How Vulnerable Adults Are Abused by Predator Priests

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

There is a lot of sympathy for minors who have experienced sexual abuse by priests—due to the nature of consent, legally and culturally, it’s almost universally seen as a black-and-white, good-versus-evil matter. But for vulnerable adults, often doors begin to shut, settlement checks shrink, and sympathy becomes mixed with suspicion. 

Steve Hayner’s story is an example of how a man in his early 20s could be abused by clergy, even if he should have been “old enough to know better.” Emotional trauma from an abusive home, developmental delays from childhood drug use, severe mental health problems, the power imbalance between priest and layman, and a year of grooming and trust-building, all set the stage for Steve to be used sexually in a way that has left him in deep suffering.

In the second part of this story, we will look at the failure of Church leaders to care for Steve after the abuse. But in this first part, we will describe the initial abuse—both that taking place during his childhood and then later abuse from two different priests, one based in the Diocese of Albany, New York, and one in the Archdiocese of New York. 

As Steve describes it, he grew up in a broken atmosphere in 1960s and 70s Troy, New York. His father had a lot of emotional wounds from his time fighting in WWII, and he took out his anger on his sons.

“It was violent: verbally, mentally, emotionally violent,” Steve recalled. “I got it the worst, even if I wasn’t acting up. I was just a kid but was never allowed to be a kid. I was always being scrutinized, judged.”

Despite this environment, his mother, a French-Canadian Catholic, would get the family to say the Rosary together, take them to Mass, and send them to Catholic school, which all contributed to a sense of Catholic identity.

At a young age, though, he lost that faith, largely due to the early-childhood trauma of abuse. He started using drugs at 12 and stopped attending Mass at 14.

“I was into rock ‘n roll; I was into partying; I was into drugs and alcohol,” Steve said of that time. “People liked me. I was funny. Because of my suffering, I had developed a sense of humor, so I used to have a lot of friends.”

But under it all, he was not happy and had a lot of buried pain and depression. Then, at 22, inspired by a televangelist, he said the Sinner’s Prayer. Initially, Steve said he didn’t fully mean it, but he kept saying it periodically until he thinks it finally sunk in fully around the fifth time, and he gave his life over to God.

“That changed my life,” Steve said. “That was the pivotal moment when God allowed me to come back to Him, and I had a lifting of every horrible feeling and from being disconnected to the Sacraments through my sin.”

He returned to his childhood parish, St. Augustine’s, where he had attended his last Mass in the 8th grade. But tragically, even though he was returning in hopes of healing and being reconciled with God, Steve was also walking into the den of a sexual predator who would immediately spot his wounded state and see an opportunity. 

After reentering those doors he’d walked through many times as a child, he gave an initial confession. Steve believes the priest who heard his confession was his eventual abuser. Afterward, he went to the back of the church to say his penance and saw a priest darting back and forth.

“I got this feeling that somebody was looking at me, and I look up, and this priest was staring at me,” Steve said. 

He said the priest, Fr. Neil McGettigan, OSA, eventually came over and introduced himself and invited him to play tennis. Steve believes the first entire year they spent time together, in 1983, McGettigan just wanted to place himself in a position of trust as his “new father.”

“So he befriended me, started buying me stuff, you know, little things,” Steve said. “Now, I had no emotional attachment to my father growing up; I was afraid of my father, and I hated my father. I had been struggling with that. So the priest said to me one day, ‘You know, I’m a pastoral counselor; I can help you with your anger with your father.’”

For this counseling, McGettigan initially brought Steve to one of the meeting rooms on the first floor of the rectory, where there were other people around. But after Steve broke down crying a few times discussing his childhood trauma, McGettigan offered an alternative location. 

“He suggested that maybe I’d be more comfortable in a different setting,” Steve said. “He took me to his second-floor bedroom, sat me in a chair, and he began to pray over me, and he gently would start to pray with me, he would put his hands on the top of my head. Then what I noticed, as time went on, is his hands would go from the top of my head to my shoulders. Then his hands would go down the sides of my arms, very methodical. Eventually he would do that down my legs as well.” 

But because of the full year of grooming and of McGettigan placing himself in the position of father figure, Steve said he still believed at this point that the priest had his best interest at heart. 

“In my wildest dreams, at that point, I would not say he was trying to harm me or trying to sexually seduce me.”

Despite having been in the party lifestyle, Steve said he was still a virgin and very naive on sexual matters. But he had never been attracted to men and had only dated women, so he strongly rejects any suggestion that he had pursued this in any way. The contact did, however, evolve into sexual acts. Steve said these acts were always connected to counseling or a sacrament, allowing McGettigan to leverage his priestly authority.

“I would disassociate. I would tell myself, ‘He’s a priest; this must be good and of God. His name is father, like in God the Father. This must be God.’ I couldn’t fathom that I was being used for my body, for his pleasure.”

During the counseling, McGettigan would tell Steve he was dealing with “a deprivation of love” from his abusive distant father, so he needed more physical touch to heal. He would repeat this “over and over and over,” and it seemed convincing at the time; but Steve now knows that it was part of the brainwashing to create intimate situations. 

