27 pages undo a life’s haunting
There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy.... Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.
-- Father Robert Van Handel
Damian Eckert turned on the computer in his in-laws’ home office, a tiny, dim, book-strewn space. He left the door open so he could hear his 5-year-old daughter playing in the next room.
He pulled up a website and scanned it for Father Robert Van Handel, the priest who led the community boys choir he and his younger brother sang in when they were growing up in Santa Barbara. There he was -- receding hairline, bulbous nose, gap-toothed smile.
Eckert opened a document: 27 pages that Van Handel wrote for a therapist years ago, his so-called sexual autobiography. It made Eckert’s palms sweat and his back knot.
His in-laws poked their heads into the room: Are you OK? Yes, he reassured them.
He continued to read.
For years, Eckert had been part of an effort to pry confidential files from clergy members at the now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara who’d been accused of molesting children. The battle over releasing thousands of once-secret pages went all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The day the files were made public last May, Eckert, 44, left the news conference and went to his in-laws’ house. It was the nearest place to read the words of the priest he says abused him.
I asked my best friend once if he saw anything “special” in pictures of [naked] children. He said, ‘No, not at all.’ I began to realize that I was different.
The product of an alcoholic, volatile father who served in the military and a scared mother, Van Handel was the third of five children, Eckert read. The priest went to high school in the 1960s at St. Anthony’s, a campus of sandstone facades and grand towers near Old Mission Santa Barbara run by the Franciscan religious order.
Years later, while attending graduate school in Berkeley, he started a boys choir at a local parish, despite his self-professed lack of musical skills. There, Van Handel wrote, he met one of his first victims.
He was 7 or 8. Light hair. Blue eyes. His parents were divorcing and grateful for the priest’s interest in their son.
Always this was done under the cover of some “legitimate” touching. [The boy] never seemed to mind, and I wasn’t about to stop on my own.
Around this time, Van Handel wrote, he implied to a Franciscan counselor that he was sexually attracted to boys. The counselor quickly changed the subject.
In 1975, at age 28, Van Handel returned to St. Anthony’s as a teacher and founded the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.
The Eckert boys joined when Damian was about 10 and his brother, Bob, about 8. Choir members, dressed in the blazer-and-shorts style of English schoolboys, mainly sang Catholic hymns. Damian was a soprano, Bob an alto.
They felt at ease around Van Handel, a soft-spoken friar who eschewed his brown robe for striped shirts. He tsk-tsked boys who flubbed notes, but he also allowed them to play the seminary organ and swim at the school pool.
When Damian was about 11, he recalled, his parents told him they were splitting up. The next day at choir practice, he tried to sing. Instead, tears. He ran into the hallway. Van Handel followed. Everything will be OK, the priest promised.
As the weeks went by, he chatted with the boy in his office, strolled with him around the mission. Eventually, Damian said, Van Handel persuaded him to try on “special shorts” -- extra-large, the priest wrote, so he could see up them. Other boys had worn them too.
[One boy] said he did not want to. I insisted. He started to cry and that snapped something in my head. For the first time I was seeing signs that he really did not like this.
Ashamed and confused, Damian told no one. But the priest unsettled Damian’s father, Tom. One day, Van Handel tried to persuade Tom and the boys’ mother to send Damian and Bob on a choir trip to England. Only years later could Tom put into words the way Van Handel eyed his sons: “like a man looking at a woman he wanted to have sex with.”
Their mother signed off on the trip. After all, she reasoned, was there a more trustworthy chaperon than a priest?
By the time Damian was in his early 20s, he’d stopped praying daily and was prone to binge drinking and flashes of rage. One day, in response to some rumors, his father took him aside and asked if Van Handel had molested him.
No, Damian said.
You’re lying, Tom thought. But he didn’t press the issue. Bob denied being sexually abused, as well.
At a loss for what to do, Tom marched over to the seminary, he recalled in a deposition. He confronted Van Handel on the steps outside.
“I want to kill you,” Tom said. “How could you wear the cloth and molest my boys?”
The priest didn’t flinch. “You need to get divine intervention,” he said. Then he walked away.
The Franciscans said they first learned of Van Handel’s abuse in 1992 -- five years after St. Anthony’s closed -- when the parents of one boy wrote a letter describing the dart games Van Handel played with their son. If the boy won, he got money. If the priest won, he gave the child what he called a “back rub.”
A few months later, the same parents wrote to Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which includes Santa Barbara: “We challenge you as spiritual leader of this archdiocese, as shepherd of a wounded and wandering flock to address this horror, the destruction of our children’s lives by sexual abuse by clergy.”
Mahony reassured them in a letter that no priest could serve “unless we are morally certain that he will be able to minister properly.”
