This is the full Q&A, with minor edits, of the interview The Southern Illinoisan conducted last week with Paul Wesselmann, who grew up in Carbondale, for the story that published Sunday titled "Light shines out of darkness." Wesselmann said he wanted to speak out about being victimized at a Catholic church camp in Southern Illinois in the mid-1980s so that his story of healing might encourage other victims of abuse to reach out for help, and know they are not alone.
1. Let’s start off with the basics. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born June 2, 1967 (currently 49 years old; will turn 50 in a few weeks!) I grew up in Carbondale. I attended Thomas, Parish and Lewis schools as well as Lincoln Junior High & CCHS Class of 1985.
I attended McKendree University in Lebanon (BA psychology, 1989), and then left Southern Illinois to attend grad school at Bowling Green State University, Ohio (MA, higher education, 1991). After that I lived in Wisconsin 1991-2012, and currently reside in Cincinnati, Ohio (2012-present).
2. Describe what it has been like to live with the abuse you endured.
I didn’t really experience it as a burden or trauma at first … it just seemed a normal part of life because that was the life I knew. I think the most damaging outcome of the actual abuse was assuming that my feelings of attraction to other guys was somehow related to what happened to me, and the fear that I myself could/would become a predator terrified me for years — well into adulthood in fact. The church’s concealment of the abuse contributed to the shame I felt, and made it tough to trust and respect others.
In some ways, things have gotten much easier over the years, thanks to the help of an amazing support team that has included three remarkable therapists and a handful of close friends who have consistently shown up, whether that means listening to me vent a considerable amount of frustration, holding me while I sobbed my way through flashbacks, or extending considerable patience and determination as we together figured out what I needed most during the really rough days. And oh the rough days are so rough.
Something as subtle as the sound of certain voices or even smells can transport me back to a time when I felt really alone and afraid. I’m fortunate to have avoided some the addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex) that many survivors develop while trying cope with intrusive symptoms and seeking temporary relief from physical and psychological pain, but my PTSD symptoms are pesky and persistent. I have flashbacks, I sometimes space out so intensely that I have trouble knowing exactly where I’m at, and sometimes have sensations in my body that make it feel like the abuse is happening in the present. Overall, I’m glad to say I’m a well-functioning adult, even if external successes sometimes mask my internal struggles.
One of the reasons these memories are so awful is that they were created when I was just a kid. I randomly relive these moments of feeling so confused and so alone and so terrified. These memories are disturbing not only because I didn't LIKE what was happening to me — they are so much worse because I was too young to really UNDERSTAND what was happening to me. It seems logical to my adolescent-mind that it happened because of something I did wrong or that I somehow deserved what happened. Even though I’m almost 50 years old, and even though I’ve had over 20 years of therapy that has been helpful in many ways, these thoughts and feelings still echo in my soul. And there are still times when I believe them.
3. How did you feel when you learned that the former, late Father Robert Vonnahmen, (who was laicized in 2007 in the face of child sex abuse allegations), had passed away in May 2016? Were you frustrated that the church did not publicize this news in some way?
It’s hard to describe what it was like finding out Vonnahmen had died. I wasn’t sure what to think or how to feel … it was sort of like I was standing in front of a giant chalkboard that had been wiped clean and I knew I was supposed to write something but I didn’t know what. The news came to me via a private Facebook message from a camp friend (who was also an abuse victim). It just said, "Rumor has it RV died yesterday…” I felt blank, empty, and a little lost.
I reached out to Lynn Muscarello, the Director of Child Protection Services for the Belleville Diocese. She was able to confirm he had died the previous day, but wasn’t able to supply any other information. That evening I posted the news on social media with a statement that ended: "His passing may be another opportunity to mourn the more carefree childhloods that many of us never got to experience, and to acknowledge that the world is more complicated than we like to believe.” I kept hoping the diocese would say something publicly, at least to acknowledge his passing. A few employees of the diocese have privately given sincere apologies, and it has been significantly helpful that the diocese has covered the costs of over twenty years of therapy. Still, their only public statements about the abuse I endured were denials of my statements that I reported the abuse to the diocese prior to Vonnahmen's removal. They have maintained that the change in camp leadership was because of financial issues and that I had only reported “someone touching me on the knee.”
There is a Robert Brault quote I came across a few years ago that struck me as powerful: "Life gets easier when we learn to accept an apology we never received.” Thinking about that quote in the days after RV’s death, I realized I was waiting on an apology that would not ever come from my now deceased abuser, and wouldn’t likely never be publicly given by the diocese.
So over the course of several days I wrote out a letter I wish I would have received from him. It was cathartic just to write it, and posting it to social media two weeks after his death magnified its impact because the overwhelmingly supportive response I received affirmed that I deserved an apology. In some ways it felt like I got one.
