When Sean O’Brien watched his niece get married at St. Agnes Cathedral on Sept. 8, he wasn’t just attending a wedding. For the first time in years, he returned to the place where he says a priest sexually abused him more than 35 years ago.
“It was incredible to celebrate that occasion with everybody,” he said, “but there was also a sense that I’m back at the scene of the crime.”
O’Brien, 47, who now lives in North Carolina, began raising awareness last week for the From Darkness Into Light Foundation, which he is building to provide financial, emotional and spiritual assistance to victims of sex abuse by clergy.
“When you’re struggling as a survivor and you’re in so much pain and your emotional status is out of whack, you feel like you have no purpose in the world,” O’Brien said. “. . . Maybe this is God’s mission for me. There’s people out there that need help, and I can help.”
Remembering the abuse
O’Brien was a 10-year-old at St. Agnes Cathedral School in 1981 when, he said, the Rev. John J. McGeever began molesting him repeatedly in the rectory basement. The abuse lasted two years.
McGeever, who worked at St. Agnes for much of the 1980s and died in 1993, led the altar server meetings. O’Brien became an altar boy in 1981, and recalled McGeever laying him and the other boys across his lap and spanking them during the meetings when they would say prayers wrong.
O’Brien served as an altar boy for McGeever during certain weekday masses. The priest, he said, would then lead him from St. Agnes Cathedral to the basement of the rectory for what he called a “retest” of the prayers. He recalled the slow walk with McGeever, who limped, and remembered once locking eyes with a nun, who he secretly hoped would help him. “What I see in that flashback is such a cold look from that nun,” he said, “like I know what’s happening, and I’m not going to do anything.”
Once in the basement, McGeever would ask him to recite certain prayers. “At that point, you just kind of freeze,” O’Brien said. “You know what’s about to happen to you. . . . You don’t know the words, and of course you get it wrong. That’s when the punishment happened.”
He was sodomized in that basement roughly 50 times, he said, and McGeever “manipulated” him into staying silent. “It was this idea that your family name will be squashed in this town if anybody were to find out that you got this wrong,” O’Brien said.
A Rockville Centre man, who declined to be identified, told the Herald last November that McGeever had abused him from 1983 to 1993, and O’Brien said he knows of some others who were victimized by him.
Telling his family about the abuse
“This isn’t something that happened to me 30 or 40 years ago and now I’m able to move past it,” O’Brien said of the abuse. “I actually live in pain from that every single day of my life.”
Until December 2008, he told no one about what he experienced in 1981 and 1982. He had constant physical and emotional pain from extreme stress, and was unable to work. He first told his wife, Heather.
“It truly was just really difficult for me to even wrap my head around what somebody that I loved so much actually went through,” she said, adding that the years of her husband’s anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder started to make sense.
He began having nightmarish flashbacks, O’Brien said, and a few weeks later he told his parents, who have been involved at St. Agnes for decades, about the abuse. His father, Bernie, has opened the cathedral every morning at 5 a.m. for 49 years, and he and his wife, Marilyn, still regularly attend Mass.
“We couldn’t figure out how he hid that all those years and suffered,” Bernie said. “We’ve had to live with it ever since. It hasn’t been easy.”
For the next several years, O’Brien struggled with the pain, and his family — he has three daughters — struggled financially. Heather was working 60- to 80-hour weeks to support the family and help pay the “hundreds of thousands” in medical bills. “We had no one to turn to all those years when our electricity was turned off, when we were about to lose our house,” Heather recalled.
O’Brien visited his family during Christmas of 2013, and suicide was on his mind. “That Christmas was my goodbye to the family,” he said. “My life and my world had just deteriorated so much.”
Seeing the condition of his son, Bernie urged him to meet with the diocese. Sean and his father met with church officials, who O’Brien said did not believe his story. “The church made me feel like I was on an island, like nobody else had experienced this type of abuse,” he said, adding that he holds no animosity toward the church and has instead used his faith to help heal. His parents, who lost Sean’s brother, Timothy, and their son-in-law Steven Tighe in the Sept. 11 attacks, also find solace and strength in religion.
“Our faith is still very strong,” Bernie said. “We keep praying that he’s going to be able to work his way through this. I think the start of this foundation is really going to help him, and I hope and pray that people will come forth.”
Finding a purpose in helping others
Though he provided medical documents and had a psychological evaluation done to prove to the church the extent of his trauma, O’Brien wasn’t able to receive validation and compensation for the abuse until the Diocese of Rockville Centre announced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program in October 2017.
For victims who need financial, emotional and spiritual assistance, he said, he wanted to create a foundation so that they wouldn’t have to wait for help. “As a survivor myself, I’ll know what they’re going through,” he noted.
Upon meeting with administrators of the diocese’s compensation program last year, he said he realized how many other victims who applied had lost their faith after the abuse.
“It just kind of broke my heart that there are victims out there that are looking at this like God did this to them,” O’Brien said. He launched a website last week — www.survive2thrive.faith — in the hope of sharing his story and how survivors of clergy sexual abuse can continue practicing their faith.
O’Brien and his wife switched to a protestant church about 10 years ago, and he said he has learned the importance of developing a more personal bond with God.
“What I’ve come to realize is that a direct relationship with Jesus Christ is all you need,” he said. “You don’t need a priest to act as a conduit between you and God.”
He added that some victims may find healing in sharing their stories, like he did, and that anyone can contact him through the website to speak confidentially.
An outpouring of support
Since launching the site, O’Brien said he has received tremendous support from members of the Rockville Centre community — some he hasn’t spoken to since elementary school.
Rockville Centre resident Lisa Hyland, who attended St. Agnes Cathedral School with O’Brien and kept in touch with him throughout the years, said over the last year she has “watched him take this horrible situation . . . and try to figure out in typical Sean O’Brien fashion what he can do with this to help other people.
“Sean is just a very special guy,” she added.
Her four sons currently go to or formerly attended St. Agnes School, and though she does not let them participate as altar servers, she has kept her faith and has used Sean as a role model for her children. “These men are not our church,” Hyland said of predator priests.
The Rev. James Hansen, an associate pastor who has served at St. Agnes for the last three years, said he felt “pure sadness,” anger and disappointment in the church when O’Brien shared his story to him a few months ago.
“He had something terrible happen to him and he wants to help others through it,” Hansen, 29, told the Herald. “A lot of the people that are still in the church aren’t going to walk away, but they definitely want to be instruments like Sean of bringing about the truth.”
Hansen added that he and a few friends plan to run a marathon to raise money for the From Darkness Into Light Foundation, which was named after a poem Sean wrote several months after his brother and brother-in-law were killed on 9/11.
The foundation raised $7,000 in the first several days, and O’Brien said the group continues to seek donations and resources. He asked that victims be strong and patient as the foundation is built.
“I’m hoping to make this my full-time life’s work,” he said. “That outpouring of love and support has been a driving force for me to keep going to make this a success.”