Wehmeyer survivor finds healing through faith

| May 1, 2019 | 0 Comments
Ben Hoffman, right, smiles with his wife, Sara, and son, Jude, at his home in Cottage Grove April 20. Hoffman is a sexual abuse survivor who was victimized by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. He’s focusing on sharing his story to encourage other survivors and people affected by the clergy abuse scandals to find their hope in Christ.

Ben Hoffman, right, smiles with his wife, Sara, and son, Jude, at his home in Cottage Grove April 20. Hoffman is a sexual abuse survivor who was victimized by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. He’s focusing on sharing his story to encourage other survivors and people affected by the clergy abuse scandals to find their hope in Christ. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Ben Hoffman was on a retreat in 2015 when a priest called him over. Hoffman expected small talk or a retreat-focused check-in, but instead, the priest said, “I’m sorry.”

For Hoffman, those two words meant everything. Hoffman, 25, is the oldest of three brothers who were sexually abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer when he was leading Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. After years of distancing himself from the Catholic Church, Hoffman has returned — with a zeal for Christ and a robust hope his story can help other clergy abuse survivors find healing and faith.

‘I had no idea what to do’

Hoffman grew up in a tight-knit, devout Catholic family. He and his eight siblings went to Mass every Sunday, and prayed together in the morning and at night. The third oldest, he was home-schooled during middle school. As a teenager, he was involved with Servants of the Cross, a Twin Cities ministry focused on presenting the living Stations of the Cross each Good Friday. One year, he portrayed Jesus.

In retrospect, he said, he thinks he and his siblings were “easy targets for grooming.” His dad worked a lot, and his mom was a parish staff member, which meant the family spent a lot of time at the parish, which was near their home. He and his brothers were altar servers, volunteered at the parish festival and were involved in other parish events.

From 2006 to 2012, Wehmeyer was Blessed Sacrament’s parochial administrator and then pastor. He liked to camp, and he kept a camper on the parish property. Over several years, he took Ben and two of his younger brothers camping; trips with Ben were separate from those with his brothers. In 2011, Wehmeyer and Ben camped in Wisconsin, where the priest gave the teenager alcohol and marijuana until he was incapacitated, and then sexually abused him. When Hoffman realized what had happened, he was “petrified,” he said. “I had no idea what to do.”

Hoffman was 17 at the time. He felt confused and embarrassed. He wanted to forget it happened, and he told no one. He distanced himself from Wehmeyer, and he stopped going to Mass regularly. By the middle of his senior year of high school, he moved in with an older brother, largely to avoid going to his parish, he said.

“I wanted to get as far away from the Church as possible,” he said.

Then, in 2012, one of his younger brothers revealed that Wehmeyer had been abusing him. Then, a short time later, another brother said he had also been victimized by Wehmeyer.

Hoffman remembers being angry — angry that his brothers hadn’t said anything before that point, angry that he had been keeping the same secret, and angry that he hadn’t prevented it, even though their abuse began happening before his. However, he kept his own abuse secret for months. He remembers yelling at his mom during an argument that it had happened to him, too, and he stormed out of the house.

The revelations crushed his family, he said. After his brothers’ abuse disclosures, his mother went to the police, and the allegations attracted media attention. Wehmeyer was removed from ministry and later convicted of sexual abuse. He was sentenced to prison, first in Minnesota and then in Wisconsin. In 2015, Pope Francis dismissed him from the clerical state. Wehmeyer is scheduled to be released to a treatment center May 31. His sentence expires in 2026.

The Hoffmans’ case was the subject of criminal and civil charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in June 2015. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office accused the archdiocese of failing to protect the Hoffman brothers, given Wehmeyer’s documented history of inappropriate behavior toward adults and substance abuse. The civil charges were settled in December 2015 with the archdiocese agreeing to Ramsey County’s oversight of its safe environment protocols. In July 2016, Ramsey County bolstered that agreement and dropped the criminal charges.

Hoffman perceives his brothers’ experiences — both the abuse and the aftermath — as “way worse” than what happened to him. “They went through legitimate hell,” he said. Even though the three boys weren’t publicly named, everyone at their parish could “connect the dots” and knew who they were, Hoffman said.

However, for Hoffman, it also “was a very dark time,” he said.

“I struggled with depression, alcohol abuse, drug use, I was addicted to pornography — there were just so many different things,” he said. “I tried to find everything in the world that would make me feel better … and I’ve never felt that empty or depressed or alone.”

While his brothers were still in middle and high school when the news reports first came out, Ben had recently graduated. At work, no one connected him with the headlines. The pain motivated him to dive into his work at a Best Buy retail store, and he earned promotion after promotion, eventually moving to the company’s Richfield headquarters.

