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Written by Brett Larson
Thursday, March 19, 2009
For Jeff Athman, recovery from sexual abuse has taken decades
When Jeff Athman was in his early 40s, he began a downward spiral that cost him his job and nearly his family. A darkness previously unimaginable overtook him.
He woke up crying, shaking, his mind full of gruesome images. During the day, he was obsessed.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t run,” Athman said. “I couldn’t stay awake. I couldn’t be around people. It was continuous.”
He’d start crying at work. He’d fall asleep on the job. At night he’d lie awake, remembering. The memories were worse than nightmares. Gruesome. Brutal. Evil.
“Abuse” is too mild a term for what he was remembering. Jeff Athman was raped. Many times, in several locations, for several years. From the time he was nine or 10 until he was 13 or 14, Jeff was abused — raped — by a Crosier brother. Here. In Onamia.
The memories were so powerful that he knew he had get help. “Without doing something about it, I’d be living in a cardboard box, or I’d be dead,” Athman said.
Grooming a victim
Jeff and Peggy Athman were married for over 20 years before the traumatic memories of sexual abuse began coming to the surface.
Jeff Athman, who now lives in Bloomington, came from a large Catholic family. His parents were prominent members of Holy Cross Church and the Onamia community. Like countless generations of Catholic boys, including some of his own brothers, Jeff became an altar boy.
When he was preparing for services, one of the Crosier brothers, Brother Greg, took a special interest in Jeff — making sure he looked his best, complimenting him about his appearance, helping him perform his duties correctly.
He knows now that it was all part of the abuser’s pattern: He was grooming his next victim, winning him over with hugs and attention.
It was an atmosphere of love and acceptance mixed with mystery and fear. He remembers making a mistake during a service. “The priest said if it happened again, I’d get my f—ing head knocked off,” Athman said.
The grooming went on for about a year, Athman recalls. Then it progressed. An innocent tour of the seminary would end in a dorm room or an attic where the touching became more intimate, more sexual.
Authorities on sexual abuse say it results in pleasure for young boys discovering their sexuality. It leads to confusion and isolation.
For Jeff, there was something good about it, something enjoyable, yet it wasn’t something any of the other boys were talking about. “Oh my God,” he said, suddenly animated. “There’s so many kids out there who don’t have a clue of the trouble their friend is in.”
Jeff didn’t know if it was wrong, especially since the perpetrator was associated with the church.
“This was a man who made you look good and feel good, and he’s working for the establishment that your parents use for the foundation of your upbringing and their lifestyle,” he said. “People wonder why you don’t walk away, but he made me feel good. How can it be wrong?”
The church was the center of his family’s life — more important than school or work. Life revolved around daily prayers, weekly services and annual rituals like Lent and Good Friday. “I was more exposed to religion than government by a long ways,” Jeff said. “The government didn’t run my life. The church did.”
Jeff’s gruesome memories are not confined to the walls of Crosier Seminary. At some point, he recalls, he was taken to “the cabin,” a Crosier-owned retreat on the east side of Mille Lacs. He remembers driving into the driveway, but he doesn’t remember being there or going home. His memories of what went on are sketchy, and he’s not sure he wants to open the door any wider. His therapist has told him he doesn’t need to go there. Jeff will say this: “It’s illegal for me to burn it down, or it would be down. It was nothing more than a horror home for little boys.”
Other men who have come forward had similar stories of the cabin and a house in Minneapolis that Jeff was taken to, a place Brother Greg referred to as his mother’s house. Jeff went there on a weekend trip to a Twins game. He has no memory of the game, but the memories of what went on in the house have come into focus during the last eight years.
He is hesitant to talk about the graphic details, but they emerge piecemeal in conversation. Imagine the worst things that can happen to a 10- or 12-year-old boy. That’s what Jeff remembers.
Through years of therapy, Jeff has learned that during those formative years, a boy’s brain is being “hard-wired.” Jeff believes his wiring was altered by the abuse.
He has also learned that sexual abuse victims come to a fork in the road: They become abusers themselves, or they become protective of the vulnerable and those around them. Jeff was one of the lucky ones.
For more than 20 years, he repressed memories of the abuse and the rapes. During his teen years, he got in fights both to protect his family and friends and to express the rage inside. “I was mad at the world, and I didn’t know why,” he said.
“From my mid-20s until my 40s, I self-medicated to excess,” he went on. He had forgotten the abuse, but there were always signs — secret thoughts that scared him and made him ashamed. Things he wouldn’t share with anyone.
His wife, Peggy, said, “He lived what looked to everyone else like a normal life.” She sometimes wondered about the stories he told of his childhood — the anger, the fights — but never had an inkling of the trauma he would eventually remember.
Jeff said they were the Joneses everyone else wanted to be. But when the memories returned, he completely lost the ability to function. He eventually got fired. “That’s where all the excelling gets you,” he said. “It doesn’t get you diddly.”
