Priest abuse report hits close to home
It’s been more than seven years since I spoke to Michael Baumann, who 10 years ago publicly revealed that he had been sexually abused as a teenager by a priest whom I considered a friend, teaching colleague and assistant pastor at my parish when I lived in the Stroudsburg area.
Baumann, 57, of Chesapeake, Virginia, alleges that he was raped by the late Rev. Robert J. Gibson when Baumann was an eighth-grade student at Notre Dame Junior-Senior High School in East Stroudsburg.
Since his disclosure, Baumann has been what he calls a “reluctant activist” on behalf of other clergy-abuse victims such as himself. (He prefers the term “survivors.”) He has written a blog “Off My Knees” in which he provides information about clergy abuse and tries to help its victims through information and education.
Earlier this month, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified 301 predator priests in six Roman Catholic dioceses, including 59 in the Scranton Diocese where Gibson served. Gibson, who died in 2012 after being transferred several times, then quietly removed from the ministry by then-Bishop James Timlin, was among those named.
At the time of his death at a secure residential facility for ailing priests in Missouri, Gibson was suffering from dementia and described as “just a shell of his former self.”
Among his assignments was a stint as administrator of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Brodheadsville from 1974 until 1982 and pastor of St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in Canadensis, Monroe County, from 1983 until 1995.
He resigned from St. Bernadette’s, took a seven-month leave of absence during which he underwent medical and psychiatric evaluation, went into a supervised residency at a Kingston, Luzerne County, rectory for two years, then was stripped of his ministry in 1998 after additional allegations came to light.
Baumann wrote in his blog: “I was neither happy nor sad that he had died; I was not angry at not having had a chance to confront him while he lived. I don’t feel like I should be celebrating the end of a life, no matter how malevolently lived.”
Baumann said that Gibson was prolific throughout his life in targeting boys from dysfunctional family situations — from alcoholism to catastrophic illness. “He hid behind his Roman collar, and he found the protection of a diocese that was willing to move him around to different parishes and ultimately out of the diocese and the state to keep him safe from prosecution,” Baumann said.
During his 37 years in the priesthood, Gibson served in seven different assignments.
Between 1969 and 1971, I was a part-time French and English teacher at Notre Dame High School. Father Gibson taught religion classes at the school. He also was assistant pastor of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Stroudsburg, where my wife and I were parishioners and where all three of our children served as altar boys. None of our sons served Mass with Father Gibson, because he had been reassigned by the time they were old enough to be altar boys.
Father Gibson and I served on several high school committees, chaperoned some events at the school together, socialized occasionally, and he was a visitor to our home several times for dinner. Never once in the seven or eight years that I knew him did I suspect that he could be capable of such monstrous crimes.
Baumann said the abuse occurred in 1973 and 1974; he graduated from Notre Dame in 1978. Baumann kept his dark secret for 30 years, going public in an article published in a Scranton newspaper in September 2008. He started his blog the following month.
Baumann said that since the grand jury report was made public, his blog has been getting upward of 3,000 hits a day compared to an average of 75 a day before the report.
The grand jury report names four other victims in addition to Baumann who were groomed and sexually assaulted by Gibson, including Gibson’s own nephew who was a minor at the time.
Baumann has been critical of the diocesan bishops, including Timlin, for moving predator priests from parish to parish to keep their crimes hushed up. “Large institutions still are willing to sacrifice the innocent in order to protect the privilege of the few at the top and to prevent scandal from coming to light,” Baumann wrote in his blog.
Since the grand jury report was made public, nearly 500 calls have come into a special hotline set up by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro from others who have been encouraged to come forward to report abuse incidents.
While the sobering grand jury report is a major step forward in cleaning up this sordid mess, this story is not over, not by a long shot.
By Bruce Frassinelli | email@example.com