Survivor Spotlight: David O’Regan Leads With Compassion

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 O’Regan’s senior photo from Natick High School in 1969.

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. 

David O’Regan, pictured right before the abuse began.

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.”

Jane and David O’Regan at the Coliseum in Rome, Italy.

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).

Get Out The Vote: Community Mural Aims to Motivate

By Sarah E. Murphy

A colorful call to action illustrating the importance of voting will be on display at Falmouth’s Peg Noonan Park on Main Street through Election Day. The project was spearheaded by the Falmouth League of Women Voters, which hosted a community painting day on Saturday, October 10.

Conceived by Falmouth resident Sarah Pring of the LWV and designed by Sandwich artist Jackie Reeves (pictured above) the three-panel “Be a Voter” mural is a sign of our times, spanning the long, hard battle for women’s suffrage to the mail-in voting that has already started across the country.

The public was invited to contribute to the mural at a paint-by-numbers style event. Participants signed up for a short time slot, and after selecting a color, the community artists filled in the corresponding block. Social distancing and masks were respectfully enforced at the event.

Tucker Clark of West Falmouth starts filling in the border of a section showcasing the time-honored tradition of casting a ballot in-person at the polls.

A few hours later, the finished product…

Oliveann Hobbie, longtime member of the League of Women Voters, serves as the organization’s publicity manager. The LWV is a non-partisan organization open to women and men, which encourages informed and active participation in government.

In keeping with the LWV’s mission, the mural directs voters to the LWV website, in addition to vote411.org, a comprehensive resource by the League of Women Voters Education Fund.

Jackie Reeves’ hope is not only to inspire a wave of young voters, but also to remind citizens of every age that every vote matters.

Falmouth is lucky to have the vision of this thought-provoking artist, who co-created the profoundly beautiful James Baldwin mural on Route 6A in Barnstable Village with fellow artist Joe Diggs.

The completed banner is inclusive and inspiring, showcasing the many faces of the American voter, reflecting our nation’s diversity.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Mail-in ballots can be dropped in person in the gray mailbox in front of Falmouth Town Hall. Visit http://www.falmouthmass.us/655/Election-and-Voter-Information for additional info on polling locations for casting your ballot in-person, and more. Your vote counts; make your voice heard…

September 27: Five Years Later

By Sarah E. Murphy

It seems impossible my father has been gone five years. Since I watched “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or willingly listened to Celtic music. Since he enveloped me in the comforting scent of after shave, soap, and wool. Since I went from being a Daddy’s Girl to a Fatherless Daughter.

Dad never liked Sundays. He always got the blues. But he loved Indian Summer. Therefore, it was somehow fitting he died in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 27.

It all happened so fast. After an excruciating year in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency rooms, he seemed to be getting a little better. A bed had just become available at Royal Nursing Home in Falmouth, and his team at Brigham & Women’s thought that would be the best place for him, considering he had already received such excellent care from Royal. Despite the circumstances, Dad loved it there, charming all with his twinkling blue eyes and genuine interest in anyone who appeared in his doorway.

My older brother, Ted, and I had recently met with the director, pleading Dad’s case like helicopter parents trying to secure a spot in the most popular preschool, hoping the sepsis diagnosis wouldn’t hurt his chances of being re-admitted. 

On Monday, September 14, we got the news for which we had been desperately waiting. The infection was under control. Dad could come home. 

Little did I know as a child that some of my happiest memories would later derive from pulling into the parking lot of Royal to see my mom’s car already in a spot near the door, the Marty Walsh and Elizabeth Warren stickers slightly askew on the silver bumper. At the time, I was working at Museums on the Green, right down the street on Katharine Lee Bates Road, so I could jump in my car at a moment’s notice to visit him.

No matter how much he adored his six kids, no one could lift Dad’s spirits quite like Mom – a testament to fifty-four years, spanning courtship, marriage, and enduring friendship. Growing up in a large Irish family, it was rare to get one-on-one time with either of my parents, or even better, time with them together. 

Walking to Dad’s room at Royal, through the lobby, past the nurses’ station, around the corner, and down the hall to the right, I always felt the same peaceful anticipation as I did walking up the brick path at my childhood home on Grand Ave.