It was the fall of 2000 when the downward spiral started. “There was no way I could medicate enough to keep it from hurting,” he said. The pain was not just mental, but physical as well, which he’s learned is a common symptom in abuse victims.
The dark period lasted two or three years, until he finally got the help he needed. He found a psychologist who specializes in helping men who have been sexually abused, and his legal case was taken up by attorney Jeff Anderson — one of the nation’s leading advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Since then, it’s been like a long climb out a deep hole, with many ups and downs and plateaus.
Jeff told Peggy about the abuse eight years ago and told friends and family four years ago. When the memories started coming back, he would talk to Peggy about them, unsure if they were real. As they both became convinced, they dealt with some who doubted and others who thought he should “drop it, get over it, move on,” he said. He lost a friend and experienced tension with family members.
It was only recently that Jeff could look in the mirror and say the words describing what happened to him. For years, he could only answer “yes” or “no” when his therapist asked him questions. “I could do that,” he said. “But to sit there and tell you the graphic details — that was 12 months ago, and I’m 51 and a half years old. It is so life-changing.”
A $1.7 million settlement between the victims and the Crosiers last month has given him a sense of vindication. Seeing the order admit the crimes of its members meant a lot. The day of the press conference announcing the settlement was difficult, but when it was over, a feeling of peace came over him. “It was like I took a shower and washed all the s— off,” he said. [MN SNAP note: video of press conference inserted below this article]
On a mission
No matter how bad things got, Peggy stuck with him. “I’m an optimistic person. I believe in angels, and I believe it will all be okay,” she said. “When we met, I felt like I had known him my whole life. Even on the worst of days, we could always make each other laugh.”
Peggy says she skipped over some of the stages of grief and went right to anger. “I’m mad at that guy for hurting my Jeffy,” she said. “And I’m mad at the Catholic Church for not doing anything about it.”
Peggy stuck with Jeff through some difficult times.
Jeff says he still hasn’t gotten angry at the man who abused him. “If I saw him on the street, I’d call him ‘Brother Greg,’” he said. “I wouldn’t walk up to him and call him an asshole.”
But the anger seems close to the surface. “These guys are monsters,” he said. “He doesn’t deserve to ever be able to smile again.”
Jeff and Peggy (who was also raised Catholic) have stopped going to church, but they haven’t stopped believing. They call themselves “spiritual,” but they have nothing good to say about the leaders of the Catholic Church who allowed this to happen.
“When you put your money in the offering plate,” Jeff said, “a percentage of that is paying for defending and harboring the rapists — to defend these guys and hide them and give them a place to live.” The Catholic Church, Athman says, has spent over a billion dollars defending priests and brothers in lawsuits.
Jeff and Peggy don’t like the word “closure.” Jeff likens his situation to that of a soldier who has been on the front lines. He’ll never get over what he’s seen or done, but he’s reaching the point where he can understand it and move forward into the future, helping those who are now in the heat of battle.
He describes himself as being on a mission to educate people about sexual abuse.
Jeff knows there are many other victims going through the same thing he went through. So far, 100,000 victims of clergy sexual abuse have come forward. It’s estimated that only one in five tell their stories. If that’s true, a half million people have been abused by clergy.
There are 39 million victims of sexual abuse in the country, he says, his voice gaining in volume and his body becoming tense. “Think if those 39 million had good childhoods,” he says. “Think of what a great world we’d be living in.”
Jeff Athman believes there are other men who suffered the same things he did in the Onamia area. “I bet there’s 30 within 10 years either side of my age,” he said. He is willing to talk to anyone who needs to tell their story. Call the Messenger for Athman’s contact information.
Photos by Brett Larson
Mille Lacs Messenger
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Written by Brett Larson
Mille Lacs Messenger
Wednesday, 15 July 2009 14:09
Bob Schwiderski, the Minnesota director of SNAP — Suvivors Network of those Abused by Priests — was able to garner a lot of media attention for his Saturday, July 11, silent vigil and press conference outside the Crosier community in Onamia.
The event, which was open to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their loved ones and the media, was publicized on the websites of WCCO in the Twin Cities, KTTC in Rochester, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Duluth News Tribune. A press conference and hour-long silent vigil were on the agenda, along with a confidential support group meeting for victims and their loved ones. It was scheduled to coincide with the Crosier community’s all-school reunion.
In spite of the coverage, the event was sparsely attended.
Besides Schwiderski, the only ones who came were two family members and one local news reporter.
Both family members left before the silent vigil, which did not occur. The support group was also cancelled.
Schwiderski, who has been an advocate for sexual abuse victims since the early 1990s, was undaunted. He took the opportunity to make a video with RoseAnne Spahn-Meyer, an Onamia native whose brother, Chuck Spahn, was abused by a Crosier brother when he was altar boy in Onamia.
Spahn was part of one of the original lawsuits that uncovered evidence of sexual abuse by Crosiers and led to a $1.7 million settlement with some of the victims in February of this year.
