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COLUMN ONE

27 pages undo a life's haunting

Reading his boyhood choirmaster's 'sexual autobiography,' part of a release of church files, finally puts old demons to rest.

January 16, 2013|Ashley Powers
  • As boys, Damian Eckert, left, and his brother, Bob, shown near the Santa Barbara Mission, were members of the choir led by now-defrocked Father Robert Van Handel at the nearby St. Anthony's Seminary, which closed in 1987. The brothers say Van Handel molested them.
As boys, Damian Eckert, left, and his brother, Bob, shown near the Santa… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

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.

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