He said this went on about once a week for two years during 1984 and 1985, “always in the evening when no one was around, he would have me up.”

It only ended when Steve believes McGettigan found another sexual interest—a young priest. After two years, the old priest just tossed Steve aside, and it became clear that there was little true care for him. 

“I think he just grew tired of me and basically just moved on. One day he just said, ‘What do you want from me? Why are you calling me?’”

Steve said he just compartmentalized it, because his mind would not have been able to unpack all that had happened. 

“I just buried it all and was numb.”

In Steve’s view, the Church at that time in his diocese had a major issue with predatory homosexual priests who specifically targeted young men, both over and under 18. The bishop of the Albany Diocese at the time, Howard Hubbard, has been at the center of accusations for decades that he facilitated, and even participated in, this behavior. 

The local Albany paper, the Times Union, released a thorough report at the end of July 2021 documenting how Hubbard had covered up for predator priests, placed them briefly in therapeutic environments before returning them to ministry, and himself has been accused of sexual abuse. 

One attorney cited in the report says, Hubbard “was able to protect himself and all of his priests at the same time, doing the same things that McCarrick did. As an offender and also as someone who was in complete control over all the clerics.” 

“I only pieced this together later, but I think it was because I looked so young,” Steve said on why McGettigan targeted him. “And that’s what he was into. I looked like a young teenager. I had a boyish face.”

Even though Steve was 23 when he met McGettigan, he says his emotional state was that of a 12-year-old because of his unresolved childhood trauma, years of drug abuse, and mental illnesses that were diagnosed later by a clinical psychologist. Because of his not being a minor, though, he says many people ask why he didn’t just walk away or they question whether he is gay. 

“This has been an issue when coming forward and presenting my story is that people will say, priests, bishops or whoever the authority figure is will say, or it’s an underlying attitude that, well, you were an adult, you should have been able to know this or that and walk away.”

But Steve said the year of grooming had built so much trust, he viewed McGettigan as a father: “He was my father. He became my dad. After that first year, he was my dad. I had transferred that on to him, and he knew it. It’s such a deep, deep wound in your soul. When you’re betrayed at that level, that doesn’t go away. You may seem fine on the surface, but you’re never the same. You’re never the same.”

Even after this, Steve remained on fire for God following his conversion, and a deep faith continued to grow in him. 

“I went from being completely dead emotionally to being the most alive I had been in my entire life, full of the joy of the spirit, full of the love of God, full of the love of Mary. I would go to Mass every day, confession, benediction, charismatic Mass, anything that I could do to be close to God, I did. I decided at one time I wanted to be a brother.” 

A few family members on his mother’s side had been religious brothers, and he wanted to discern if he was called to the same. So he went to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. After some time interacting with them, he got invited to a “Come See” program to gauge if he wanted to take the next step.

“It turns out that the guy running the program was an active predatory ephebophile [one who preys on teenagers] who tried to groom me. And he did abuse me but it was nothing like the original abuse. All I can say is I fell into a deep depression when I was there.”

Steve said the priest was very active in the local homosexual scene and would try to introduce him to elements of it. He put on gay-themed movies, like the Torch Song Trilogy, and would try to talk him into backrubs and wrote him poems. He said overall the community made him feel very loved and accepted, so he had a difficult time leaving. But then the situation with the priest escalated.  

“It ended with him taking me to New York City, and the guy wanted to take a bath with me and with these candles he brought with him,” Steve said. “But I didn’t do it. I told the guy no. Even today, it just freaks me out, the whole thing.”

How this could happen to him twice has been something that caused him a lot of anguish and used to haunt him. He believes that being abused by one predator creates a wound and a vulnerability that is spotted quickly by a second one.  

“They can smell vulnerability,” Steve said of abusers. “They can pick up your scent. And they know. They are so manipulative and so driven to get what they want sexually from you that they play all these games. They’re willing to play all the games for as long as it takes to get their prey. They’re basically hunting you. They’re hunters.”

After years of therapy, of developing real relationships with people he can trust, and of devotion to the Blessed Mother, Steve said he is no longer someone that would give off this scent of weakness. Two abusers are all there will ever be, he said. 

“There was no third, and there never will be a third. I hope to God…I know that I would protect myself. I’m at a place where I would definitely grab him by the throat. I wouldn’t let anyone harm me again.”

Steve’s strength, built up over years of recovery and prayer, not only gives him confidence in facing potential abusers, but it has also convinced him of the redemptive power of suffering. 

“Through suffering comes a lot of God’s graces. As strange as it sounds, I wouldn’t change anything, even the abuses, because of the amount of closeness to God that comes from pain. I believe that all suffering has redemptive value and I believe that people are touched by the grace from the suffering that we go through. I believe that as Catholics, we all play a part.”

But being groomed and abused by two predatory priests is not the end of the story, or of the suffering. In the second part, we’ll describe how Steve was further abused by a broken process that doesn’t always have much sympathy for vulnerable-adult victims. 

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

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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