No room left for hate
St. Catharine’s Standard
Saturday, September 9, 2017 11:45:58 EDT PM
William O’Sullivan, 48, is moving on from years of being sexually abused by clergy. Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network
A note to readers: For a more than a decade, Catholic priest Donald Grecco sexually abused children in Niagara. He will be sentenced Oct. 24 for the abuse of three boys in the 1970s and 80s. This three part series is the story of one of his victims. Be advised this story contains language that might upset some readers.
For those on the inside, prison can seem like a place that time has abandoned.
The immutable routine and the static surroundings make one day bleed into the next and into the next. Sometimes, the length of a man’s hair is his only reliable watch and calendar.
Still, in a sea of unchanging days, William O’Sullivan remembers when the wailing stopped. In the years following his sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priest Donald Grecco and his repeated rape by a Christian Brother at St. John’s Training School for Boys, O’Sullivan’s life spun out of control.
Drugs, booze and crime were staples for many years. Theft and break and enters earned him multiple prison terms, including stints in the maximum security prison in Millhaven.
It was there O’Sullivan began to see his own pain reflected the faces of the men he shared the prison with. While still years away from recovering his repressed memories of being abused by Grecco as a boy, O’Sullivan was keenly aware of what the Christians Brothers had done to him and how those experiences shaped his life.
“Look, it’s not an excuse, OK? I never use what happened to me as an excuse for my bad choices. Everyone has a choice, and I made bad ones,” says O’Sullivan, who now lives in a small house in St. Catharines and works full time as a painter. “But what you have to realize is that kind of experience changes you. It hurts you in ways you aren’t aware of for a long time.”
He wasn’t the only man in prison living with demons forced on him by someone else. So O’Sullivan began to advocate for better treatment and counselling for himself and his fellow inmates. Prison, he believed, should help rehabilitate people rather than just hold them in place.
As deep as his own scars are, there were others whose pain was consuming them.
“A friend of mine (another inmate who was abused) was having a real hard time. He was pleading — I mean sometimes wailing, actually wailing — for someone to help him. But no one did,” O’Sullivan says.
O’Sullivan’s cell was across the hall from his friend’s. If O’Sullivan looked out the tiny window in the door of his cell and craned his neck a little, he could see into his friend’s cell.
One morning, after the man spent a night calling out in pain, a dead silence had fallen on the cell block.
“I looked out of my window, and I could see into the window of his cell. And I could see his torso,” O’Sullivan says, choking back tears. “He hung himself in his cell, and no one found him until the morning.”
It would take a few years before O’Sullivan found his footing, but he was determined to find a better road for himself. He wasn’t going to end up like his friend.
The lasting damage of sexual abuse can be difficult to track. The pain runs deep and colours how a victim relates to the world. Those impacts are amplified when the abuser holds a position of trust and authority like a teacher or a priest.
“You have to understand that, if you are deeply Catholic, or come from a deeply Catholic family, the local priest doesn’t just work for God. He is God,” says Marion Kelly, coordinator for the Toronto chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “So you never think that it was the priest who did something wrong because God doesn’t do anything wrong. Anything that happened is your fault.”
Kelly was sexually abused by her father while growing up in Ireland. She moved to Canada to leave her past behind her but found the ghosts of her childhood clung to her like a shadow.
“I realized I was having a lot of trouble and I needed help. And I ended up in counselling with a United Church minister,” Kelly says. “He sexually abused me for almost 10 years. I was in my mid-40s when it happened. When we talk about clergy abuse, we often talk about children, but it happens to adults too.”
Kelly’s abuser was found guilty of sexual assault in 2009.
In many ways, her case mirrors O’Sullivan’s. Both came from deeply religious families and were conditioned as children to trust priests implicitly. Fear, guilt and shame kept them silent for years.
“Predators like this are very, very good at picking out vulnerable people and knowing how to manipulate them. It took me a long time to see that was happening to me,” says Kelly who has since found a credible therapist and says her recovery is going well.
“I don’t know that you ever fully recover from sexual abuse like that. But you can learn to live with it.”
Crossing the Rubicon from child abuse victim to recovering adult can be like walking through a car wash blindfolded. A person might know where they want to go, but they have no way to navigate the obstacles in front of them.
“It’s a hard road to travel. There’s no doubt about that,” says Rick Goodwin, executive director of Men & Healing in Ottawa, an agency that helps victims of sexual abuse. “I would start off by talking about the role of therapy. I don’t think that’s the be all, end all of the ways to recover, but it may be the most conventional or most possible in people’s lives.”
Goodwin said when children are sexually abused the normal progression of their self-identity gets warped, creating a stew of self-loathing, anxiety, depression and anger. But under all of that, it is another, more corrosive emotion.
“Shame is more the bedrock of trauma,” says Goodwin. “Shame is probably the hardest emotion to sit with, to express. People go out of their way — people drink themselves to death, people will murder — not to feel shame. It’s that much of a kicker of an emotional state.”
For many victims of clergy abuse — crushed by the twin pillars of religious authority and emotional trauma — even admitting that shame exists is a Sisyphean task.
“I never talked about it to anyone,” O’Sullivan says. “You know, as a young man, you think, men don’t get raped. Men don’t get sexually abused. That happens to women. So if it happened to you, it’s like admitting it is questioning your manhood. So I said nothing.”
Goodwin says as male victims age they will often instinctually, and even irrationally, reject male authority figures. This not only impacts future job prospects in several ways, but it also means they are less likely to report abuse to another man.
O’Sullivan says since coming forward in 2010 about what Grecco did to him, he’s learned to understand where his sense of frustration, anxiety and rage are rooted.
Perhaps the most liberating experience of his life, he says, came in jail after reading a headline about Grecco’s first conviction. The paper did not just unlock suppressed memories of his childhood abuse; it gave him the impetus to do something about it.
“I reported to the jail’s lieutenant, which wasn’t easy,” O’Sullivan says. “He didn’t just treat me with respect, but he believed me.”
Journaling — something he has done since his final days in prison — along with therapy, and support from his children and family have carried O’Sullivan a long way.
But the journey isn’t over.
O’Sullivan came face-to-face with Grecco in court Thursday, looking directly at the man while he read his victim impact statement.
“It was very emotional,” O’Sullivan said outside the court house. “I ran into a counsellor from the Niagara Sexual Assault Centre who was at the hearing. She asked me if I was OK, and what I would be doing later.
“I said, ‘Tonight I will be with my family.’ And she said, ‘What about tomorrow?’ And I said ‘I am going to be calling you.’”
O’Sullivan says he still has dark thoughts. Moments when the idea of violent vengeance seems like justice. But he knows that isn’t how he builds a better future.
“I have no more room for hate in my life,” he says. “I want to have a life, you know? So I have no choice but to keep moving forward.”
A response from the St. Catharines Catholic Diocese:
The Standard reached out the Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines to discuss the issues raised in this series. Diocese spokesman Vice-Chancellor Margaret Jong declined an interview request, but did offer the following the statement:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. While we can’t understand the suffering, they have experienced, and we can’t undo the wrong that they endured we do hope these court proceedings will provide a sense of closure and a time of healing for the victims and the families.”