“I felt like I was living my job. I was working a lot,” he said. “I was almost obsessed with work in a sense because I wanted to be as busy as possible. … I just wanted to stay distracted because of the anger.”

‘You can feel when you’re missing something’

Hoffman wasn’t practicing his faith during those years, but he traces his eventual conversion to a night in September 2014. He was partying with friends in Winona when he met a girl named Sara. The two danced and talked, and he felt an immediate connection. Two months later, he proposed.

Because they were young and hadn’t known each other long, they planned a two-year engagement. Neither was religious at the time, but Sara was raised Lutheran. With an eye to joining the Lutheran Church, Hoffman began attending Lutheran adult faith formation classes. There he experienced a sense of God’s grace, he said, but he also began to reflect more deeply on Catholic doctrine, especially the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist.

“I knew it wasn’t right,” he said of the Lutheran theology. “I knew what the truth was in my heart, so I was a little frustrated by it.”

He stopped attending the classes and decided to remain Catholic. Then, he accepted an out-of-the-blue invitation to help Servants of the Cross with its annual Good Friday living Stations of the Cross, as he had as a teenager. It was a good experience, he said, but he still felt uneasy with the Church and the faith.

But, for nostalgia’s sake, he said, he decided to attend the Servants of the Cross’ summer retreat at a lake in Wisconsin.

“I was starting to dive a little more into my faith, kind of half-heartedly trying to get back into it,” he said. “During that time, from (ages) 18 to 21 where I was completely lost, you can feel when you’re missing something. So I was constantly trying to find that. I was starting to unconsciously realize that it was my faith that I was missing.”

He said there was no “ah-ha” moment, but “that retreat was the start of me opening myself up to the faith again.”

It was at that retreat that Father Don DeGrood, who at the time was working at Blessed Sacrament with Ben’s mother, called him over from where he was hanging out on the beach.

“He said, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about everything that’s happened to you, your family,” Hoffman recalled. “He just apologized.”

“That’s when I truly understood and learned what the word ‘sincere’ was, because the way he said it, the look on his face, everything about that moment I will remember for the rest of my life,” Hoffman added. “He was just sorry. He didn’t do anything. It wasn’t his fault. But his compassion and his love for people was eye-opening to me.”

That weekend, Hoffman went on to have a powerful experience in adoration, where he was particularly struck by the joy of the people around him.

“I just felt so overwhelmed,” he said. “I felt loved again after a long time of feeling so bad about myself and bad about everything that had happened.”

On the way back from the retreat, Sara told Ben she wanted to become Catholic. Her questions and excitement throughout the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process drove him to deepen his own Catholic faith, and when she joined the Church in spring 2016, Ben felt like he had come home, too.

“The healing I got from receiving the sacraments and just being around people in the faith and focusing more on my faith — it literally saved my life. There’s no other way to describe it,” he said.

Married in fall 2016 by Father DeGrood, who since has become pastor of St. John the Baptist in Savage, Ben and Sara are now parishioners of Transfiguration in Oakdale and parents of an 18-month-old son, Jude. In January, after spending six years with Best Buy, Ben left the company to pursue what he describes as a yet undefined mission.

“I felt a calling, or a sense that I was supposed to leave, to … help survivors and people of the Church who have struggled with sexual abuse. That’s the one thing that I’ve known, especially with a family of my size … is, yes, I was abused and my brothers were abused, but the effects that it has on the entire family or other parishioners of the Church … is really eye opening. I have a strong desire right now to serve the Lord and just do his work,” he said.

‘It could have been prevented’

That’s involved sharing his story — a prospect that would have terrified him years ago when it was his deepest secret. But, at a Servants of the Cross retreat for high schoolers in Outing, Minnesota, in November, Hoffman spoke publicly for the first time about the abuse. In a talk, he described the suffering and redemption he’s experienced since the summer of 2011. He told the high schoolers that he had been abused by a priest, and, because of that, he had left the faith. But ultimately, faith is what helped him begin to heal.

“I wanted people to know why I’m still Catholic after everything that’s happened,” he said.

He told Sara about the abuse early in their relationship, he said, in part to explain some of his negative behavior. He was still embarrassed and ashamed, and he felt guilty about his brothers’ abuse.

Since then, he’s learned more about clergy sexual abuse and, as an adult working with youths, has completed VIRTUS, the abuse-awareness training required by the archdiocese. Learning about the signs of predatory behavior and abuse was frustrating, he said, not only because of his own naiveté, but because the people around him didn’t recognize — or respond to — what he sees now as obvious signs of Wehmeyer’s grooming behavior.

