“Talking about these things in a place where you’re profoundly understood is a gift in the healing process.”
Editor’s note: This week we’re honored to share the first installment of our new monthly Survivor Story series, which shares interviews with people who have experienced abuse by church leaders. Our first story comes from a man who was abused as a teen and young adult by a priest from the Diocese of Syracuse in New York.
Michael Koplinka-Loehr, 64, is an outdoor enthusiast who loves biking, hiking, canoeing, and outdoor swimming. In fact, he once swam half the length of 38-mile-long Cayuga Lake, the longest of New York’s Finger Lakes, accompanied by a boat for safety. He swims one to two miles daily, completing his laps at the local YMCA during colder months. “Long distance running used to ground me as I processed what I had been through, but I ran so much it eroded the cartilage in my knees,” Koplinka-Loehr says. “Distance swimming now fills that ache.” He and his wife Carrie live in Lansing, New York, and have four adult children and three “super-fun” grandchildren.
Awake: Mike, what would you like to share about your abuse?
Michael Koplinka-Loehr: My abuser was a priest from another diocese. I met him at a youth retreat. Sadly, my abuse occurred from age 15 until I got married at age 24. So it has stuck with me in insidious ways, such that each and every day it intrudes again, at moments when I get dressed, for example.
Certain images will never go away, and the grooming process really messed with my mind in a profound way. I don’t think people understand the deep psychological mind-twisting that can happen, which lasts for a lifetime. One example of the grooming: He used the Biblical meaning of my name, Michael, which in Hebrew means, “who is like God,” to pray with me, which eventually led to pushing himself on top of me and then intimate sexual acts.
Q. I’m so sorry that that happened to you. Could you share anything that has really surprised you about this healing journey?
A. When I first started treatment, about 40 years ago, I imagined that at some point I would have released all the feelings, processed the impacts of all those experiences over so many years, and once and for all rid myself of all the images and memories. I’ve realized that this gruesome history will always be part of my life, yet I can choose to transform those experiences to provide help to others, through education and accompaniment on their unique journeys.
Here’s something else that surprised me: At one point I met victims of the same priest, men who had been abused 20 years later, and I was horrified to learn that he used the exact same phrases, grooming gimmicks, and venues with subsequent boys. I was simply stunned that his “MO” hadn’t changed one bit.
Q. Thank you for sharing these insights, Mike. So what has been useful in helping you heal?
A. I have recently participated in a weekly facilitated Zoom support group for male survivors of child sexual abuse, a secular group that has been invaluable in providing a safe place to be real. These are hard feelings for men to share and most of society doesn’t have experience listening to men as they shake with fear, cry with grief, or rage with anger in any sort of venue. Talking about these things in a place where you’re profoundly understood is a gift in the healing process. I sincerely hope the Catholic Church can offer such groups in the future, even if it means contracting with third-party organizations to achieve such safety and tangible support.
I thank God for the resources to not just be a victim but to become a survivor and over time, to start to thrive. I share my story for those who cannot.
Q. Could you tell us a little about your relationship with God?
A. With the grace of God, I have held on to a sense that I am loved by, seen by, and supported by God in my journey of healing and spiritual growth. It has helped get me through this, even though I carry deep anger and resentment toward the Catholic hierarchy for moving priests around, protecting itself against liability, and providing only very minimal services for healing for the faithful.
Q. What about your relationship to the Catholic Church?
A. I attend weekly services as often as I can manage it, while working hard to change the policies of my diocese and a neighboring one to provide more support to survivors and their family members. Since January 2003, I have offered my services as a survivor to assist with the “Protecting God’s Children” mandated abuse prevention training, which my diocese has not accepted to date.
I am very appreciative that Pope Francis has taken the stands that he has—like convening survivors to share their stories with cardinals—to give more support for survivors of abuse within the Catholic Church. I suspect he is pushing as far as he probably feels that he prayerfully can against the powerful historic internal bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, which did not acknowledge this harm within its midst or act as swiftly as it could to prevent further abuse.
Q. Could you share something you’ve learned along the way that other victim-survivors might benefit from hearing?
A. This is for male survivors in particular: Find someone with whom you feel safe in sharing the feelings that are connected to your abuse experiences. Be real in sharing how hard it is to even access those feelings. We have been trained to feel ashamed of having such feelings, and so to say, “I feel humiliated even suggesting that I feel this way,” is a start. Releasing these feelings bit by bit, with support, can allow us to heal, gain perspective, and regain some incremental sense of balance in our lives.
Q. Mike, what makes you feel strong?
A. The courage of every survivor who is taking the next step, whatever that is for them. That gives me strength to take my next step. None of these steps is easy. We’ve been in the shadows too long with the “four S’s:” secrecy, silence, shame, and stigma, which makes this healing journey extra challenging. So every step deserves inner recognition and external encouragement from supportive allies.
Q. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Mike. We’re grateful. One last question: What would you like Catholics to understand about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?
A. Childhood sexual abuse can have lifelong effects, and yet most survivors—with support—are tremendously resilient and have an important perspective to offer the faithful in the pews, if they are open to listening. I think we’re conditioned to discount survivors. Anything connected to sexuality has a “charge” that can make these stories difficult to hear. I would ask Catholics to stay engaged and participate in healing circles if they can. Insist that church leaders provide healing services for survivors and their families proactively; don’t wait to be asked by those who are hurting.
I got the message in the Catholic Church to pretend that all was okay, when it certainly was not. Let’s all relearn how to be truly real, no matter the difficult feelings and difficult conversations that may arise.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Michael Koplinka-Loehr for sharing his story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors and are committed to bringing you their stories.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 414-769-3332. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.