Van Handel was sent for psychiatric treatment, Damian read. The Franciscans assembled a board of inquiry. The panel’s conclusions, in 1993, were well-covered in the local media: St. Anthony’s had been a cesspool of abuse, where 11 clergy members had molested at least 34 boys.
Van Handel was suspected of abusing up to 17.
When I realized that my case was becoming public, I decided that I needed to tell my parents about my sexual acting out.... My dad responded immediately that he was sure God would take care of everything and I was not to worry -- they would keep me in their prayers. My mother was in stunned silence.
In 1994, Van Handel pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious behavior with a choirboy, who told authorities he was molested with the frequency of “taking a shower or putting on my shoes.” The priest became state inmate No. J30982.
Damian had been contacted during the investigation. He wanted no part of it. Talking about Van Handel unleashed long-buried anguish. One night, he woke up, his face wet with tears, his wife shaken by what he’d been screaming:
“Why did you do this to me?”
I was interviewed and tested in every way possible, including medical examinations and a brain scan.... The psychiatrist emphasized the seriousness of the problem, which he diagnosed as pedophilia, same sex, non-exclusive.
Damian turned to the one person he felt he could confide in: Bob. “I’m remembering things,” Damian told his brother.
Damian didn’t realize that Bob had a secret too. One night on that long-ago trip to England, when Damian and Bob were bickering, Van Handel made Bob sleep in his room. Father Robert abused me too, Bob said.
Damian felt as if he’d been punched.
In prison, Van Handel made a handwritten plea to the Vatican, asking to be defrocked. Damian has yet to read it.
“I now realize that although I acted in good faith at the time,” the letter said, “I did not have a vocation to the priesthood and religious life.” His request was granted.
Upon Van Handel’s release in 1998, the Franciscans helped him financially, citing his decades of observing a vow of poverty. He eventually moved to a mountain town near Santa Cruz, where for years he rented a garage apartment deep in the redwoods. His longtime landlady, who declined to give her name, recently described him as a model tenant.
By the early 2000s, Damian had two children of his own. He’d tiptoed back to religion. The pastor at a local church prayed with him during his divorce in 2001 and reaffirmed his faith in the goodness of clergy. Even so, during services, Damian struggled to sing.
Damian tried to ignore the major news of 2002: the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. But California lawmakers decided to lift the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims for one year. That meant alleged victims could sue organizations that they said had failed to protect them from known molesters, even if the abuse had happened long ago.
In 2003, hundreds of people filed claims against Roman Catholic dioceses -- including the Eckert brothers. Damian did so reluctantly, and only after speaking to a counselor. She’d asked him: What if someone molested your kids?
In recent years, a key part of clergy abuse cases has involved getting confidential files released. The Catholic Church is a meticulous record-keeper. When a letter accuses a priest of molestation, it’s supposed to go into his file. So are reports from therapists -- no matter how graphic.
The documents have repeatedly backed up the allegations of victims whom the church initially tarred as liars. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange made public 10,000 pages. The L.A. archdiocese is expected to release its own trove in the coming weeks.
In 2006, the Eckert brothers and 23 other plaintiffs settled with the Franciscans. (The L.A. archdiocese covered a portion of the $28 million.) The battle over releasing the files dragged on. A state Supreme Court decision in 2011 finally forced the order to hand over the papers of nine clergy members, including Van Handel.
The former priest is now 65. He recently moved out of state and could not be reached for comment. His former landlady said his health had deteriorated so rapidly in recent months that he’d made plans to move to a care facility. Already something of a loner, he’d also grown convinced that someone would hunt him down, she said.
His papers showed he once told a social worker that he was guilt-ridden, even suicidal, over what he’d done. He was also terrified that someone would make public those 27 confessional pages, which included his own secret:
One night when I was [a student at St. Anthony’s] I was sleeping alone in the school infirmary because I was running a fever.... I woke up in the night to find a priest sitting on my bed and ready to take my temperature, which he did. Then he took off the covers, lifted my pajama tops and lowered the bottoms. I tried to stop this, but he gently moved my hand out of the way.
Damian had rebuilt his life in recent years: getting remarried, having a third child, even singing again in a church play. He credited his renewed faith. So he scoured the priest’s papers for one thing in particular: whether he too felt a close connection to God.
An hour passed. Then two.
“God is not here at all,” Damian thought -- and that was a relief.
He rejoined his wife, Katie.
“You all right?” she asked.
“Yeah. There’s some heavy stuff in there.”
The couple scooped up their daughter and drove home in silence.
A few days later, Damian spoke to a friend he’d met at a church retreat. He told him about reading the papers, and how they’d changed the way he pictured the former priest.
Damian started to cry.
For more than 30 years, Van Handel had been the monster who haunted his dreams.
Finally, the monster had lost his power.