Chris O’Leary started to sweat in church as he and his family moved up the line of parents and kids waiting for a turn at the confessional. When they got to the head of the line, O’Leary was crying and trying not to pass out.
O’Leary’s panic attack hit as his son made his first confession, in 2002.
He wasn’t sure why, but he wondered if it had something to do with hazy memories from his childhood confessions. Three years later, in 2005, his daughter made her first confession. He had another panic attack.
O’Leary had talked to church officials in 2002, after the New York Times broke a story involving sexual abuse allegations against Father Leroy Valentine. Valentine had been a priest at O’Leary’s childhood parish until the Archdiocese of St. Louis began moving the priest around. The story revealed that in the late 1990s, the archdiocese had settled with three brothers who had accused Valentine of sexual abuse, paying them $20,000 each.
The Times story unsettled O’Leary; he wasn’t sure if his vague, uncomfortable memories of confession with Valentine meant something inappropriate had also happened to him. When he spoke to then-Bishop Timothy Dolan, the bishop reassured him that he was misreading the situations from decades ago.
O’Leary also sought clarity outside the church. “Are you sure this wasn’t a thing?” he asked a psychologist. She also told him he was misinterpreting his memories.
So O’Leary buried them.
Then, his life started falling apart.
His panic attacks got worse. He couldn’t concentrate at work, and lost his job as a process improvement analyst where he made $90,000 a year. He got diagnosed with ADHD and then Asperger’s. He withdrew from his marriage of 16 years, which ended in divorce.
“By 2011, I had lost everything,” O’Leary said. He had also begun to accept that something bad had happened to him during his years at Immacolata Catholic Church in Richmond Heights, Missouri. Something happened during face-to-face confession with Valentine when he was in grade school.
“My head would end up in his crotch,” O’Leary said.
He went back to the archdiocese in 2011, met with an investigatory review team and told them what he had remembered. Two months later, he says, Deacon Phil Hengen told him Valentine denied the allegations.
Then in 2013, the church permanently removed Valentine from the ministry, saying in a statement that a recent allegation of an incident in the 1970s was credible. When O’Leary read the reports about Valentine’s removal in the local paper, he had a mental breakdown.
“That absolutely destroyed me,” he said. For so long, he had questioned his own reality and sanity. He didn’t trust psychologists anymore. He didn’t have any faith left in the church. He had already lost his job and family. And he had finally remembered the worst thing of all: That day in the summer between sixth and seventh grades, where he had always had a blank spot in his memory, had come back to him.
“I’m at the door of the rectory. The west door. Trying to get out. My hand is on the handle of the storm door. On the left side of the door. It’s all I can see as I fumble with it, desperate to get outside,” he recently wrote, in a blog post describing being raped that day.
In October of 2015, he filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese. It was settled two years later, and he received $9,000 of a $15,000 settlement after lawyers’ fees. When asked to comment on O’Leary’s account, archdiocese spokesman Gabe Jones said in an email, “The archdiocese’s record of Mr. O’Leary’s allegations are significantly different; however, due to a court order as well as our own ethical obligation, we are not at liberty to discuss Mr. O’Leary’s case.” Jones also said the information O’Leary shared initially changed multiple times by the time he broke off communication with the archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection.
The settlement, which O’Leary says he accepted under pressure of a statute of limitations that would have negatively affected his case, has not healed any of O’Leary’s wounds. The money mostly went to medical bills and other debts.
O’Leary, now 50 and living in Webster Groves, Missouri, struggles to leave his house and makes a living selling e-books and DVDs about baseball pitching and hitting techniques. In addition to ADHD and Asperger’s, he has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, OCD and complex PTSD, but he hasn’t been to a therapist in years because he says the church destroyed his trust in them.
He decided to talk publicly about his case because he doesn’t believe the church is sincere about helping sexual abuse survivors. He wants to warn other parents. He’s published a detailed account and timeline on his website.
“Eventually, I realized the archdiocese didn’t care about me or what happened to me,” he said.
It’s a ghost that has haunted him the past 16 years, ever since he first spoke to a church official. Perhaps he holds out hope that someone in the church might acknowledge how much he continues to suffer -- not just from four years of intermittent abuse, but also from 16 years of not being believed.
He still considers himself a Catholic.
But he doesn’t believe he will ever be able to step foot in a church again.