As strange as it sounds, the goal of this post is to praise The Los Angeles Times for a page-one story focusing on a single case history linked to the decades of sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.
At the center of the story are two brothers, Damian and Bob Eckert and the priest, Father Robert Van Handel, who led the community boys choir in which they sang while growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Damian was 9 or 10 when he joined and Bob was about 8.
But the key to this remarkable story, other than the painful memories of Damian Eckert, is a once confidential document. This quotable source surfaced in the legal proceedings linked to the wave of sexual-abuse cases in California, including the Van Handel cases and others linked to the now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara.
Simply stated, the document is the 27-page “sexual autobiography” that the priest prepared for a therapist who was attempting to treat him. Thus, the tragically creepy voice of the priest himself — speaking in short, italicized bursts of text — serves as one of the narrators for this story. For example, there is this quote at the start:
There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy. … Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.
— Father Robert Van Handel
The story focuses on the thoughts and emotions of Damian Eckert the first time he clicked into this document online and faced a series of new revelations about the priest who abused him and created some of the emotional and spiritual booby traps that have exploded at key moments throughout his life. The direct quotes from this therapy diary add a concrete, highly specific spine of facts to the narrative — as opposed to all of those news stories on this painful topic that were forced to lean on vague memories and disputed accusations.
This allows for passages such as this one:
I asked my best friend once if he saw anything “special” in pictures of [naked] children. He said, ‘No, not at all.’ I began to realize that I was different.
The product of an alcoholic, volatile father who served in the military and a scared mother, Van Handel was the third of five children, Eckert read. The priest went to high school in the 1960s at St. Anthony’s, a campus of sandstone facades and grand towers near Old Mission Santa Barbara run by the Franciscan religious order.
Years later, while attending graduate school in Berkeley, he started a boys choir at a local parish, despite his self-professed lack of musical skills. There, Van Handel wrote, he met one of his first victims. He was 7 or 8. Light hair. Blue eyes. His parents were divorcing and grateful for the priest’s interest in their son.
Always this was done under the cover of some “legitimate” touching. [The boy] never seemed to mind, and I wasn’t about to stop on my own.
Around this time, Van Handel wrote, he implied to a Franciscan counselor that he was sexually attracted to boys. The counselor quickly changed the subject.
In 1975, at age 28, Van Handel returned to St. Anthony’s as a teacher and founded the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.
So, besides the quotations from this “sexual autobiography” of a predator priest, what makes this Times story different? What, for me, makes it a better than the average news feature on this tough topic?
A common, and totally logical, theme in these stories is the impact of abuse on the lives of the victims. However, the journalists behind many of these stories either omit the spiritual impact on these former altar boys, choristers, etc., or they crunch the religious element down into a simple lost of faith.
The reality is much more complex than that. For starters, the studies indicate that many of the abusers — secular or religious — were often abused themselves when they were children or teens. The sins of the fathers literally haunt the young into future generations.
Yes, readers get the horrifyingly familiar details of church officials — including, this time, a hero among Catholic progressives — living in denial or worse. For starters, this seminary, as it turns out, was a “cesspool of abuse” where 11 clergy members had molested at least 34 boys.
The Franciscans said they first learned of Van Handel’s abuse in 1992 — five years after St. Anthony’s closed — when the parents of one boy wrote a letter describing the dart games Van Handel played with their son. If the boy won, he got money. If the priest won, he gave the child what he called a “back rub.”
A few months later, the same parents wrote to Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which includes Santa Barbara: “We challenge you as spiritual leader of this archdiocese, as shepherd of a wounded and wandering flock to address this horror, the destruction of our children’s lives by sexual abuse by clergy.” Mahony reassured them in a letter that no priest could serve “unless we are morally certain that he will be able to minister properly.”
In the end, the priest went to prison and also decided that he had, literally, lived a double life and never had a vocation to the priesthood in the first place. He asked Rome to defrock him and that request was granted.
Near the end, with the disclosure of the Van Handel “sexual autobiography,” another piece of the puzzle finally fits into place for Eckert.
[Van Handel’s] papers showed he once told a social worker that he was guilt-ridden, even suicidal, over what he’d done. He was also terrified that someone would make public those 27 confessional pages, which included his own secret:
One night when I was [a student at St. Anthony’s] I was sleeping alone in the school infirmary because I was running a fever. … I woke up in the night to find a priest sitting on my bed and ready to take my temperature, which he did. Then he took off the covers, lifted my pajama tops and lowered the bottoms. I tried to stop this, but he gently moved my hand out of the way.
Meanwhile Damian had, as the story puts it, “tiptoed back to religion.” A pastor — the story does not say it was a priest — helped him during a divorce. Still, during worship services, the former choirboy could not sing.
This is how the story ends.
Damian had rebuilt his life in recent years: getting remarried, having a third child, even singing again in a church play. He credited his renewed faith. So he scoured the priest’s papers for one thing in particular: whether he too felt a close connection to God.
An hour passed. Then two. “God is not here at all,” Damian thought — and that was a relief.
He rejoined his wife, Katie. “You all right?” she asked.
“Yeah. There’s some heavy stuff in there.” …
A few days later, Damian spoke to a friend he’d met at a church retreat. He told him about reading the papers, and how they’d changed the way he pictured the former priest. Damian started to cry.
For more than 30 years, Van Handel had been the monster who haunted his dreams.
Finally, the monster had lost his power.
Now, that’s a moving ending that attempts to take seriously the religious questions that haunt this story.
Nevertheless, I was left with one remaining question: Why not identify whether Damian Eckert has or has not returned to his Catholic faith? Isn’t that element a crucial part of the story? Why mention a “pastor” in a vague manner, without noting if this helpful figure is a priest? Why talk about worship services and church retreats without sharing whether or not Eckert has returned to the faith that was all but destroyed by the predator who once wore a Roman collar?
PHOTO: St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara, which is now closed.