Chris O’Leary started to sweat in church as he 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.
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 when the New York Times broke a story involving sexual abuse allegations against Father Leroy Valentine, who had been a priest in O’Leary’s childhood parish. The story revealed that in the late 1990s the St. Louis Archdiocese had settled with three brothers who had accused Valentine of sexual abuse, paying them $20,000 each.
O’Leary wasn’t sure if his vague, uncomfortable memories with Valentine meant something inappropriate had also happened to him. He says then-Bishop Timothy Dolan reassured him back in 2002 that he was misreading the situations from decades ago.
“Are you sure this wasn’t a thing?” O’Leary says 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. Something happened during face-to-face confessions 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 and 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, 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 grade where he had a blank spot in his memory.
“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, in which he describes being raped that day.
In October 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 lawyer fees). Gabe Jones, spokesman for the St. Louis Archdiocese, said in an email when asked to comment on O’Leary’s account, “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 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 and mostly went to pay medical and other debts.
O’Leary, now 50 and living in Webster Groves, struggles to leave his house and makes a living selling e-books and DVDs about baseball pitching and hitting techniques. 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 since he first spoke to a church official. And, 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 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.