Priest abused him, says former altar boy Revelations

April 23, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

The boy was 11 and full of religion, curiosity and hormones. The pastor was 46 and running St. Matthias in Lanham. The pastor gave the altar boy a cushy job in the rectory, answering the phones at the Catholic church.

The kid could earn a few bucks, and his parents didn't have to worry about their firstborn working at a convenience or liquor store. Our boy -- chosen to be one of Father Schaefer's altar boys and given a job in the rectory. We'll keep his dinner hot for him and pick him up at the rectory at 9 p.m., his father thought. "What could be better?"

The boy's parents welcomed Father Schaefer into their New Carrollton home for dinner and shook his hand after each Mass.

The pastor's room was down the familiar hall from the boy's desk in the rectory. The Rev. Thomas Sebastian Schaefer was like an uncle to the boy. He was also the "touchy-feely type," the boy noticed. One night in 1972, the boy remembers Father Schaefer telling him, "You could answer the phones from my room." The boy did what his priest asked.

The boy remembers Father Schaefer asking him, "Do you know how your body works? Let me show you." The boy did what his priest asked. And before and after making their bodies work, his priest showed him pictures of naked women and supplied him money from the Sunday collection, the boy remembers.

How could he say no to such moral authority?

The man is now 34. For years, he willed himself not to deal with his secret. And no one got close enough to him to force the issue. Then, the man married, and the barriers he built began to break down. Last year, he told his wife about his years of abuse at St. Matthias. The secret split them apart.

In January, he told his parents. Finally, he told the Archdiocese of Washington. Father Schaefer and three other priests were indicted on child sexual abuse charges involving the man and other alleged victims. The priests have pleaded not guilty. The trial is in August.

The man, described in newspapers only as a "Baltimore-area businessman," doesn't want to reveal his name publicly. He says he's not ready. He wants to understand how the abuse happened and why it lasted six years. His parents want to know why, too. "You get eased into it," the man says. "I felt special."

He wants to know what's left of him.

The man doesn't feel special now: He feels angry and embarrassed. He found a book that has helped him understand what happened. "A Gospel of Shame," written by reporters Elinor Burkett and Frank Bruni, is a 1993 book about sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. The man sent his parents the book before telling them. The book was intended as an icebreaker, of sorts. An education, mainly.

"Trust provides an abusive priest almost unparalleled opportunity," wrote the authors. "But it is his power and influence that enable him to exploit that opportunity so well, seducing his victims into sexual acts and enlisting their silence.

"Since most children are not forced but cajoled by adults into sexual acts, their perception of an adult's integrity and authority significantly influences their vulnerability to that adult."

He learned more from the book.

"Child sexual abuse by teachers and scoutmasters, coaches and day-care workers are serious, damaging crimes. But the betrayal of trust by a man of the cloth strikes closer to the core of a child's soul; the wounds inflicted are clearly, inevitably, deeper."

The book is under a magazine on his parents' coffee table. Both are in their 60s and live in a retirement community. Both still attend Mass. Their son stopped going to church years ago, and he doesn't believe in God. He has no faith in himself, either.

Everything has changed since January, when he told his parents about his years of abuse. He doesn't drop by as much. When he does, everybody is tense. The unspoken is their new language. Their lives are out of a horror story from a newspaper, his mom says.

"It's unbelievable. How do you explain something like that?" she says. "You just feel empty . . ."

". . . and betrayed," his father says.

No defense

His parents won't identify themselves because their son wants it that way. So, his parents keep quiet when they hear people talk about St. Matthias and the anonymous man who brought the charges. "Why did this person wait so long to tell? Why didn't he keep his mouth shut?" the man's parents overheard at a recent dance. They cannot defend their son.

They also want to tell their friends from St. Matthias. "They had sons who worked in the rectory, too," the father says.

The older man is ruggedly handsome, just like his son, who is named after him. Both Irishmen are built like small linebackers. Both fold their arms when they talk about private matters -- and the words don't come easily. Try reading the heart of a father who has just heard his son say he was sexually abused at the safest and most revered institution in their lives: the church.

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