An Abuse Victim Steps Forward

James J. Mackin
Al Ryan, a victim of sexual abuse as a child, is urging other victims to speak out. Independent/Rick Murphy

Decades ago, when Al Ryan, a teenager, could no longer handle his mangled life he desperately sought help — from the new parish priest. What transpired was a betrayal so shocking he is only now recovering from the tailspin it created.

Back in the mid-to-late 1960s, folks in Sag Harbor had little understanding of the pedophile culture that would come to define the Catholic priesthood more recently. Father Al Soave, the new pastor at St. Andrew’s, a garrulous gym rat with a genuine love of basketball and a history of working with outstanding athletes, was a natural for the hoop-crazy village.

The parishioners liked the chatty Soave and he quickly earned the nickname “Bingo Al” by revitalizing the weekly games to a point where there were standing room only crowds.

Ryan came from a deeply religious, loving family, but no amount of prayer or love could change the circumstances of his youth. Born with two clubfeet, he spent much of his childhood in operating rooms and rehab clinics. At one point, doctors discovered that rather than correcting Ryan’s agonizing condition, the workouts they’d prescribed for him had ground away at a joint until it disintegrated.

That’s when the physical abuse began. By age seven it was a regular occurrence.

“It started happening on a daily basis after awhile. I was weak. I wasn’t physically able to push them away from me,” Ryan recalled. He was targeted by orderlies and the like, but there was a family member as well, a doctor who volunteered to help him.

Years of therapy and casts, braces, and finally corrective bar shoes not only hampered his every move, but left him weak, helpless to defend himself, and lonely for attention.

His second cousin, the doctor, who is now deceased, lived nearby and continued to prey on him. Repeatedly. His family, though loving and supportive, wouldn’t or couldn’t believe the truth when he turned to them for help, noting the cousin treated their son without charging them. “Disregard anything they tell you is free,” Ryan said with a wry laugh. “I was an outcast. I was a good candidate [for abuse]. When I tried to fight, I lost. I just didn’t have the strength.”

Gradually surgery and rehab took hold and Al began to be able to move about on his own. His clubfeet had been reversed, literally, by “cracking them above the ankle” he said, and he learned to stand on his own two feet and, gradually, to walk. Ryan, like most of the youngsters in Sag Harbor his age, developed a love for basketball.

Soave had the cred when he arrived in 1968. He worked with Rick Pittino and Tom Riker when they attended St. Dominic’s High School, and both went on to become hoop legends. St. Andrew’s gym, once dormant while Pierson High School Gym just down the block overflowed, became a hotbed of activity.

Ryan, by then a teenager, saw in Soave a mentor who could help make some sense of the madness he had endured growing up.

“I was crying out for help. He was charismatic. I was the first one to confession every week,” he said. At first Ryan found their relationship to be beneficial.

“I sought out Father Soave on an intellectual level as a man of God who could help guide me through all the things I was experiencing,” Ryan related. But as the relationship grew it veered toward a dangerous place, Ryan recounted. There was inappropriate touching, then groping. Then an invitation to the movies.

“He wanted me to see John Travolta dancing. He kept saying what a wonderful body he had.” Ryan finally allowed himself to grasp what was going on and pulled back. “He looked me in the eye and shouted, ‘I’ll damn you to hell!’”

Back in those days, it would have been unfathomable even to conceive a priest could be a pedophile. But after four years, Soave was transferred in 1974 and replaced as St. Andrew’s Pastor by Father William Burke; Ryan, wary, slowly warmed to the new priest. “He became a trusted and respected source of comfort,” Ryan recalled. “Then he attempted to seduce me during a ‘counseling session.’” Burke urged Ryan to allow the two to develop a “relationship.”

The priest’s idea of a relationship, “was taking me to an R rated movie,” Ryan said. Burke said it would be OK because he would be there to supervise. But Ryan was over 18 by then. “I could have attended without supervision,” he noted.

For a young man teetering on the brink, the emotional strain was no longer bearable.

Ryan fell apart. “I was in turmoil. I was binge eating. I had gotten myself in magnificent physical shape but I put on 175 pounds.”

Ryan’s descent into self-destructive behavior included bouts with alcohol and run-ins with police. Thankfully the local police chose not to report the indiscretions. It wasn’t until a Suffolk County Grand Jury report in 2003 outlining widespread pedophile behavior by Catholic priests that he fully realized what was going on. His was not an isolated story, but one played out in parishes all over the county and as it turned out, all over the world.

In 2003, The Independent related two shocking discoveries that up to that point that had gone unreported in local news (and to this day has been ignored by the other local newspapers): the Rockville Centre Diocese deliberately assigned two accused pedophiles to run St. Andrew’s Parish in Sag Harbor — Rev. Alfred Soave and Rev. William Burke. According to the Grand Jury report, Soave was “one of the worst” serial pedophiles in the diocese. “A number of boys” accused him of sexually molesting them, said the report, which identified Soave as “Priest T.”

It was later alleged in court filings that the diocese used Sag Harbor as “a dumping ground,” hoping the sleepy whaling village was so far out east that its preying priests wouldn’t attract as much attention.

Soave was named in a 2003 lawsuit against the diocese. After he was accused by a fellow priest of fondling a 13 year-old altar boy, Soave was sent for therapy — and promoted to the title of Vicar for Senior Priests. Finally, in 1988, it was recommended that he not return to active ministry. The whistle blower was ostracized: he would never work again in the diocese.
Soave died in 1999.

There is a compensation program in place for victims of pedophile priests. A bill pending in Albany would roll back the statute of limitations so victims of sexual abuse can take criminal and civil action against their attackers. But both the compensation program and the proposed law face deadlines this week. There are articles about both in today’s Independent.

The urgency is one of the reasons Ryan is speaking out after all these years. “Everyone who had a problem needs to step forward and get your due. The message from god is inside of you. I’m hoping courage is distributed to those on the fence,” Ryan said.

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