By Sarah E. Murphy
David O’Regan used to hide from his past. Facing it has become part of his healing.
David and I connected on Facebook in the summer of 2019, and although we’ve never met in person, I consider myself lucky to call him a friend. I always look forward to his thoughtful posts, which offer much-needed optimism, wisdom, and humor in today’s often negative and insensitive world. He’s a very deep and empathetic soul, and at first glance, you’d never begin to fathom the horror he has suffered.
When I noticed he was a 1969 graduate of Natick High School, I asked if he had known my dad, an English teacher and theater director, who went on to become chair of the department. I figured it was inevitable that their paths had crossed in the halls of NHS. But as he explained, and his senior portrait illustrates, he was quietly coping with PTSD, unaware of what to even call it, and unable to engage in the traditional high school experience.
David’s childhood was stolen by the Reverend Richard J. Ahern, of the Stigmatine Brothers and Fathers, based in Waltham. Ahern was also the director of Camp Elm Bank, an idyllic spot on the banks of the Charles River in Wellesley, for boys as young as six years old. David attended for two seasons, beginning in 1962, the summer after third grade. Although the abuse didn’t begin at the camp, the grooming did, both of David and his parents. The special attention Ahern bestowed on young David was welcomed by the O’Regans, who considered it an honor, for in the Catholic faith, a priest was viewed as the closest person to God, almost God-like himself.
Ahern began seeking out David several times a day. The positive reinforcement he offered was lacking in David’s everyday life, growing up in a large family, while also suffering from dyslexia.
“Predators are skilled at identifying areas of weakness they can use as leverage,” David explained. “For me, it was my struggles with reading and writing. It was something that always made me feel ashamed and stupid. Suddenly, he made me feel good about myself.”
The camp was a welcome escape from David’s dysfunctional upbringing in Natick. His Protestant mother suffered from bi-polar disorder, although undiagnosed at the time; instead she self-medicated with alcohol. His father was a devout Irish-Catholic, emotionally unavailable, who faithfully brought his six children to Mass every Sunday, filling the entire pew.
When his parents went to pick up David at the close of his first summer, they were enthusiastically greeted by Ahern, who embraced them before rushing off, returning with a brochure for the following season. On the cover, it prominently featured a photo of David’s innocent, smiling face. He had been such a delight, Ahern insisted he return for another summer of fun and enrichment.
Therefore, it wasn’t out of the ordinary when Ahern called the O’Regan home after David’s second year. He needed to take a quick overnight trip to Western Massachusetts the following weekend. It was going to be a long and lonely drive, and he could really use some company. Perhaps David would like to tag along? David jumped at the chance for an adventure away from his family, and his parents didn’t hesitate. Once again, it was an honor that the priest had chosen their son.
Ahern took David to see a movie, followed by the ultimate treat: dinner at McDonald’s. The Golden Arches hadn’t come to David’s hometown of Natick, so a Happy Meal was an exciting indulgence. But he had a hard time enjoying either, for he recalled the pit in his stomach that resulted from the moment he got into Ahern’s car. Almost immediately, the priest exhibited a completely different demeanor – cold, critical, cruel.
“You’re not a sissy, are you?” he looked over at David and asked angrily.
“I didn’t really know what he meant, but I knew it was something no 12-year-old boy wanted to be. So I insisted I wasn’t,” David recalled.
When they arrived at the motel, David was instructed to wait in the car, and when Ahern returned, he told David not to call him “Father,” for it would make him uncomfortable, since he wasn’t dressed in priestly garb.
When Ahern opened the door to their room, the first thing David noticed was there was only one bed. Perhaps sensing his nervousness, the priest quickly explained there were no other rooms available, informing him they would have to share.
When David came out of the bathroom after changing into the new pajamas his mother had purchased especially for the trip, Ahern started laughing at him and mocking him. He then went into the bathroom to take a shower, spending what seemed like hours, before he finally emerged.
“When he came out of the bathroom, he was stark naked,” David said.
It began with the priest asking if the boy had ever played the Tickle Game.
“Have you ever seen a man milking before?” he asked, and began masturbating.
“He did things to me that I didn’t even have words for, that I didn’t know someone could do to a person,” David said.
At the time, David believed it to be his fault.
“I always had a horrible self-image, so I thought that was how bad boys were punished,” he recalled.
David would go on to take three or four trips a year with Ahern, until he was 15. According to his calculations, Ahern raped him on approximately eighteen occasions.
Each time the phone call came, his stomach dropped, but he couldn’t tell his parents why.
“Of course he’d love to go,” his mother would always say without hesitation.
