Disgraced: Former priest and convicted sex offender, Robert Van Handel
The recollection appears in a 27-page 'sexual history' written by Van Handel, a defrocked Franciscan cleric who is accused of molesting at least 17 boys, including his own 5-year-old nephew, local children in his boys' choir and students at the seminary boarding school where he taught.
The essay, penned for a therapy assignment and kept secret for years, provides a shockingly candid and detailed window into the troubled mind of a notorious pedophile priest.
The narrative is believed to be the first of its kind to be publicly revealed through civil litigation despite years of lawsuits targeting sexually abusive priests.
Most confidential files unearthed in court cases only hint at the existence of sexual histories, which are a common part of therapy meant to be seen only by the priest and his psychologist, said attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has handled more than 2,000 church abuse cases.
'This is unique,' Anderson said. 'It really is a glimpse into the mind of the molester.'
Van Handel's narrative came to light as part of a $28 million settlement between the Franciscans and 25 clergy abuse victims six years ago that also called for disclosure of the religious order's internal files.
The Associated Press obtained more than 4,000 pages, including Van Handel's 'sexual history', from a plaintiff's attorney last week.
Van Handel's account, written between 1993 and 1994 during his treatment at Pacific Treatment Associates in Santa Cruz, is corroborated by letters, victim interviews and court papers from his file. A probation officer also cited the narrative in a sentencing report.
In the essay, Van Handel — who was himself molested by a priest at age 15 — traces his perilous descent from a sexually repressed pre-teen terrified of puberty to a serial pedophile who handpicked his victims from the members of a prestigious boys' choir that he founded.
'Once, or perhaps more than that, I took him up into the tower which was stark concrete with steel barred windows and he posed as a prisoner with few clothes on.'
Rev. Robert Van Handel
'Once, or perhaps more than that, I took him up into the tower which was stark concrete with steel barred windows and he posed as a prisoner with few clothes on.
The priest would fondle his singers under the guise of tickling games or back rubs during one-on-one choir rehearsals. He had the boys play dart games that ended in sexually charged wrestling. He rubbed the genitals of high school seminary students in their dorms and photographed young boys in the shower on a choir trip to Europe.
Van Handel seems unaware of how serious his actions are and rarely expresses regret except to describe his paranoia when he thought he would be caught. Instead, he focuses on his own emotional needs in a rare moment of self-reflection.
'There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy,' he writes. 'Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.'
Van Handel, now 65, is a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County. He did not return messages and his attorney, Robert 'Skip' Howie, said he would instruct him not to comment.
Howie said the disclosure of the private medical document will prevent the future identification and treatment of offenders. 'You want the person to be open in the interview, but you totally destroy that avenue if you make these records public,' he said.
Location: The prestigious St. Anthony's Franciscan boarding school in Santa Barbara, California, where Van Handel worked as a priest
'It is really validating to read — in his own words — that what we've been saying really did happen. We had spoken the truth,' said the man, one of the brothers molested by Van Handel. He requested anonymity to protect his siblings, who are not ready to speak publicly.
The priest begins by describing a lonely childhood with an authoritarian father who moved the family five times before Van Handel turned seven. The family of seven finally settled in Orange County when Van Handel was 10.
At age 13, Van Handel's father forced him to read a sex education book that terrified the young boy. He dreaded the onset of puberty, when he imagined sexual urges would be like 'poison candy', and prayed to remain a child.
The next year, he entered St. Anthony's, the Franciscan junior seminary in Santa Barbara, to escape his father and his own sexual anxieties.
Instead, the young seminarian was molested by a priest as he lay in the infirmary. The priest told Van Handel that the molestation would draw out his fever by making him sweat.
'While I don't think it is of crucial importance in my life, it is curious that this is nearly the exact activity I would perform 10 to 15 years later,' Van Handel writes.
'I took some photos of him tied up with a big rope. It was as though I could do anything with him that I wanted.'
Rev. Robert Van Handel
'I asked my best friend once if he saw anything 'special' in pictures of children and he said, "No, not at all". I began to realize that I was different,' he writes. 'Sometimes I worried about this, but I thought that as long as it was just a fantasy, there was no reason to panic.' It wasn't long, however, before Van Handel's fantasies became reality.
In 1970, he moved to Berkeley to pursue a master's degree and started a boys' choir for local children. There, he molested a boy of about seven, apparently his first victim. Around the same time, he molested his 5-year-old nephew.
Van Handel tried on two occasions to address his blossoming pedophilia by talking to a Franciscan counselor, but he was so vague that the man never understood. 'I would hint, he would stab and we missed each other entirely,' he wrote.
In 1975, Van Handel was ordained and was sent to St. Anthony's, where he had been molested more than a decade before. The young priest hated the assignment and started another boys' choir as a release — and was soon molesting its members.
He preferred boys between the ages of 8 and 11, he wrote, and their parents always dropped their children off as requested because they trusted the priest implicitly.
Abuse: In a separate case, former St Anthony's student Paul Palecek (pictured) is one of two dozen to have accused the Rev. Mario Cimmarrusti of molestation
Van Handel is detailed in his confessions, but seems oblivious to the damage he is doing. He recalls his surprise when one of his most frequent victims resisted him for the first time at age 11, after about four years of molestation.
'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,' Van Handel writes.
In 1983, Van Handel saw an article about another boys' choir director arrested for sex abuse. It threw him into a suicidal depression. 'For the first time it was before me that what I had been doing could be classified as criminal behavior,' he writes. 'I imagined every boy's parents read that article and decided to carefully question their sons about me.'
The priest revealed his sexual fantasies to a psychologist but 'never gave him enough information to report me,' he writes. In an attempt to reform, Van Handel dated three women, two of whom had children in his choir. He slept with one of the women twice and was terrified she would get pregnant.
'I felt a whole new world was opening up for me, and for the most part I felt really good about the experience,' Van Handel writes. 'I felt that I was normal.'
Around the same time, Van Handel became rector of St. Anthony's and was assigned to investigate another priest accused of sexual abuse. He was shocked when he realized the priest's accusers — two brothers — were also victims of his.
In 1992, the parents of one of Van Handel's victims wrote him a letter and copied in the Franciscan leadership. Within months, the priest was removed from the ministry. Two years later, Van Handel pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor and sentenced to eight years in prison. There were at least 15 other cases too old to prosecute, according to a police report.
A psychiatrist evaluating him for sentencing once asked Van Handel about his worst fear. The priest's answer was specific: The public release of his sexual history.
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