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A survivor of abuse by a Catholic priest in Chicago shares his experience

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A report from the Illinois attorney general's office released this week says 451 Catholic priests abused at least 1,997 children across the state between 1950 and 2019. Previously, just two Roman Catholic dioceses in Illinois had released lists of substantiated allegations of abuse, saying just 103 priests or religious brothers had abused children during those seven decades.

We want to talk about one case for the next few minutes with a person who lived through that abuse. St. Jerome's Parish, West Lunt Avenue in Chicago, just after mass one day in 1971, officiated by Father Thomas Gannon - one of the altar boys was an 11-year-old named Dan Ronan. Dan, today, is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and my old friend. He joins us in our studios.

Dan, thanks for being willing to talk to us.

DAN RONAN: Wouldn't want to talk to anybody else but you.

SIMON: Ah. Well, look, this is going to be rough, as you know. What went through your mind when the report came out this week?

RONAN: A sense of resignation that I knew it was coming, but also a sense of relief that finally there is some acknowledgement, albeit forced by the attorney general of the state of Illinois to bring this forward, that these things happened and at a much larger level than anybody was previously acknowledging.

SIMON: What happened that day after mass?

RONAN: It was late in the year, dark. And we had passed daylight saving time, so the clocks had been changed around. So it got dark really early. I had been the only altar boy. The other kid didn't show up that day. I've never been able to figure out if it's because he knew who the priest was and thought maybe he was a little sketchy. But I was back in the sanctuary in this big, ornate church that we've been in. We know how large it is. And my grandfather had actually been an usher that day at that mass and was, you know, doing the collection plate thing. And after mass, I was cleaning up. And I should tell our listeners that, at the time, I had a broken arm. I had broken my arm playing youth football for the school team, and I didn't have a particularly good mass. I mean, it was difficult to move things around, and there was only one of me, so I had - kind of had some difficulties.

And we were in the sanctuary, and I was removing my vestments and getting changed. And he came in and was belligerent and was abusive, vulgar. And the next thing I know, he grabbed me and started to pull down his pants and shoved my hand into his - we all know where this is going - and I don't know how long it went on. I froze and locked up for a while. And like I said, time just sort of stopped. And I sensed a moment of an opportunity to get out, and I did.

SIMON: Did you tell anyone?

RONAN: Not until a couple of years ago. I mean, I told a couple people. There were maybe 2 or 3 people. My ex-wife knew about it. My kids - eventually I shared to them. But I lived with it and tried to deal with it. The way I can describe it, Scott - it's like taking a beach ball, filling the beach ball full of air and holding this thing, which doesn't weigh anything - trying to hold this thing underwater. And you hold it underwater. And you hold it underwater. And you hold it underwater. And no matter what you do, the thing wants to pop to the top. And it kept popping to the top. And finally, about - I guess about 3 or 4 years ago, when the stuff came out about Philadelphia and some of the other archdioceses, they started coming out with these stories. I Googled his name.

SIMON: Father Thomas Gannon...

RONAN: Jesuit.

SIMON: Jesuit - had an honored career, sociology department, Loyola of Chicago, and later...

RONAN: Georgetown.

SIMON: ...Georgetown.

RONAN: Yeah. And so I Googled his name and found this story in the Georgetown paper. And I remember the headline was something like, Georgetown faculty - or ex-Georgetown faculty member linked to sex scandal or whatever it was. And I looked at it. And I looked at it. And I looked at it. And I just said, I got to do something. I can't keep fighting this.

SIMON: It's going to sound incredibly naive - why didn't you tell your parents? Why didn't you tell teachers?

RONAN: Oh, man. My parents or my grandparents.

SIMON: Why didn't you call the cops?

RONAN: Because that's not the era we lived in.

SIMON: Yeah.

RONAN: Priests were put on a pedestal. That's not what we did. And I was 11 years old. I was just a little kid. I was just a sixth grader. I mean, sixth graders don't report that a priest has sexually molested them. They don't tell their teachers. If it happened now, thankfully, the procedures, the policies have all changed, but that wasn't the way it was done. Both my parents were devout Catholics. My grandfather was on the parish council. He was the chief usher at St. Jerome for many years - a well-respected guy in Rogers Park. I just - I couldn't do it.

SIMON: You have met with the cardinal of Chicago. How'd that go?

RONAN: We talked for two hours on a Saturday back last fall. I thought that he was honest. He was very forthcoming with me, but I don't know that he'll ever be successful cleaning it up. I hope he is, but I don't know that he will.

SIMON: Will you be at church Sunday?

RONAN: Not this Sunday. Maybe some Sunday, but not this Sunday. But sometimes I go, and I go very infrequently. And I just sort of just - I ask the question. When I kneel and I pray, I just ask the question - why did a supposedly loving God, a benevolent God who we believe gave his own son - why did they allow these people to get into the system? Who failed? Who - and then who not only failed, but who covered it up? Who covered up the failure, and why did they let it go on? Why didn't they drum these guys out? Why didn't these guys end up in the Cook County jail, where they belong, instead of going from one church to another?

SIMON: Do you have any legal recourse right now?

RONAN: Yeah, I did. And this is - I'm glad you brought this up. I had an attorney, and I did reach a settlement with the archdiocese and the Jesuits a couple years ago. But the state of Illinois has a very restrictive statute of limitations law, and we were never able to get around the statute of limitations law to pursue it in court. And it would have been a slam dunk. It would have been a slam dunk, but we never could because the law was what it is. The state of Maryland, where I live now, has changed their law, and hopefully Illinois will do the same thing at some point and change the law and make it easier for folks to, you know - the money's never going to change anything. You know, a check doesn't change anything. It doesn't make me whole. It doesn't turn back the clock 50 some-odd years. It doesn't do any of that. It just gives you some compensation. But they need to change the law.

SIMON: This is another one of those difficult questions - has it made it hard for you over the years to love, to care?

RONAN: Yeah. And I don't let a lot of people get close to me. I mean, I have now, you know? In this portion of my life, I have. I've - you know, I have done that. But I put up a lot of barriers. I put up a lot of defenses, a lot of walls, very much on a surface level. I'm a very personable person, but I don't let a lot of people, even today, behind - you know, behind the wall because there's a lot of fear there.

SIMON: Fear of...

RONAN: Oh, gosh. A fear of not measuring up, fear of being humiliated again, fear of being abandoned, fear of people not listening and not believing. I mean, what happened to me and all these other thousands of young people like us - I mean, we were humiliated. We were treated with such disrespect by a church that was supposed to love and cherish us and honor us, and they didn't. And then they covered it up.

SIMON: Yeah.

RONAN: They covered it up, Scott.

SIMON: Dan Ronan, thanks so much.

RONAN: It's my pleasure. Nobody I'd rather talk to, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.