Aaron Lindstrom, the guest speaker at Awake’s latest Courageous Conversation on April 15, shared memories of growing up with his younger brother Nate, who was “super outgoing” and “always ready to have fun” as a child. This fun-loving spirit changed when Nate was sexually abused at age 14 by priests at St. Norbert’s Abbey in Green Bay. Despite years of mental health treatment and a stable life with his wife and three young children, Nate died by suicide on March 9, 2020, shortly before his forty-sixth birthday.
“He really had the American dream, except for carrying the weight of this PTSD from the sexual trauma that he experienced at the hands of Norbertine priests,” Aaron said during the event. A recording of the conversation is found below.
A Childhood Steeped in Catholicism
Nate, Aaron, and their older brother David were educated in Catholic schools from preschool through high school. They attended Mass weekly. “My grandparents were very active in the Church,” Aaron recalled. “My parents were typical Green Bay, Wisconsin Catholics, singing in the choir, volunteering at church picnics, and having the priest over to our house for dinner.”
Aaron was the first to get a job in the kitchen of the priory, which was home to Norbertine priests who taught at Premontre High School, the all-boys school he attended. When several older boys graduated and left the kitchen jobs, Aaron helped hire his brother Nate and a childhood friend, who were both about to begin their freshman year. “I thought it was a great way for them to get the inside track, to meet all the teachers at the school, and to demystify the priest thing, to see that priests are kind of people too,” Aaron explained. “It was that very week that they were introduced to Jim Stein,” a priest who went on to sexually abuse Nate and their friend at the Abbey pool. “What seemed like a good opportunity turned incredibly tragic for two of my best friends,” Aaron reflected.
While Aaron did not know that his brother and friend were being abused, he recounted feeling uncomfortable around some of the priests, who did things like press up against students doing dishes in the priory kitchen. “There was just a culture of accepting this kind of behavior,” he said.
Learning His Brother’s Story
At first, Nate did not tell his family that he had been abused. After college, he experienced a mental breakdown, and Aaron said he and his family did not fully understand Nate’s distress at the time. Looking back, Aaron said he believes Nate was having flashbacks of the abuse.
In their twenties, Nate and Aaron lived in Seattle, working in the tech industry, when they were contacted by the friend who had worked with them at the priory. He told them to expect phone calls regarding James Stein; they learned he was charged with molesting another student. The brothers chose to return to Wisconsin for the court proceedings. Soon after they arrived, someone visited their home to ask Nate to serve as a witness on Stein’s behalf. He refused. “That night Nate just lost it,” Aaron recalled. He woke his parents in the night and began telling them what happened with Stein. “He just let it all out, and my dad sat there with a pen and kept writing,” Aaron explained. He said he sees that night as a turning point that changed everything for Nate and their family.
Stein’s case did not go to trial; in a plea deal he was sentenced to one year in prison with daily work release, and 10 years probation. Nate and Aaron’s friend from the priory was the only victim-survivor to speak publicly about the abuse at the sentencing. After the day in court, Nate’s mental health faltered. Worried, his parents set up a meeting with the leader of the abbey at the time, Fr. Gary Neville, explaining that Nate had been abused by Stein and needed mental health treatment. The abbot agreed to send Nate a monthly check to cover expenses including therapy. The checks continued to arrive for 10 years.
A Good Life, A Good Friend
The checks were helpful. Nate worked with the same skilled therapist for nine years. “She was great with Nate, and kept him exactly where he needed to be,” Aaron noted. Around this time, Nate met and married his wife Karen, with whom he parented three daughters. Karen worked as a paralegal and Nate managed properties and cared for the couple’s children. Skilled at construction, Nate enjoyed remodeling their house in Minnesota and sent his siblings photos of himself tackling home projects with babies in tow. He was an avid gardener and talented videographer who recorded bands, comedy performances, and school sporting events for friends and family.
Aaron said Nate quietly provided support and encouragement to victim-survivors of clergy abuse. Some told Aaron that Nate was the person who gave them courage to come forward with their own stories. “He was the guy you wanted around all the time,” Aaron recalled.
Nate is Revictimized
Everything changed in 2018, when Neville, the abbot, notified Nate that he was retiring, to be replaced by Fr. Dane Radecki. Neville explained that the checks would stop coming in 12 months. The abbey insisted that Nate switch to a counselor of their choosing. Nate grew extremely distressed that the support would cease, and named other priests at the abbey who were also involved in his abuse. The Norbertines hired a third-party firm to investigate his allegations, but it reported back that it did not find the allegations credible. Aaron said the abbey began communicating with Nate exclusively through an attorney, who responded unhelpfully to Nate’s increasingly desperate letters.
“Nate was a survivor for quite a while, and I think in those last 12 months he started to become a victim again,” Aaron explained. “He was revictimized all over again.”
The Lindstroms Launch Nate’s Mission
Soon after Nate’s death on March 9, 2020, Aaron joined with Peter Isley and Sarah Pearson of the organization Ending Clergy Abuse, to form Nate’s Mission. The organization “is primarily focused now on getting the attorney general’s office and the department of justice in the State of Wisconsin to open an investigation into clergy sexual abuse, to create a space for victims” to report abuse, Aaron explained. Attorney General Josh Kaul met virtually with the Lindstrom family and “I have a lot of hope that the attorney general will open this,” Aaron added. Nate’s Mission has been encouraging people to send letters to Kaul pressing for the investigation of sexual abuse by church leaders.
In addition to these justice efforts, Aaron hopes that Nate’s Mission can “create a safe place for victims to come and just be themselves,” he said, with offerings like art shows and mental and emotional wellness programming. “The big hope in advocating for survivors is just to say, ‘There’s a reason to live and there’s a lot of people out there that love you,’” he explained.
At the end of the Courageous Conversation, Awake encouraged attendees to visit the Nate’s Mission website to learn more about the group’s work.
Aaron shared that his brother’s death severed his personal connection to the Church: “Last year on March 9 when Nate died by suicide, I said, ‘That’s it.’” He removed his son from the Catholic preschool he attended, and stopped going to Mass. Still, he remains committed to making the Church safe for all and pressing for transparency. He urged the Catholics listening to join this effort. “If Catholics want this to change, they have to help us,” Aaron said. “We have to do this together.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Research Shows Long-Term Mental Health Impact of Abuse
During the April 15 Courageous Conversation, Awake shared findings from Scott Easton, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Boston College, who conducted one of the largest studies to date on male survivors of child sexual abuse, including clergy abuse survivors.
• Men who were sexually abused in childhood reported very high levels of mental distress in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. These men were ages 18 to 84 at the time of the study, and Easton said this hints at the lifelong impact of abuse.
• In a separate study of the same men, Easton found that about 5 percent had attempted suicide in the last 12 months.
• Easton found significant negative effects on the way the men viewed themselves, years after the abuse took place. Comments from the men offer a heartbreaking look at their particular kind of pain. One man said: “My behavior and appearance suggest self-confidence and perfectionism but my inner perception of myself is one of inadequacy, shame, dirtiness, and ugliness.”
• The men reported self-harming behaviors including substance abuse to self-medicate or ease the pain from sexual abuse. One man said that he “used alcohol 7 days a week for 24 years as a pain reliever.”
Easton also studied turning points, or the moments when male survivors managed to turn a corner toward healing. For the men in his study, these turning points included:
• a positive relationship with someone like a partner or close friend
• the experience of hitting rock bottom or the sense of getting a second chance after a suicide attempt
• the experience of disclosing the abuse to someone who was positive and supportive