Eight years ago, Ben Hoffman wanted nothing to do with the Catholic Church after being abused by his parish priest. Today, at age 25, he uses that experience to encourage people to stay in the Church, calling it, “our home because Christ is here in the Eucharist.” He credits time with Jesus, “the great healer,” with his transformation.
Ben did not suffer alone. Tragically, two younger siblings also were abused by the priest. In the family of nine children at the time, two older boys were out of the home. There are four siblings younger than the three boys that were abused. Ben and his mother, Joy, agreed to share their story with Our Sunday Visitor in the hopes of persuading those considering leaving the Church over the crisis to remain.
As a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Father Curtis Wehmeyer had been observed engaging in inappropriate behavior, such as being spotted at a known homosexual hookup spot and randomly speaking in a sexual manner to two young men in a bookstore. According to a 2011 memo later used as evidence in court, Father Wehmeyer’s superiors were aware of his behavior but decided not take action. Joy was a director of faith formation at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul where Wehmeyer served for six years, including three as pastor.
“If I had known, I never would have let my children spend time around him,” Joy said. “There’s anger and hurt on many levels. I pray to be able to forgive [the officials who neglected to take action], but I’m way closer to forgiving [Wehmeyer] than the people who covered it up.”
Joy thought that befriending this priest would be a good example to her own boys, and would perhaps even inspire a vocation. She also saw it as an act of mercy. “He was an odd person, like a kid in the lunch room always sitting by himself,” Joy explained. She and two other ladies that worked at the church took turns having him over for dinner.
Wehmeyer kept a camper parked outside the church, ostensibly for easy access for camping trips. It was also where he lured two of the Hoffman boys, starting when they were ages 9 and 11. He gave them alcohol and marijuana, showed them pornography and touched them inappropriately, according to police records.
In the summer of 2013, Joy overheard a conversation among her children that led her to believe one son had been sexually abused. She called in her sister-in-law, a police officer, who talked with him, and it came out that Wehmeyer had abused him. Within days, it was discovered that a second son also had been abused, and eventually a third — Ben.
It was only after Wehmeyer was convicted of sexually abusing the younger two and of possessing child pornography that Ben revealed he had also been victimized at a campground in Chippewa Falls when he was 17. The priest was sentenced to three years in prison in Minnesota and three more in Wisconsin. He was laicized and is eligible for release in May 2019.
The devastating revelations shattered the family and led to destructive behavior on the part of the kids, including running away, drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, and several suicide threats, and an extremely strained marriage on the part of the parents.
There was also great frustration with the Church.
“I don’t understand how there was so little care for the body of the Church to have let this happen,” Joy said.
But from the beginning, Joy framed the abuse as the sins of a man. “It’s his sin,” she said. “We can always count on our Catholic faith. I cannot imagine getting through this without Christ.”
Still, it was “pure hell,” she said. “I cannot begin to explain the depths of what this did to our family.”
Time, counseling, steadfast prayer and prayers from others have brought much healing, although it’s still a work in progress. With recent revelations of additional abuse scandals, some of Joy’s friends are struggling with staying in the Church.
“I have told them: ‘You can’t be done if I’m not done. We are supposed to fight,'” she said.
|Why kids don’t tell|
Dr. Paul Peloquin, a Catholic psychologist and clergy abuse survivor, explained there are a number of reasons children often don’t report abuse: fear of not being believed, not wanting to disappoint parents or disturb their faith, embarrassment, guilt they have consented in some way, threats, and receiving special treatment in exchange.
He said that children also convince themselves of three lies: It happened because I’m no good; God doesn’t really care about us; and that all priests are bad.
Peloquin was 11 years old when he was abused over a period of nine months by a priest who was a friend of the family. It’s never really consent, he explained, due to the imbalance of authority and power and the immaturity of a child.
“The child will feel ashamed and hide it,” Peloquin said, “But there are always signs.” In his case, he became a juvenile delinquent and ended up in military school.
Not until Peloquin was a doctoral student in psychology in the mid-1970s did he realize the abuse was affecting him and sought therapy. It was in 2005, after being away from the Church for over 30 years, that he returned and now encourages others to do so.
“If you leave the Church, you are leaving more than you realize; you are leaving your means for salvation,” Peloquin said. “Don’t let the evil one imprison you. There’s one who came to set you free, and he never stopped loving you. He is there with open arms and thirsts for you to come back.”
Fighting for others
Ben is fighting. Not for himself anymore, but for other survivors and for those wanting to leave the Church. He is married with an 11-month-old son and works as a salesman. He is also a youth leader for Servants of the Cross, a family ministry for middle school kids and older, which organizes service projects, retreats and speakers.
“I’ve gone through [training] as a requirement as a youth leader, so it’s clear to me now that Wehmeyer was grooming us,” Ben explained. There were things like shoulder rubs and hugs, questions about pornography and suggestive jokes. At the campground, Wehmeyer had plied Ben with marijuana and alcohol prior to the abuse.
Ben was mortified afterward. “For a boy that age playing sports and doing all the things that men do, it was not something to be proud of or bring up at the school lunch table,” he said. He stayed far away from Wehmeyer afterward and avoided going to church.
Ben later felt guilty for being unaware of what his younger siblings went through. “I was petrified and had hoped it was just an incident that happened with me,” he said. “I wanted to stuff it away and hoped no one would ever find out.
“Initially, I wanted to burn the guy, but I came to understand that carrying that around was a big weight,” Ben said. “Now I pray for the people who do this. There is a spiritual war going on. … When I separated from Church for quite a while, it opened my life up to so many sinful things — the devil had me exactly where he wanted me. I’m not a saint, the wound is not completely healed, but praise God, I came back and found my faith.”
Ben explained that he wants people to know that there is no true happiness without Christ.
“This is why I’m passionate about youth groups. I want to tell people there is something more.” He said that amid the news of scandals, he wants to support other survivors and encourage people not to leave.
“If I could even change one person’s mind or perspective, everything I went through would be worth it,” he said.
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.