Survivors of sexual abuse express hope

DANBURY—For 40 years, David D’Andrea kept a secret from the rest of the world, a secret so dark and spiritually corrosive that it affected his health and led to post-traumatic stress disorder.

When he was 13, he was molested by his parish priest, and although his mother knew, she never told her husband for fear of what he might do. Only recently has D’Andrea found peace, hope and fellowship in a survivors group formed by the Diocese of Bridgeport.

He shared his story Sunday at a Mass of Hope, Healing and Reconciliation that was celebrated by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at St. Joseph Church in Danbury. More than 100 people attended the liturgy, which was planned by the survivors’ group and diocesan staff.

“I am very grateful to you, my friends, for being here today,” Bishop Caggiano said. “This is one step in a journey that we will walk together for years to come as we seek healing, a deepened friendship and ways to have others who have been hurt or abused find their own personal road to healing and wholeness.”

Members of the group praised Bishop Caggiano for his compassion, openness and willingness to listen.

“Bishop Frank reached out to me, and it was absolutely the best thing that ever happened,” D’Andrea of Greenwich said. “We had a long meeting, more than 2-1/2 hours, and I was amazed at his ability to listen and offer me his deepest apology and whatever else he could do.”

Despite the torment over his abuse and a series of serious health issues that culminated several years ago with stage-three cancer, he said, “The Lord took me through each time. My faith never wavered, just my respect for some priests…I always trusted in God. I always prayed because I believe in prayer, big time.”

That summer afternoon, his mother rescued him by calling the rectory because he was late for dinner. When he told her over the phone what had happened, she ordered him to leave immediately and then met him at the front door of the rectory. For many years, she shared his secret, although they never discussed the incident.

He said, “You ask ‘Why?’ You ask ‘Why me?’ The best thing you can do is to reach deep into your faith, and trust in God and the professionals and the other survivors who can help you. That bond will be life-altering and the healing will begin.”

D’Andrea, whose cancer is in remission, recalled the day he approached Bishop Frank and asked, “Why does God keep saving me?” The bishop responded, “David, God has a lot he still wants you to do here on Earth.” And for D’Andrea that includes spending as much time as possible with his two grandchildren and helping other survivors find hope and healing.

In his homily, Father Lawrence Carew told stories of two inmates at a state correctional facility who were victims of sexual abuse by priests and how a personal experience of Christ’s healing love brought them back from anger and despair.

“Starting in 1996, the Lord brought me into some experiences of his healing presence, which left me with a whole new trust in his desire to bring deep and lasting healing in the lives of the sexually and emotionally abused in the here and now,” Father Carew said.

The chaplain of the facility, whom Father was assisting, called down to the cellblock, and a half-hour later, a man in his 60s entered the room, grunted and barely looked at the priest. The inmate had been repeatedly sexually abused as a boy. They asked to pray with him so “the Lord could do something fresh and new in his heart to release him from all the pain and woundedness that had been there for so very long.”

The chaplain placed her hands on the man’s shoulders and they prayed quietly for ten minutes. Then, he looked up and said, “Chaplain, I feel connected to you, and I haven’t felt connected to anybody since I was abused as a little boy.” He turned to the priest and said, “Father Carew, I feel connected to you too.” He felt the same for the 700 or so people in the facility and then said, “There are people in this chapel we can’t see, and I feel connected to them.”

Those unseen people that surround us, Father Carew said, are “a great cloud of witnesses,” the saints who stand by us and help us on our path.

Several more times, they prayed with the man, and during one session he had a vision of the priest who had molested him. The priest was on his knees, weeping for what he had done.

“That was an invitation to pray for this priest and he did,” Father Carew recalled. “He prayed for forgiveness for him.” Within three months, the survivor of abuse returned to the Church.

“That was the first amazing experience of witnessing Jesus’s profound healing in somebody who had been so terribly betrayed and abused,” he said. He later collaborated with the chaplain to develop a retreat for survivors of sexual abuse called, “Disregarding the Shame, Reaching Out for the Joy.” Hundreds have benefited from the workshops and offered testimony of divine healing, he said.

“All of us need healing from this tragedy,” he said. “Anytime we sense the weight of this kind of discouragement, we need to invite the Lord into places within us where this darkness has descended. Then, we need to give him permission to replace it with fresh hope, peace and courage.”

In her welcoming remarks, Peggy Fry, who grew up in Trumbull, recalled being abused at 16 by her parish priest, who was a family friend. She never told her parents and said, “There were times when my secret burden became so overwhelming that I found myself looking for ways to cope. It was at these times that I would make phone calls and write letters to priests, bishops, archbishops and even the pope. No one helped me.”

Then, four years ago, she found hope when Bishop Caggiano invited victims of abuse to meet with him and tell their stories. “His genuine reaction and response to us gave us hope. He followed this session by forming a team of committed people, both victims and diocesan professionals, to develop this feeling of hope and use it to work toward healing.”

Throughout her ordeal, she never lost her faith. “I was violated by a man—not God. I never blamed God for what happened to me. He was and always will be my rock. He never abandoned me and always held me in his hands in times of despair.”

Other members of the survivors’ group participated in the liturgy, including Tim Murphy and Joseph Cann Sr., who is studying for the diaconate and whose son died of an accidental overdose after telling them he had been abused.

In thanking the organizers, Peter Philipp said, “I prefer, along with some others, to look ahead, to look towards the goodness of God…I like to give Bishop Caggiano a hard time, but I know that he loves us all and that he is open to hearing us and having us participate with him in the healing of the Church in our diocese.”

Bishop Caggiano said the Mass was offered for those who did not survive abuse, including Joseph Cann Jr. and John Dwyer.

In his concluding remarks, he said, “The problem is betrayal and the abuse of power and crime and evil in our midst, which we as the Body of Christ need to root out to the extent that it still may exist anywhere on Earth.”

“A truth I have come to learn in this life is that we can heal,” he said. “Jesus does it and he does it through us. Every single one of us is called to be a messenger of that healing love and the power of Jesus. Together we can walk this journey because it is not meant to be walked alone.”

For more information about resources available to persons who have been sexually abused as a minor or to meet with the victim assistance coordinators or fellow survivors for friendship, prayer and peer support, contact Erin Neil, L.C.S.W., director of Safe Environments and victim assistance coordinator at 203.650.3265 or or Michael Tintrup, L.C.S.W., victim assistance counselor at 203.241.0987 or