David O’Regan will tell you he’s had a “beautiful, blessed life.” Six grown children. Forty-three years of marriage to a wife he adores. “The baby lady.” That’s what they call Jane O’Regan around the town near Boston where the O’Regans live in a rambling house with a great big yard. They are foster parents. Jane O’Regan always has a baby in tow. They’re caring now for the 69th and 70th child they’ve welcomed: one five months old, the other nine months.
David O’Regan, an imposing, 6-foot, 4-inch 65-year-old, will also tell you he is a prayerful man of faith raised on the Baltimore Catechism in the Catholic Church. “My mother wasn’t well. She was bipolar and treated herself with alcohol and so unfortunately, there was no peace at home.”
But there was peace, even a “mystical solace,” at church, says O’Regan, who became a Eucharistic minister, a prayer group leader, and a CCD teacher who made daily Mass during many, many Lents.
But O’Regan will then tell you this: he stopped going to Mass years ago.
And he nearly lost much else in that once-ordered life: his letter carrier job, his money, even his home. For a time, Jane O’Regan bought groceries on a credit card and Dave sold old electrical equipment on eBay for an extra $20 here and there. This unraveling began in 2002, when The Boston Globe started running story after story about the Church cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by deviant priests.
O’Regan was among those children, though he had never told a soul.
“I went to a Catholic summer camp in 5th grade. The first year, I received a lot of attention from the director of the camp, a Catholic priest. He put me up on a pedestal and made me feel very special. As an adult now, I can look back and I see I was being groomed. He was using this technique to eventually set me up.”
He was 11 years old.
O’Regan is speaking about this now because Pope Francis is about to arrive in the United States and because he is currently the New England director of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). O’Regan says survivors he counsels are anxious and bewildered and struggling to reconcile the adulation for Francis with what the pope has actually done to stop sexual abuse and punish those who enabled it. Talk, O’Regan argues, but not act. Will enabling bishops ever be hauled in and forced to answer for what they let happen?
“It was like getting hit in the head with a sledge hammer.” That’s how O’Regan describes first realizing in 2002 that the hierarchy actually knew about abusive priests, including the one who molested him, and still did nothing.
O’Regan then realized, too, how tragically similar child victims’ stories were to his own. Many kids were from troubled homes, like his. They acted out, like he did. Their families totally trusted priests, as his did. This made kids like him the predators’ most appealing targets. They were the least likely to be believed.
Bombarded for weeks by gruesome details of priestly abuse in the papers, on radio and TV, O’Regan began to crumble. The details of his own abuse flooded his brain. He’d cry uncontrollably on the way to work. He had nightmares. He’d punch the air to fight his abuser off and wake himself up. After accidently hitting his wife, he started sleeping on the couch. Eventually he stopped going to work. His frustrated physician refused his pleas for more anti-depressants, saying O’Regan already had enough “to tranquilize an elephant.”
“For years, my wife and I had a tradition. After dinner we said mom and dad would have coffee together and watch the TV news, then come back to the family. Some time alone together. But I was just coming unglued. She could see the rage coming out of me and she had no clue why and I didn’t know how to tell her.”
One night, he finally asked Jane to go for a ride on the Mass Pike. Driving at 70 mph, he knew he’d have an excuse to look straight ahead, not into her eyes. “I told her. It was tearful. But she is an amazing lady. ‘I will do anything I can to help you,’ she said. ‘Just tell me what it is.’”
David O’Regan went into therapy and joined SNAP, where other survivors’ stories helped him deal with his own. At SNAP meetings now, he’ll tell survivors that he’s “going to embrace their pain and lift them up in prayer,” he says. “But sometimes they get angry when you say things like that. I’ve heard that clergy sexual abuse is like soul murder. They wonder how I can have any faith left after what’s happened.”
Once upon a time, Dave O’Regan will tell you, he considered becoming a priest himself. “And I used to consider Sundays a day when you get the family to church and you recharge your own batteries. But that became too painful for me.
“I still believe in the principals of the Catholic faith. I believe that I live them every day. When I go out that door, I bring them to the world. So my faith I still have. I just don’t have a church community now where I can go and be nourished and fed and hear the gospels and the homilies.
“I consider myself a person of integrity. I just can’t be part of that anymore,” he says. “The Catholic Church is no longer my vehicle to heaven.”