“Years of therapy and support groups have shown me that to heal I must talk about the abuse.”
Zac Zepeda, age 74, is a cradle Catholic who serves as an ordained deacon, just as his father did before him. “My parents brought me and my siblings up in a very traditional Catholic home, and my eldest sister is a cloistered Carmelite,” he explains. A retired software engineer for a large firm, Zepeda and his wife Jan live in Helotes, Texas, and recently celebrated 45 years of marriage. They have two children. “Our biggest regret is a total lack of grandchildren,” he says. Zepeda has a large music collection and is an avid genealogist. “My wife and I also enjoy sitting on our front porch drinking coffee,” he says, “and watching our pets and the animals of nature, including deer, lots of birds, squirrels, foxes, and rabbits.”
Awake: Zac, thank you for being willing to share your story with the Awake community. To start, what would you like to share about your abuse?
Zac Zepeda: My abuser was ordained in Ireland and worked in the archdiocese of San Antonio. He served in a very small city where he raped a 4-year-old boy before being assigned to my family’s parish in San Antonio. I was drawn to his charismatic and charming nature. The first incident of abuse took place in the vesting sacristy after I’d served as an altar boy at daily Mass. After the assault I was sent to class and told to straighten myself up and not tell anyone. I was 12 and the abuse continued for two years. The priest who abused me was the director of the altar servers and the vocation club, roles that gave him access to more than fifty boys. I have personal relationships with four other victims. I also know of several more boys who were abused but will not speak of it.
Q. I’m so sorry that you suffered this abuse, Zac. Could you describe what has been the most challenging part of your journey as a survivor?
A. I was lost in a living nightmare. I had no clue who to tell and eventually chose to bury it. For decades I successfully (or so I thought) suppressed memories of what happened to me. But I also believed that people could see that I had been abused and must think that I had asked for it. I certainly believed I had brought the abuse on myself. I couldn’t forgive myself for doing whatever I did to invite the abuse and was ashamed for having such a flaw. I was angry, frustrated, and in pain, and this led me to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
Q. That sounds brutal. Can you share who and what have been particularly helpful in your healing and recovery process?
A. God, the Infinite Intelligence, has blessed me with a wonderful life partner. She has always encouraged me to deal with these ugly memories. Sadly I did not follow her urging until late in life, around age 56. Before I really began to deal with the memories, she joined a survivor group through SNAP. She urged me to try it and, finally, I did. Without her help and support I would still be in a quagmire of guilt and shame.
After decades of not talking about what happened to me I have come to the painful realization that my youthful decision to suppress memories and remain silent was understandable but unhelpful. Years of therapy and support groups have shown me that to heal I must talk about the abuse. I may never be completely healed but I am in recovery. I can now speak readily about what happened, which is moving me ever closer to the person I was meant to be.
Every survivor has a story and that story must be heard, believed, and validated. Survivors need to and deserve to tell their story as often as necessary for them to realize the abuse was not their fault.
Q. Thank you for telling us about your wife and her role in helping you start to speak about what happened to you. What would you say has surprised you most in your journey as a survivor?
A. I thought I was the only victim of abuse. And more specifically, I thought I was the only victim of this priest. I am still amazed by the depth and breadth of the clergy sex abuse scandal. It is not a Catholic problem. It is not an American problem. It is a global plague that most people do not want to hear about or, more importantly, talk about.
Q. Would you be willing to tell us a little about your relationship with God and the Catholic Church?
A. My belief and faith in God are firm now but they were shaken for many years until I came to understand that my relationship has been and will always be with God. It is not with the Church hierarchy. God founded this religion and left it in the hands of humans, his apostles. Like almost every human-governed institution, the Church has become the victim of human emotions, excess, and depravity. For me, the Church is the people in the pews and on their knees. The people who are supposed to be our guardians, protectors, and shepherds have abdicated their vows.
Q. Zac, we are truly honored that you shared your story with us. Thank you so much. As we close, can you share a little about what makes you feel strong?
A. My strength derives from two basic things: support and opportunities for advocacy. The support of my spouse, my children, my friends, and the groups I joined through Awake and SNAP all make me stronger and more resilient. It is also comforting and strengthening to know that I am not the only victim. There are, regrettably, many victims of sexual abuse.
I feel the strongest when I can advocate for the protection of the vulnerable in the world. My work is to help other survivors heal but also to protect our children because sadly, abuse continues to happen.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Zac Zepeda 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. In addition to Zac’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story from Deborah Rodriguez.
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 414-758-2232. 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.