bishop Joseph Strickland [of Tyler, Texas]. He didn’t know me from Adam, and I contacted him and told him my story, and he responded to me. I was amazed. And I struck up a little bit of a relationship, in terms of sharing stuff. I consider him to be an advocate of mine. He’ll help me with whatever he can to some degree. He’s the reason that I’ve stayed within the Church. He’s the only one who has treated me like a shepherd. I’ve written 194 of them; I’ve received three responses. The other two were that they would say Masses for me, I believe.”

He believes a major reason the bishops have not made a larger point of sexual abuse of vulnerable adults is that it would expose a blurry distinction between the sexual abuse of young-adult men (like former Cardinal McCarrick was notorious for with seminarians) and an underlying homosexual subculture present among some segments of the priesthood. 

But regardless, at this point, Steve says he “doesn’t want a dime” of their money, although he believes it would be just. He says instead he simply wants to be a voice for both justice and mercy, balancing the need for those who commit and cover up abuse to be held accountable, with love for all involved—the victims but also the abusers. 

“I was really angry but then I came to a place of realizing that Jesus said you have to love your enemy. Love is the only thing that is going to heal anybody or bring them back, and God loves these guys, no matter who they are. I want their ouster; I want their punishment if necessary. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, but God does desire their salvation. So you’ve got to walk a fine line—reach out in one way, but be strong with them in another way.”

Steve also wants to be a voice for people who’ve suffered like he did, especially those who—unable to withstand the trauma—ended up taking their own lives. 

“My goal is to bring attention to the vulnerable adults. And even more so, there’s a small percentage of victims that were like me but who have committed suicide. We have a day of remembrance for children, but we don’t have anything for vulnerable adults and don’t have anything for those who have killed themselves because of the pain and rejection from their bishop or their provincial when they went to tell their story.”

After years of holding much of this in and suffering in silence, Steve now—moved by the McCarrick revelations and the Holy Spirit—is taking his story public. In addition to this interview, he has plans to write a book and to continue speaking for those abused and neglected by those who betrayed their role to lead God’s sheep. He has also rekindled a relationship with a woman he hadn’t seen since 1990, and he is excited about pursuing a future with her. 

Lastly, Steve said even though CSA victims may be living in darkness and pain, he wants them to know that “God is on your side, He weeps for you and He loves you so deeply and holds you so closely in His burning, Sacred Heart that you’ll never be alone or abandoned.”

If you want to support Steve, you can donate to his GoFundMe account at this link: https://gofund.me/71ab21c6.

By

David Larson is an editor and/or writer for a number of publications and has a masters in theological studies from Spring Hill College. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

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