Like many survivors, David buried his memories for decades, or perhaps more accurately, his brain saved him from re-living the trauma. It was a secret he kept from everyone in his life, including his wife, Jane, until the Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s groundbreaking reporting in 2002. At the time, they had been married for 32 years. One night, while enjoying their after dinner ritual of drinking coffee and watching the news, the clergy sex abuse scandal, including the Stigmatine order, played out on the screen. The memories came flooding back, and David became uncharacteristically aggressive, yelling at the television.
“It was a side Jane had never seen before, and it confused and frightened her,” he said.
The term “soulmate” is often overused, but in David and Jane’s case, it’s only fitting. They met on Valentine’s Day in 1969. He was working as a security guard and attending Chamberlain College. Having left a party out of boredom, he was headed to a liquor store in Newton Lower Falls to pick up a cheap six-pack. However, he noticed a young woman across the street, thumbing for a ride. She was from Maine, a student at Wellesley College, and she was trying to get to the T (Massachusetts Transit Authority) to visit her brother, a Harvard grad living in Cambridge. She accepted David’s initial offer to drive her to the T, but when they started talking, they couldn’t stop. He offered to bring her right to Cambridge, but when they arrived at her brother’s apartment, David asked if she’d like a tour of the city. He ended up spending his beer money on coffee for two at Howard Johnson’s and a romantic trip to the top of the Prudential that night.
They were married a year later, and would go on to raise six children, opening their home and hearts to many foster children over the years.
As coverage of the abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese continued to unfold each day, David’s memories became more overpowering, resulting in nightmares and panic attacks. A deep depression left him unable to work. Feeling he had finally hit what he described as “rock bottom,” he asked Jane to take a drive, just as they had so many years before.
“I knew I couldn’t face her, so it was the easiest way for me to tell her,” David said. “Having been raised in a dysfunctional home, we were taught to keep secrets and never to air our dirty laundry.”
Keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead on the Massachusetts Turnpike, he finally shared his truth.
“I was one of those boys,” he said.
After a few minutes of explanation, Jane insisted he pull over, and they embraced and cried together.
David cited a Bible reference from Corinthians to describe his wife and her reaction to his revelation.
“’Love is patient, love is kind’. That’s Jane,” he said. “She has been one of my greatest blessings, and has taught me so much about life and love.”
It was Jane who encouraged her husband to seek therapy, and it was David’s therapist who suggested he join a support group where he would benefit from a community.
David offers the same advice to fellow survivors: Get help.
“You need to talk to someone about it, and if you don’t have insurance, many hospitals offer free counseling for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. But you also need to talk to people who have been through it and can truly understand,” he said.
Ahern died in 2001, and his crimes against children are well-documented by Bishopaccountability.org, showing a similar pattern of predatory behavior while serving in Stigmatine parishes in the Archdioceses of Boston and New York, and the Dioceses of Richmond, VA and Springfield, MA.
David requested a meeting with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, for one reason only: he wanted an apology. He insisted that Jane accompany him, for the abuse affected not only Dave, but everyone in his life. After a long pause and much fidgeting with the ropes of his robe, O’Malley offered a tepid and carefully-worded response. Reflecting two decades later, David feels O’Malley’s offering was disingenuous, considering the lack of progress and accountability since then, from the Vatican all the way to Boston.
Although the church paid for his therapy and medication after being raped as a child, David still had to come up with the co-payments.
“I felt as if the church just wanted me to go away. They were just feeding me crumbs,” he said.
David found his spiritual community in 2004, when he attended his first meeting of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. He was shocked at how much he could relate. He no longer felt alone.
“Their pain was my pain. What happened to them, happened to me. When you’re a survivor of clergy abuse, there are certain boxes that you can tick off, things that have happened in your life that may not have occurred otherwise,” he said. “And when people share their story, it gives others license to speak.”
No longer ashamed of his past, today David uses it to empower. He and Jane live in Warren, Massachusetts, and he is now a leader in the organization that has been pivotal in his therapy, heading up the Worcester-Boston chapter of SNAP Massachusetts, along with Steve Sheehan of Bishopaccountability. SNAP is a global organization for victims of all types of clergy sexual abuse, including abuse by nuns, and sexual abuse in general, such as incest or other organizations such as the Boy Scouts. And while the pandemic has temporarily sidelined in-person meetings, David has discovered that the online format is encouraging new membership, for some survivors find it a more comfortable way to connect.
David used to shy away from people, and he never could have imagined himself to be active on social media. But he has found an even larger community of support on Facebook, where he shares inspiration, insight, and on his difficult days, even despair.
“Helping others has become a source of healing for me,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be down. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence.”
If you are a victim of clergy sexual abuse, or sexual abuse of any kind, help is available. Visit snapnetwork.org for a list of online support groups, resources, and information, or call 1-877-SNAP -HEALS (1-877-762-7432).