After Sean O’Brien recently opened up about the abuse he suffered at the hands of a St. Agnes Cathedral priest while serving as an altar boy nearly 40 years ago, the support he received from the Rockville Centre community was more than he imagined.
“‘I want to be a part of this,’” he said, quoting emails he received. “‘Tell me what you need. Tell me what I can do for you.’”
“I could hear the change in Sean’s optimistic outlook,” said Chris Johnson, who attended St. Agnes Cathedral School with O’Brien. “I could hear the change in his voice in terms of the hope he now [had].”
As O’Brien shared his story in a Facebook video posted about two months ago, he also discussed plans to start the From Darkness Into Light Foundation to help fellow victims emotionally, financially and spiritually. O’Brien launched a website and encouraged victims to contact him if they needed to talk, but the stories of others soon brought him back deeper into his own.
O’Brien was a 10-year-old at St. Agnes Cathedral School in 1981 when, he said, the Rev. John J. McGeever began sodomizing him in the rectory basement. The abuse occurred about 50 times over a two-year span. McGeever died in 1993.
Last month, fellow victims began contacting O’Brien to share their stories and their frustration with the church. “Sean, because he’s got such a wonderful heart, just wanted to help these people and help guide them and point them in the right direction because it was such a dire situation,” said Brian Baker, a childhood friend of O’Brien’s. “It immediately triggered him.”
One woman in Charlotte, N.C., near where O’Brien now lives, told him that her husband, who was abused as a child in Cincinnati, had just tried to commit suicide. O’Brien, crippled by years of emotional and physical pain caused by the trauma, had attempted suicide in 2003, and asked the woman if he could speak with her husband immediately.
“Looking at that glazed look in his eyes and the fog he was in, it took me right back to the day I got out of the hospital,” O’Brien said.
Though he helped the man enter a three-month program that focuses on treating childhood trauma first and then “offshoot” issues, such as addiction, the process was debilitating for O’Brien. “It took a toll on my mind, it took a toll on my body, and I was basically down and out for three weeks,” he said. “I wasn’t focused at all on my own health. I was just completely focused on getting the foundation set up.”
After O’Brien shared his story and come up with the idea for the foundation, Tom Michels, an old friend of his late brother, Tim, contacted him, wanting to help. He formed a committee of nine people, including Baker, Johnson and O’Brien’s brother Pat. Since O’Brien was helping survivors of abuse and listening to their stories, the committee started planning a fundraiser to help launch the foundation, but soon realized there were other priorities.
Committee members noticed the physical and emotional pain that O’Brien continued to suffer and decided to have the fundraiser benefit O’Brien and his family instead. O’Brien has been unable to work full-time for years, and his wife, Heather, told the Herald last month there were times that she had worked 60- to 80-hour weeks to support their three daughters and help pay the “hundreds of thousands” in Sean’s medical bills.
“In order for us to put him in the best shape possible to eventually go on and start this foundation, [we must] take care of him first,” Baker said, adding that subsidizing the foundation would come next.
Johnson said, “[His] healing right now is more important to me than how [he] can propose to help others.” He noted that the committee has discussed sharing different chapters of O’Brien’s story in the weeks leading up to the fundraiser on his site — www.survive2thrive.faith — and in emails, so that people understand the long-term effects of childhood abuse. The event is slated for Jan. 20 at Kasey’s Kitchen and Cocktails. Hundreds are expected to attend, and some have already started to donate.
“It’s really just hard for me to wrap my head around what’s happening up there,” O’Brien said of the Rockville Centre support. He recalled that McGeever had told him that if he told anyone about the abuse, he would shame his family, who is well-respected in the village and at St. Agnes. O’Brien believed it, and didn’t tell anyone until 2008.
But now, he said, Rockville Centre has instead “wrapped their arms around the O’Brien family.”
“I broke my silence,” he said. “I let it out, and the exact opposite from what he said would happen is happening, and there’s just such an incredible feeling in that.”
Baker said that there’s no better community than Rockville Centre to host a fundraiser like this, and noted that the event has the potential to be something special. “There’s a ton of people that remember and love Sean, and a ton of people that feel connected to Sean and this whole situation,” he said. “As a friend of mine said, ‘Rockville Centre pride runs deep.’”
Johnson said that the St. Agnes Cathedral School class of 1985 has stayed in contact through Facebook over the years, and that O’Brien’s video sparked an outpouring of concern and anger that the abuse occurred.
“I think people are going to open their checkbooks, I think people are going to show up, but I think more than anything, it’s to show up,” Johnson said. “People really want to make sure that Sean realized that this could have happened to any of us.”