Feeling safe. Cherished. Loved.

They’d be deep in conversation, and Dad would act pleasantly shocked to see me. He’d always say my first and last name, stretching out the syllables as though incredulous and overjoyed that I was actually standing before him. 

“Sa-rah Mur-phy! Where the hell did you come from?!” 

Seeing Mom sitting by his bedside filled me with serenity. On the tray table would be his coveted Boston Globe, along with one of his favorite meals she had prepared or, later, when eating became a chore, a homemade frappe Rocky Balboa style, full of raw eggs for the much-needed calories. 

It was the same way he’d always greet me when I moved back home to Falmouth in 2003, after living in our family house in Newton for eight years after college. Now two minutes away from my childhood home on Grand Ave, on the other side of Falmouth Harbor. 

I’d knock softly on his office door, once a bedroom I shared with Courtney. He’d be sitting at his desk, hunched over the latest manuscript he’d soon be asking me to type, his elegant penmanship spread horizontally across the white copy paper, a space heater running near his feet, sometimes even in summer.

Or down the hallway, in the room my parents dubbed “The Love Nest,” because of its cozy ambiance, where they sat and talked about everything from Irish literature to politics to patriarchy. Usually when I opened the door, one would be on the phone, the other on the computer, while Rick Steves, Oprah, or occasionally Dr. Phil could be heard offering commentary in the background. Or Dad would be on the futon, hunched over while checking his blood sugar. 

No matter what he was doing, he’d always offer that same excited greeting. 

“Sa-rah Mur-phy! How the hell are ya?!” 

I was in a meeting at Museums on the Green on Tuesday, September 15, when everything changed. We were on the second floor of Conant House, where my office was at the time, sitting around the table brainstorming plans for Christmas visitation, one of the signature events for the organization. Back then, I still loved Christmas, just like my dad. I was excited just talking about the prospect of transforming the historic homes into a yuletide yesteryear. However, the middle-aged voice in my head kept nagging at the eager little girl reminding her not to get ahead of herself. There are some things Santa can’t bring, and so much could happen between then and December. 

And with that came the texts from my sister, Courtney, who was living in Lexington at the time and spending all her free time visiting Dad, while we “held down the fort” on the Cape as much as possible. We started a sibling text chain when Dad first got sick, in the fall of 2014, when he initially checked into Royal. 

The texts kept coming, becoming more urgent, filled with medical jargon I couldn’t even follow. They no longer thought Dad’s condition was related to his diabetes, which had resulted in some of his toes being amputated. Now it was talk of bone marrow and cancer. I couldn’t process the words, and was trying to discreetly read them, until I couldn’t keep the emotion in any longer.

His doctors wanted the whole family to meet. We needed to get to Boston immediately. It was time to make decisions. 

I got up and left, barely able to offer an explanation.

Later that afternoon, when we had all gathered, the head doctor explained our options, using a six-month timeline. It was the day before Ted’s birthday, forever changed, and I quickly did the math, desperately holding on to the possibility that Dad might still be here for mine in March. One more time for him to sing me Happy Birthday.

He kept describing Dad as “the patient,” outlining the symptoms of Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of early leukemia, and most likely the reason he got so winded whenever we tried to get him to put down his pen and go for a walk. It was probably why he was always so cold.

Blood transfusions would only work for so long, and would only be partially effective, until he could no longer breathe on his own. I listened to the best of my ability, until a visceral sound escaped. Dr. Kristin D’Silva, a young doctor on my dad’s team, rushed over and held me as I sobbed. I will never forget her kindness. In that moment, everyone in my family was trying to process their own grief; I couldn’t expect anyone to be able to comfort me in mine.

Dad refused further tests or treatment. He was ready to die, and he wanted to die at home. 

He was discharged on Thursday the 17th. I had driven up with Joanna and Mom, and I was elected to ride back to Falmouth in the ambulance with Dad, while they went home to get the hospital bed ready in the Great Room. I never thought I’d be the one to watch Dad sign a Do Not a Resuscitate order, or that I wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.

The team told Dad what an honor it was to care for him, respectfully referring to him as “Professor Murphy.” I tried to remain focused on the good news. Dad was coming home. 

