Gus Kenworthy
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The Consequences of a Priest's Abuse

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It was no surprise to see the name David F. Dzermejko listed among the Catholic clergy accused of child sexual abuse in the just-released Pennsylvania state grand jury investigation.  

Father Dave was our parish priest, and he visited the family constantly after my dad died suddenly of heart attack on a cold, snowy Sunday on his way to taking our family to noon Mass. Dad was one of the first lay distributors of communion in the Catholic Church in the Pittsburgh diocese. He was a saint, and his untimely death when I was 12 was the most crushing thing that could happen to a young boy. However, I was grateful that we had Father Dave to turn to, until he turned on me and threw my life completely off-track for decades to follow. 

Father Dave took my brother and me under his wing with trips to amusement parks, ballgames, pizza outings, and movies. We always seemed to be going somewhere with Father Dave; he seemed to sweep in and be there for us when we needed him. He drove a Cadillac, had a motorcycle, smoked thin More cigarettes, and claimed to have lost over 100 pounds. For a time, I loved that guy and thought he walked on water. He was also a little irreverent with a strange sense of humor. Should a priest be saying these things? I would often think, but my young teenage self enjoyed his crassness.   

Paradoxically, confessions with Father Dave were as normal as they should be, although there was one sin that he would never hear. At the young age of 12, I was beginning to realize my attraction to boys. I couldn’t understand it, but from what I heard, it was a major transgression. I was so confused and so terrified that maybe I was gay. I just knew that was a bad word. A punch line to a joke. 

Yet, as it turned out, Father Dave’s inappropriate humor was a glimpse into his dark side, and that purported care he had for me disappeared violently and in an instant. One day, Father Dave called and asked me to come help him stuff some envelopes for the church, and of course I obliged. While we were working, Father Dave made subtle sexual advances, entwining his leg and hands up and around my leg. He was getting real busy under the table, and I was stunned and shaken. I jumped up, stood up against the wall, and let Father Dave know that I was not gay and quickly left, crying violently.

I was petrified that I would see him again, either at church or at school. I was an altar boy, and I remember getting “sick” so as not to serve Mass. If he saw me, I was sure, he would tell everyone what happened. In a sense, I really was sick. Almost suddenly, he stopped coming around. No more games, pizza, or rides on his motorcycle. And while he was gone, that fear of being found out took a long time to go away.

Did Father Dave see something in me that others might? Did my “gay” demeanor (I didn’t feel as though I had one, but was I mistaken?) provoke Father Dave to see something in me that others might too? Why did he choose me? What did he know?  I was overwrought with fear and confusion, and because of this, took abundant precautions to not be found out.  

As I would for the remainder of my schooling through college, and into adulthood, I became the perennial class clown, was class president, strived to be the most popular person in the room, was determined to have jocks as best friends, and involved myself in sports by way of my writing — always the sports editor of the schools’ newspapers.

At first, as an eighth-grader, it was enormously difficult to work at my public image, all the while remembering Father Dave’s sinister moves. That moment scorched in my mind. My young “public image” was the opposite of what was in my adolescent heart; that awful secret — two secrets really, and painful memories of my dad. I always felt different and never felt like I fit in, and regrettably, I would feel this way most of my life. At that time, it all became too much. One day, I excused myself from class and went to the boys’ room when I knew no one would be there. I wept violently and began furiously banging my angry, sad, and confused head against the wall. Reflecting back, I suppose it was either a cry for help or an attempt to kill myself. But whatever my intent, it was quickly interrupted by a nun who walked in, grabbed me, and took me to the principal’s office. She never asked me what I was doing or why I was doing it. How could she be so naïve? I thought. Can’t she see and feel my awful pain? No. She couldn’t. In fact, she was just angry with all of the racket I was making and how it disrupted her class on the other side of the wall. But what about my disrupted life? 

The religion that my father so revered and the religion that so revered my father seemed to have suddenly betrayed me. The priests, who summoned my dad to service in the church, first as a lector, then as a Eucharistic minister, because he was the very definition of a saint, now cast a spell of evil over his forlorn son. How could these men, who singled out my dad for his piety, now single me out for sin? How could the nuns who taught me, guided me, and grieved for me now be turning a blind eye to my call for help? Was this the same church that my father worshipped? What had happened to divine intervention? What was once a faith to turn to in the hour of need had become belief not to be believed. But maybe it was all as it should be, and I was the one at fault. I possessed that horrible sin. 

Then, not until I turned 50 and sank into the deep bowels of severe depression, did I learn that that single moment in time with Father Dave prevented me from being the man I truly was for nearly three decades. My obsession with sports, my shunning the gay world, disavowing gay friends, only going to gay bars shitfaced drunk. Having sex with men was a dirty sin, and I was sure that my father would always look down on me for spurring on Father Dave. After lots of therapy, I now understand how life-altering that moment with Father Dave was. 

You see, for me it wasn’t about sexual abuse, although that’s what it was. That moment was more about somebody ripping the secret of being gay out of me when I had little understanding of what being gay meant, and then subsequently warping the meaning for decades to follow. My story isn’t as violent or harrowing as the thousands, if not millions, of others. The pain of those who were physically abused by their parish priests must be unbearable, made even more so by how disrupted their lives turned out as a result.

The truth is, I know now that Father Dave was in the wrong. I am, as I should be, a gay man, some might say successful, humbled by the love in my life and the love of my life, who has stood by me for 10 years. I never said anything about Father Dave. Never told my mom. Never sued the church. However, for some time, I thought about him almost every day. Seeing his name on the list of those 300 other accused predators last week made me realize that life now is as it should be. 

JOHN CASEY is a Pittsburgh native and New York City resident. He is the global head of public relations at a worldwide digital consultancy and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York. He is also the author of the upcoming book Spin Stop: Life of a PR Guy.

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