Interviewing a church sex abuse victim
My questions to Bob Starbody of Campbell, Calif. were not easy to answer. But they felt even more strenuous -- perhaps politically incorrect -- for me to ask: How come you didn't alert anyone that you were being molested by a California priest for four years? Why did you wait until adulthood to tell anyone and seek justice?
Last week, a colleague and I found Starbody because we were scrambling to match an explosive scoop by the the Associated Press. The wire service revealed how, in the 1980s, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- was reluctant to defrock a California priest, Stephen Kiesle, who was convicted in 1978 of molesting two boys. Starbody had been one of Kiesle's earliest victims in the early 1970s, but he didn't didn't take any legal action until around 2005, when he sued the Diocese of Oakland and won $1.6 million in a settlement.
At first, Starbody, now a 52-year-old printing broker, seemed perfectly amenable to my delicate questions on his cell phone, even though he was playing golf with friends. But when I asked why he had kept silent for so many years about his abuse, he seemed a little perturbed.
"I don't know if I can answer that question," said Starbody, who was abused by Kiesle between the ages of nine and 13. "It was a warm and comforting relationship. It wasn't...he never raped me. Let's put it that way, okay?"
I feared that Starbody would be offended by my questions -- and that he'd hang up -- but I felt an obligation to fill in what seemed like an obvious hole in the story. When I asked Starbody why he didn't speak up for so long, I felt guilty. I felt like I was holding him accountable in the same way I would a mighty public official who had committed some misdeed. But I wanted to show readers why a sex abuse victim's silence may be understandable. I wanted to see if he feels justified in his secrecy because the crimes happened when he was a child, making it harder for him to comprehend what happened, even to this day. I also wanted to explore Starbody's sense of guilt.
We only had a few minutes on the phone, but Starbody outlined the basic chronology of his friendship with Kiesle. It all started when Starbody was attending his church's Catholic summer camp in the late 1960s or early 1970s. One night, Kiesle took Starbody, then about 10 years old, to a bar in Menlo Park, Calif., and the two shared a beer. That's when the friendship transformed into something shadier, Starbody said.
"He used to call every two or three weeks. He'd come down for dinner. He took me to Disneyland, although we never got to Disneyland. He took me to Canada," Starbody said, pausing for several seconds. "I've been through a lot of therapy."
Starbody remembered how the relationship ended. He was unable to attend Kiesle's ordination in the early 1970s because he was playing in a Little League game that day. "I remember him telling me, 'You know what? I've already got a new best friend,'" Starbody recalled.
Later, as a college student, Starbody finally confessed to his mother what happened, but she too kept quiet. "My mom would take the church's side over anything. She was so afraid of what other people were going to think," he said. "And I just blocked it out."
Starbody ended up marrying his college sweetheart in 1986; they had two children. For years, he simply suppressed his emotions about the abuse. But, one day in the early 2000s, he recalled, he was watching television with his wife and a news segment about Kiesle's criminal history appeared. "I freaked out. If I had only said something earlier, all those other kids wouldn't have been molested. The guilt took over," he said.
His lawsuit against the Oakland diocese, arguing that the church had a duty to stop Kiesle's crimes, ended with a judgment in Starbody's favor and an award of $1.6 million. But his marriage unraveled. "My [ex-wife] said, 'I am all freaked out about the priest thing,'" he said. "I have been having trouble getting into any more relationships." Now, Starbody is angry with the pope, especially because he misses having religion in his life. "I can tell you," he said, "that seeing someone in a collar freaks me out."
| April 14, 2010; 10:02 AM ET
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