Inside the mind of a molester

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AP

The priest always started his favourite “game” by having the young boy remove his underwear and put on loose-fitting shorts so he could fondle him more easily. Then, the Rev Robert Van Handel would run his hands up and down the child's body as he stretched across his lap, Walkman headphones on his ears, pretending to be asleep.

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 five-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 paedophile 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 accused priests fought unsuccessfully to keep their documents private in a battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court.

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 paedophile who handpicked his victims from the members of a prestigious boys' choir that he founded.

He seems mortified by his crimes but also entranced by them: He describes his “most beautiful” victim, a tanned and tow-headed child of seven, and talks about molesting a trio of brothers and taking nude pictures of the youngest sibling that were “quite artistic.”

“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. I took some photos of him tied up with a big rope,” Van Handel recalls of the 7-year-old. “It was as though I could do anything with him that I wanted.”

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.

Seeing the document has been both painful and cathartic for those who recognise themselves in its pages. One victim said Van Handel's memories match perfectly with his own, despite the priest's vastly different perspective.

“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.

It wasn't until after high school, however, that Van Handel began to realise his sexual interests were abnormal.

He discovered pornography near his college seminary and purchased magazines featuring naked children. He used a telephoto lens to take pictures of young children splashing in the campus fountain and bought photography books featuring nude boys.

“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 realise 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 paedophilia by talking to a Franciscan counsellor, 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.

“It was clearly my choir and the fulfilment of my fondest dreams,” he writes. “Now I understand that it was also a constant supply of attractive little boys.”

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 behaviour,” 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 realised 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. - Sapa-AP


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