The boys’ time one-on-one with a priest, especially in the seclusion of a camper or on overnight outings, violated the archdiocese’s established safe environment policies. He’s been struck by a line in the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” which focuses on the 2002 clergy abuse scandal and cover-up in Boston: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

“At the end of the day, it could have been prevented,” he said.

As a Catholic youth, he remembers feeling that it was a big deal when a priest — someone he perceived as holy — befriended him, he said.

The abuse “wasn’t just one event,” he said. “If you’re looking at what abuse is, I qualify the grooming process, the inappropriate hugs, the inappropriate language, different things like that, that’s all part of the mental abuse. … When you’re looking at it, they (his brothers) had it (the abuse) longer than anybody, but there were years where we were all either psychologically being groomed for it, or abuse was actually happening.”

Wehmeyer would hang out with Hoffman, and then started giving him beer and marijuana. He hugged him for too long, talked about watching pornography and touched him inappropriately.

At the time, Hoffman brushed that behavior aside, dismissing it as weird for a priest, but not something he wanted to call him out on.

“Looking back, everything now is so clear. … I’m just like, what the heck was going on, and what was I doing? But it’s hard to be a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old, and you’re trying to fit in with adults and someone offers you a beer, and somebody wants to give you drugs and different things like that,” he said. “You have this person in your life who is supposed to be taking care of you, so you’re like, I don’t want to disappoint this person. It’s hard to talk about because it’s so messed up.”

Hoffman said he’s been angry at his parents for not protecting him and his brothers.

“There have been family dinners where I’ve shouted things at my mother that I can never take back,” he said.

He does feel a sense of comfort in the steps the archdiocese has taken to bolster its safe environment measures. He also thinks archdiocesan leadership could better communicate what it’s doing to protect children. But, “I’m hopeful for the future, that’s for sure,” he said of the local Church. “I think we’re in a better place than we were seven years ago.”

Although the abuse nearly tore his family apart, they’ve worked to find unity and peace together, and not to cast blame for what happened. After Hoffman gave his testimony about healing from abuse at the winter Servants of the Cross retreat, he called his mom.

“I did start crying,” he said. “I told her, ‘This wasn’t your fault. … None of this is on you. And I know I’ve said different things in the past and everyone has, but I want you to know, this wasn’t your fault.’”

The pain lingers, he said, but his family comes together for family dinners — usually with all nine siblings, and now spouses and grandchildren — every Sunday. He hopes that his conversion inspires his siblings’ faith, too.

“The way I think about my faith now … is completely different from even where I was before the abuse happened,” he said. “It went from being my parents’ faith to being my faith and my relationship with the Lord.”

‘My life has really never been better’

Hoffman’s journey has sharpened a memory he has from middle school, before the abuse occurred. A woman known to have spiritual gifts prayed over him, and she told him that she had a vision of him in a boat moving across a river, pulling people from the water into the boat.

He didn’t give the experience much credence then, but now — even though, he said, “it’s a crazy thing to say” — he interprets the boat as the Church, and his mission is to draw people back into it.

It’s a mission to which he’s felt God calling him for years, but one he’s tried to resist, he said. He doesn’t like public speaking, and with no post-high school education and scant knowledge of the catechism, he didn’t feel qualified. And he was anxious about what it would mean to step away from the comfort and dependability of his career.

Part of what compels him now is hearing fellow Catholics disparage the Church in the midst of its scandal, he said. He recalled, after the Pennsylvania grand jury report was published last August, discovering a Facebook post from a former high school classmate that called the Church “disgusting” and stated he would never raise his children Catholic.

“That really struck a chord with me,” Hoffman said. “I started to realize that it’s not only myself or the people who are abused who are affected by abuse in the Church. It’s a very big problem within the Church and within parishes. … And it kind of scared me because if something like that can make you lose faith, that’s the last thing that I want. … Something in my heart was really moved.”

Conversations with fellow millennials, he added, have underscored prevalent misconceptions about the Church, even among practicing Catholics.

“People have lost sight of what matters,” he said. “It’s the relationship with Jesus. It’s the love story of everything. People get too tied up in the politics. … That is why my focus is in ministry or mission.”

He understands people being angry about the clergy abuse scandals, but he doesn’t want people hurt by it — directly or indirectly — to turn away from the Church or from God. “Don’t be mad at the source that’s going to give you salvation,” he said. “People need to understand this was done by man, not by God.”

While Hoffman is convinced that he’s supposed to dedicate his life at this time to ministry, he’s not certain what form that might take. He’s making a point of telling his story. In January, he shared it with Archbishop Bernard Hebda, and in February, he gave his testimony via a video for a gathering of priests that he couldn’t attend in person. Meanwhile, he’s praying for clarity for the future.

