Confessions of an Ex-Priest: How Catholic Seminary Forms Victims and Forces False Forgiveness

The crowd leapt to their feet. My bones reverberated with an electric buzz that could only be the Holy Spirit. Over my shoulder, the priest, who had sexually assaulted me in the confessional during college and exploited me for two years after, clapped away.
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On Sunday night around midnight, in the small town of Woodburn, Ore., a 12-year-old boy ran down a street screaming for help. A man dressed only in his underwear pursued him. The boy saw a group of people standing in a driveway and screamed, "Help me, a guy is chasing me." The bystanders drove the boy to his sister's home, where he explained, "Father Angel touched me in my privates."

This sounds like a scene out of a film, but this is not fiction. This is information taken from the Woodburn police department's probable cause statement.

On Monday, Rev. Angel Armando Perez was arrested. He faces allegations of first-degree sexual abuse, furnishing alcohol to a minor, using a child in display of sexually explicit conduct, and driving under the influence.

Like me, Father Perez was ordained in 2002, when the Catholic hierarchy's cover-up of sexual abuse was on the front page of nearly every U.S. publication. We received the same seminary "formation," which is the word used to describe the intellectual, psychological and spiritual overhaul that men undergo as they are "formed" into healthy, celibate and obedient priests.

When we were ordained 10 years ago, new priests were under a great deal of pressure. The people in the pews needed hope that our generation would change the duplicitous and corrupt clerical culture that had been unmasked. We had been "formed" to say all the right things.

A 2002 interview of Father Perez in The Oregonian reveals what he was saying at the time:

The sex scandals trouble him, but Perez says he is confident bishops are dealing with the problems. His new duties come first... "There are rules. There are so many rules," he said... "They taught us at the seminary -- we are not supposed to touch. I don't have any problems with that. I know my boundaries."

Later in the interview, an account of Father Perez's Mass of Thanksgiving is provided. Family, friends and parishioners gathered to celebrate the new priest's first Mass in his local parish.

"I said to them, my faith is very strong," he recalls. "That even though we have these problems in the church right now, these sex scandals, I really believe the Holy Spirit sustains us. God is with us," he said, and stopped to look at his notes. Silence. In the pews, he heard one parishioner applaud. Then another, and another, until they all were clapping. For a moment, the anxiety that accompanies a new Catholic priest in 2002 went away.

I had a similar experience at my Mass of Thanksgiving in 2002. When communion concluded, I stood in the sanctuary of my college campus' Catholic Church. Adorned in a forest green chasuble, I thanked those who had influenced my vocation. In the pews, people from each scene and act of my life awaited my next line.

I strutted into the nave toward the tabernacle and the clear windows that opened to the brick buildings of the university. My vestments swung about like they might lift me into the air. I pointed at the pew in which I'd once sat. "This is where it started. This is where an angry, lost kid listened to a homily about a deaf-mute and was opened to God. This is where I heard my calling to be a priest."

I marched up into the sanctuary and gazed at the upturned faces. They were the real Church, full of longing, willingness and trust. They deserved something more than what scandalous priests and bishops had shat upon them. My voice thundered through the speakers: "No matter what you're hearing in the press -- there's a lot of misinformation out there. Go to the source. Call seminary faculties. Talk to seminarians. The good men are still in the seminaries. And we are radically committed -- radically meaning we're gonna give our all to our vows, to our promises, and we are going to be the best priests that we can be. And live the mystery that we celebrate, which is the Lord's cross. We will turn over our weaknesses to the Lord so that he can make them into strengths."

The crowd leapt to their feet. My bones reverberated with an electric buzz that could only be the Holy Spirit. The foundation of St. Stephen's had never rumbled with such hope.

Over my shoulder, the priest, who had sexually assaulted me in the confessional during college and exploited me for two years after, clapped away. During the Mass, he'd said the homily. I hadn't wanted him anywhere near the celebration, but his absence would have raised questions. An unwritten tradition held that the pastor of the parish "honor" his priestly protégé by preaching at the special Mass. My Franciscan counselor had encouraged me to let my perpetrator preach, as an exercise in forgiveness and letting go.

In 2002, I chose silence, obedience and forgiveness. I played into the cycle of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. So did Father Angel Perez.

On Sunday night, after failing to chase down his 12-year-old victim, Father Perez drove, while drunk, to the victim's home. He told the boys' parents, "I am just one who serves in the church, and I have sinned; don't stop believing in the church." The police report goes on to state that Father Perez refused to leave his victim's home until "the mother forgave him and 'gave him her blessing.'"

At my Mass of Thanksgiving, I provided my perpetrator that same blessing. Eighteen months later, I rescinded that forgiveness and told the truth about what had happened to me. Reflecting on the events surrounding Father Angel Perez's arrest, I fear that other frightened and "well-formed" victims of sexual abuse may have granted him that same "blessing."

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