Schwiderski and Spahn-Meyer are both unsatisfied with the Crosiers’ response to sexual abuse by members of their order. She said the Crosiers — who strengthened their sexual misconduct policy and asked victims to step forward — did not help her family. “They scooped up Brother Madigan and hid him from us,” Spahn-Meyer said. “But we know where he is and we’re keeping an eye on him.”
She said the family wanted an apology and wanted the names and photos of all credibly accused Crosiers released in order to protect others from the type of abuse that happened to her brother. “To think that we couldn’t be safe in this small, rural town,” Spahn-Meyer said. “It just shakes your trust in the world.”
Schwiderski is also outspoken about his dissatisfaction with the Crosiers’ response. He believes the Crosiers should go to each parish where known or suspected abusers served and ask victims to step forward, but he doesn’t believe the order has done so. He also said the Crosiers, after promising to release all names of credibly accused abusers, continued to withhold information. He said two credibly accused abusers continue to work in public roles with the order.
The Crosiers say all offenders have been removed from public roles (see below).
On a mission
Schwiderski is motivated by his own experience of abuse at the hands of a priest in Hector, Minn., where he grew up. From the age of 7 to 11 he was sexually abused by a diocesan priest, as was his older brother.
He believes now that the abuse contributed to alcoholism and promiscuity. He sent his three children to Catholic school, and one day at mass, when he saw his son dressed as an altar boy — “It all came crashing down,” he said. He drank heavily and telephoned priests in search of answers to his questions and help in overcoming his childhood trauma.
“In 1990,” Schwiderski said, “I hired a lawyer because the church would not help me.” Schwiderski found other victims of the priest, both in his own hometown and another parish where the man had served. “If you were an altar boy in Hector, you were abused by that son of a bitch,” he said.
Schwiderski said the priest was moved to another parish, even after Schwiderski’s brother told his father what had happened, and his father told the bishop. Although his court case resulted in a strengthened sexual misconduct policy in his home diocese, Schwiderski does not believe litigation is the key to healing. He became empowered by sharing his story and listening to others who had suffered similar abuse, and he keeps moving forward in his mission to encourage other victims to speak out and force the church to face the realities of sexual abuse.
“We have to eliminate the primary social sickness in this country, which is sexual abuse of children,” Schwiderski said. “People have to know it’s O.K. to break the silence.”
Praying for healing
The Crosiers acknowledged the demonstration and released a statement in response from prior provincial Thomas Carkhuff. The statement begins, “Today, as many of our Crosier Alumni meet together in this All School Reunion, SNAP has gathered a group of people across the street from our Crosier Community of Onamia, Minnesota, to remember those who suffered sexual abuse in the past by some members of the Crosier Order. We join with them in praying for healing for those who have been hurt by any form of sexual misconduct.”
Carkhuff admits that Crosiers have committed sexual abuse and says the Crosiers are “deeply sorry for the pain and suffering which these scandalous acts have brought upon sexual misconduct survivors and their families.”
The statement also says the Crosiers are committed to stopping the cycle of sexual abuse and lists the actions the Crosiers have taken to deal with the problem, including a strengthened sexual misconduct policy. Among other things, the policy:
• “Requires, as does the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the removal from public ministry of anyone who has been found to have committed sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult;
• Mandates the notification of civil authorities if there is suspicion or knowledge that a child or vulnerable adult has been abused;
• Directs us to conduct more thorough background investigations on those seeking to enter the Order.”
Finally, the statement outlines additional steps the order has taken toward preventing sexual misconduct:
• “In 2002, we commissioned a third-party investigation of every allegation of sexual misconduct against a Crosier priest, brother, or employee to ensure accountability and the safety of the people the Order serves. That investigation found that the most recent incident of sexual abuse of a minor reported to the Crosiers occurred more than 15 years prior to the 2002 investigation. (A summary of how this investigation was conducted appears on the Crosier website at www.crosier.org.)”
• “Every current Crosier who has been found to have committed sexual abuse of a minor has been removed from public ministry, has been named publicly, and will remain under restrictions as long as they remain Crosiers. There have been no reported incidents of further sexual abuse of a minor by a Crosier after he has been placed under restriction.”
• “In our priory communities in Onamia and Phoenix, we have also taken up very deliberate work in addressing issues of sexual health; we also work to better understand all appropriate and inappropriate boundaries in our relationships with everyone.”
• “Personally and communally, we work with qualified and trained professionals to deal with any of our men who have committed any sexual misconduct. Since 2003, we have worked with Project Pathfinder, Inc., an organization dedicated to the elimination of sexual violence and abuse. They, along with other skilled experts, have helped us develop and implement a province Program of Accountability and Care.”
The statement concludes as follows: “We Crosiers recognize that full and frank disclosure about sexual misconduct is important to speed the healing process and empower unknown victims to come forward and seek help. We strongly encourage individuals to report any information regarding incidents of sexual misconduct to the Provincial (602) 443-7100/.