I don’t remember how the topic came up, but he regaled the EMTs with tales from his few run-ins with Whitey Bulger, the older and infamous brother of Dad’s college friend, Billy.  He had an inordinate amount of energy, because he was so excited to be going back to Grand Ave. I had to keep telling him to relax and enjoy the ride, without reminding him the reason for his labored breathing. 

I’ve never known the joy of bringing home a newborn baby, but it was what I imagine to be a similar feeling, and it was one of the happiest days of my life, despite the reason for the journey. 

One of the EMTs was from Quincy, and in typical Murphy fashion, I had to at least try to make a small world connection. “You wouldn’t happen to know…?” referencing one of the few Quincy people I did know. A fellow English major at Bridgwater State College, she was the third roommate when my friend, Damian and I rented a house in Port Clyde, Maine the summer we did our senior seminar, a requisite for graduation. 

Not only did he know her, he had married her. 

My dad had driven me all the way to Maine, because I couldn’t take extra time away from my summer job to get a ride with Damian the previous day. We left the Heights at the crack of dawn, or probably more like 7 am. Notorious for never being a morning person, I was in a terrible mood, even though Dad was the one chauffeuring me there on a stifling August day, only to get right back in the car and drive all the way home. Long before cell phones, he probably didn’t even have working AC in the car. And he couldn’t have been happier to do it. 

Dad got “really mad” so few times you could usually remember the reason for the occasion, and my senior year of high school, he got totally fed up with my miserable attitude every day, as I sulked over my coffee.

“For Pete’s Sake, if you’re going to sit at this table, the least you can do is not be such a GD pain in the ass!” Signature Jimbo speak.

Therefore it was only fitting that I’d be the last one to wake up on the morning of September 27 to see everyone sitting around Dad. The house had become quiet sometime between three and four am, and I naively took it as a good sign, that he was finally sleeping soundly.

“He’s gone,” Courtney said gently, although I already knew.

Dad had been calling out for Nana and Papa all weekend, with shocking intensity, in the plaintive voice of a child, as though calling up a staircase, or yelling up to Heaven. He no longer sounded like my dad. He was Jimmy Murphy from the Lake, telling his own dad he was heading out to Boyd Park or the Paramount movie theater. I later learned from my cousin’s wife that my father’s sister had a similar experience in her final hours. Her feet wouldn’t stop moving under the covers. 

“She’s running through her life,” the nurse explained. 

Later, I went up to my parents’ room, and stared out the front window, overlooking the ball park and Falmouth Heights Beach. Sea and sky were flawless, and it could have been any summer day in my youth. Ted was in the driveway talking to Suzie O’Connor, Mrs. Grant was doing yard work, and cars were coming and going at the Sullivans.’ But then a black SUV pulled up, and a classmate of my sister, now an undertaker, approached Ted and shook his hand. He carried a quilt and entered the house, and when he came out, it was covering up the body bag. 

Somehow, I thought I was ready. We already had a dress rehearsal in late June, when Dad aspirated one night at Royal. Ted showed up at my door at midnight to bring Chris and me to Falmouth Hospital, where Dad was unconscious, dressed only in a hospital gown, his hands like ice. “This is it,” I thought, as we drove up Palmer Ave. When I got there, I held his hand and whispered in his ear, pleading for him to wake up, with the same childlike intensity he later expressed. “Please, Daddy,” I begged.

I’ve read countless stories and poems referencing the act of keening, many as a student in my dad’s friend, Maureen’s Connelly’s Irish literature class at Bridgewater State College. But it wasn’t until the moment I watched my father leave Grand Ave for the last time that I truly understood. I curled up in the fetal position on my dad’s side of the bed, and screamed until I couldn’t. I can only imagine who heard me that day. 

My mother, like most Irish-Catholic women, carries unnecessary guilt about countless things, including my dad’s death. She wishes she had been by his side at the exact moment.

Initially, I thought Dad was trying to spare us the pain of his loss, but the more I reflect on the family man he was, I think it was he who couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye. 

I woke up this morning feeling angry that my dad isn’t here, then I had to remind myself of how lucky I am that he was. 

I am forever grateful to be Jim Murphy’s daughter.