This past February I sent a “welcome back to Philadelphia” letter addressed to Archbishop Nelson Perez. This was written in the capacity of a survivor of clergy sex abuse at the hands of two parish priests dating back to 1981 and as the SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) leader for Philadelphia.

So imagine my surprise when I was asked to have a Zoom call with the Victim Assistance Coordinator assigned along with the Director for Children and Youth Protection. It was during our conversation that I was informed that the archbishop had received my letter and would welcome a meeting. What do I want to share with him? What will he share with me?

These questions seemed to answer themselves I suppose, internally, simply as a result of being a survivor advocate with this issue for many years. I have been covered by every media outlet imaginable since I first officially named my abusers in 2012 and after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on six dioceses in 2018. Each interview became easier than the last. It allowed in a cathartic way, my story, my truth to be told.

The opportunity to share this publicly was an awesome one. By doing so, it helped others who have lived with the pain of betrayal to come forward. Amazingly, it led to one of my abusers to be formally charged in Bucks County in the fall of 2019 in a matter not relating to my abuse, with child endangerment charges, nonetheless.

There was still a significant piece missing. A decade ago I had been convicted of theft by deception, about $100,000 in therapy payments from the archdiocese, under the false pretense that I had attended therapy. I used the church’s money instead for other purposes. I had stolen from the archdiocese out of anger and from a very dark spot in my life.

In the public eye and within support groups I owned my actions and often expressed my regret and personal disappointment. I needed to take this a step further.

My own infraction against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which led to charges of theft by deception in 2010, had only been touched on by a few media outlets and my public testimony in October 2019 in front of the Pennsylvania State Judiciary Committee.

Having been raised a Catholic and the many years that I have struggled with my faith, I still had a desire to ask for forgiveness. I attribute the spiritual growth, even during my personal struggle and coming to acknowledge what had happened to me as a young man, to the recovery I was experiencing in a 12-step program. One of the key steps is believing in a power greater than myself. That one was God.

As a survivor advocate, I have had the amazing experience of walking alongside other survivors in their journey. I cannot force my spiritual beliefs or foundation of faith on any one of them, but I can extend my experience, strength, and hope.

I openly share that I have hope for a damaged church. Personally, I know and have been friends with priests, good priests, and a sitting auxiliary bishop. Today I see a priest for spiritual guidance and pastoral counseling made available to all survivors of clergy sex abuse. Father Jim Paradis, O.S.A., was referred to me by the IRRP (Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) advocate Lynn Shiner. An incredible gift in my life today, both.

I told the archbishop, in an emotional exchange, how ashamed I was for my own actions toward the archdiocese. Without a blink of an eye or hesitation is his voice, Archbishop Perez leaned forward in his chair and said, “let it go.” I wept like I had not in years.

Those three words I heard were healing, a cleansing absolution from a pastor. What gratitude fills my heart knowing I desired God’s forgiveness through the very archdiocese I was holding resentment toward.

I left the archbishop just as I had found him, open, concerning, and compassionate. I pledged my aid to survivors and an open line of communication if needed. I asked him for his prayers and walked away feeling that I had said what needed to be said. I reflect a lot on the work that still needs to be done for the church and her healing, for survivors and closure. The words of St. Francis come quickly to mind: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

Cleaning up the wreckage of the past is no easy task, but I believe the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has the right bishop at the right time. 

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Michael McDonnell is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and the leader of SNAP Philadelphia — Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.