“I tell people this a lot: It happened to me, but, looking back, if I could go back and stop it from happening, I wouldn’t, because of the place that I’m at today; I’m so grateful for it,” he said. “By the grace of God, my life has really never been better than it is right now.”

In April 2015, Hoffman traveled to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, with his wife and mother for Wehmeyer’s sentencing hearing. Wehmeyer was in the courtroom.

“I remember they called me up, and I gave a little spiel about wanting justice, and I just felt sick about it,” he said.

On the way home, he began to regret what he didn’t do: Approach Wehmeyer, shake his hand and say, “I forgive you.”

“I literally pray for him every morning, that he receives God’s mercy and that his salvation can still be in play,” he said. “The only way I could have gotten from wanting to kill this guy, to (the point of) me and my wife praying for him every morning or night, is through the grace of God and through my faith, and through the sacraments. I’m not getting from Point A to Point B any other way.

“And that’s where the story is: It’s the story of the work God can still do on people’s lives. People need to stop reading the Bible and acting like it’s a fictional story book. God reached out to people back then, and he still does it to this day. And I think he’s spoken to me, and I think he’s using me for whatever he’s trying to accomplish with me. But I can’t get to where I am today without my faith.”

“It’s never affected my faith”

Joy Hoffman stands outside Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. Three of her sons were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, and it has dramatically affected her whole family.

Joy Hoffman stands outside Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. Three of her sons were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, and it has dramatically affected her whole family. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“St. Monica and I have been buddies for a long while,” said Joy Hoffman, referring to St. Augustine’s mother, who prayed ardently for her son during a wayward time in his life.

The mother of nine, Hoffman prays especially for her three sons who were sexually abused by Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest and her former boss at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, as well as their siblings, whose lives have been dramatically affected by the abuse.

In the nearly seven years since her sons first revealed the abuse, her family has been upended by their destructive behavior, therapy appointments, two sons’ multi-month stays at a therapy facility in Utah, tumultuous family dynamics and the lingering questions of “what if” — what if she had identified Wehmeyer’s friendliness to her boys as grooming, what if she had never invited him into their lives, what if she had not trusted that because he was a priest, that his intentions
were good?

However, those disruptions and heartaches have never included a desire to blame or leave the Church. Instead, she’s leaned on her faith to sustain her through the unimaginable difficulties, and, like her son Ben, she wants other Catholics not to blame — and not to leave — the Church over the sins, however egregious, of some of its clergy.

“I know how good God is,” said Hoffman, 58. “I knew it (the abuse) had nothing to do with the Church.”

A Blessed Sacrament staff member since 2005 — the year before Wehmeyer was assigned to the parish — she was the faith formation director until 2014 and is now the parish’s administrative coordinator.

When Wehmeyer was assigned to the parish, Hoffman thought he was odd, but she also hoped that he might inspire her sons to consider a vocation to the priesthood. In time, he was an occasional visitor to their home, as he lived nearby.

As the parish’s safe environment coordinator, Hoffman said she was diligent about ensuring staff and volunteers were screened and trained, and Church protocols were followed between adults and minors. However, she didn’t realize how often her sons were alone with Wehmeyer. Additionally, their camping trips with him were always arranged with the understanding they’d be accompanied by another adult. Only later did she find out that those other adults were often present for only part of the time. But, she said, she never imagined that Wehmeyer was dangerous, until her sons revealed the abuse. He had kept them quiet by threatening them with their mother’s job, and for years they despised her for it, she said.

Today, she’s inspired by Ben’s conversion and forgiveness, and recently she, too, has begun to pray for the former priest, she said. However, she struggles with silent prayer, because there the horror her family has experienced — including flashbacks of her children’s hurt and anger — becomes deafening. She falls asleep to the TV and even installed one in her bathroom, because she dreads the quiet of the baths necessary to ease the psoriasis inflamed by her stress. She used to be a frequent eucharistic adorer, but until recently, she couldn’t bear even 10 minutes in quiet.

Family life is still challenging, she said, but it’s improving. And while Ben sees his mission in the context of the larger Church, Joy tells him that God is also using him “in our little Church, our family church,” she said.

She fears that the abuse scandals will drive out a generation of Catholics, and she shares her story in hope that if other Catholics see that she is still faithful, they will be, too.

“How do you deal with the tragedy in your life without Christ?” she asked. “If I hadn’t been able to keep my eyes on Christ through this, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the first week. … It’s never, ever, ever affected my faith.”

— Maria Wiering

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