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Even though I appreciated the private confirmation of his passing, I’ll admit I was disappointed that the diocese never officially, publicly acknowledged Vonnahmen’s death. Their silence seemed like an act of cowardice, like they weren’t even willing to acknowledge his existence even after he no longer existed. I read somewhere once that hiding always suggests shame, even when it isn't there. I know there are risks to stating your truth publicly, but the costs just seem so much higher.
4. How did the abuse you endured affect your relationship with religion, with God, with the church?
The abuse itself didn’t significantly alter my view of God or religion — I’d had a complicated relationship with Catholicism since my father had been a Catholic priest before my parents were married, and many of my relatives remained active in the Church even though they struggled with some of its central tenets. One of my greatest teachers and role models was a Catholic nun who told me years ago that she viewed the Catholic Church as a very flawed mother, doing her very best even while making significant and costly mistakes. I continue to believe that organized religion plays an important and useful role in the lives of many people AND at the same time is also capable of doing great harm since it is led by human beings who are unfortunately still susceptible to the corruptive influences of power and greed.
Observing up close the capacity of several church leaders to publicly deny the truth while privately acknowledging my pain was frustrating. And heartbreaking. That betrayal of trust, and the continued public denials of my story that they had privately accepted as true makes it hard for me to trust others — especially authority figures.
5. It is well documented that the church’s leadership failed to protect children for years by protecting abusive priests. Looking forward, do you feel that the church has owned up to its failures? Do you believe that they have made good-faith attempts since then to reflect on the wrongdoing that occurred and rectify it to protect the children of today?
I do think they have many, many good-faith attempts to acknowledge the significant pain they caused by failing to prevent and abuse. I know they have tried to make amends from past mistakes and also worked to implement systems that will hopefully prevent further abuse. I’ve repeatedly asked why they didn’t follow Nelson Mandela's lead and create something like the “Truth and Reconciliation” Hearings that allowed South Africa to move beyond its dark history of apartheid with months of public hearings where victims, witnesses and perpetrators were encouraged to speak their truth and tell their stories. I’ve never gotten the sense that the Catholic Church as a whole has recognized its need to publicly confess these sins even though its own holy sacrament of reconciliation is a core tenet of their faith. I’m confident their public statements could seem more authentic and therefore be more cathartic if they came from leaders who had the capacity to comprehend and fully acknowledge the spiritual holocaust the Church unleashed on so many of its own members' souls — made significantly worse by concealment and denials.
6. Were you part of any lawsuits or legal actions involving the Church and/or Father Vonnahmen?
I have never pursued (nor had any interest in) lawsuits or legal action against the church or its leaders. I was deposed once by attorneys in a case brought when the diocese was claiming they couldn’t be held responsible for any abuse that allegedly occurred at Ondessonk because it hadn’t been reported to them. My understanding is that the case never went to trial — it was either settled out of court or dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
I wrote a letter to the diocese when my health insurance stopped covering my therapy (way back in the mid-1990s) and since then they have, for the most part, been covering the costs of weekly therapy sessions.
7. What would you tell a victim that is a child or an adult who was victimized as a child who may be struggling privately with the abuse he/she endured, but who may not feel able to get help?
When I cross paths with adults who are abuse survivors, or adults who are trying to help children who they believe were abused, I tell them the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that childhood sex abuse is soul crushing, especially when committed by adults in positions of power that we trusted. And the earlier the abuse begins and the more frequent it happens, the deeper the scar tissue runs. The good news is that scars are a sign of healing as much as they are a sign of injury. There are many good resources and therapies out there that have provided significant healing to abuse victims. The best news is that it turns out that we humans are remarkably resilient creatures. The more challenges we’ve faced, the more remarkable it is that we made it to today. And with every step forward, we diminish the shame that comes from cowering, and we bolster the courage that comes from standing up and speaking our truth.
When I’ve encountered a child or an adult who I suspect is a victim in any way, I do what I can to plant seeds of hope. I try to say some version of, “I’m sorry you’re dealing with what I’m guessing might be a really difficult situation. I went through some tough stuff and it got so much better when I finally found someone to talked to who believed me. And even if it takes a really long time, the sooner you start dealing with what happened to you, the sooner it can transform something that will always be in your past but doesn’t have to be a significant part of your future.
There is an episode of The West Wing when one of the characters who was seriously injured in a mass shooting is required to meet with a crisis counselor to deal with PTSD symptoms that he didn’t fully realize he was having. At the end of the episode, the counselor explained that the goal is to be able to REMEMBER the traumatic event without RELIVING it. Remembering isn’t pleasant, but reliving is devastating.
I think what we hope for most is sustainable peace in the midst of inescapable pain. When you're haunted by untamed ghosts of the past, you don't really get to decide when you'll have to relive some of the most terrifying moments of your life.