At 11 years old, Olan Horne opened up to the one person he thought he could trust most, Father Joe Birmingham. Years later, Horne is telling his story about being sexually abused by Birmingham.
On Monday night, he spoke with around 50 people at St. Anselm’s Church in Sudbury.
“I saw his picture in the paper and it brought back so many memories,” said Horne, now 42. “I try not to get into details because it’s extremely disturbing.”
Birmingham, who died in 1989, has been accused of sexually abusing numerous boys and young men in several communities in the Boston Archdiocese.
Horne met Birmingham when the priest was assigned to St. Michael’s Church in Lowell. Horne thought he had found the one person he could trust with the traumatic experience of being sexually abused by a “family associate.”
“I told him I had been abused,” Horne said. “It was a terrible burden. I couldn’t tell my family. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do.”
Birmingham made a promise to help Horne, but encouraged him to keep the past abuse private.
Horne said the abuse happened slowly and did not send off alarms in his head.
“(Birmingham) He’s a con with a collar,” he said. “He didn’t own me, I owned him. I was the kid he would buy ice cream for. I was the kid he cared about. I was the kid he bought subs for.”
Something felt wrong to Horne when Birmingham would rub against him, but as an 11-year-old he trusted the priest and thought of him as a best friend. He always left the church rectory thinking he was getting better.
“I will carry Joe Birmingham’s memory for the rest of my life,” Horne said.
Before coming to St. Michael’s in Lowell, Birmingham started his priesthood as a pastor at Our Lady of Fatima in Sudbury during the 1960s and late 1970s. When accusations of sexual abuse surfaced, he was moved to a church in Salem, then to Lowell.
At least one abuse victim from Our Lady of Fatima has filed suit against the Boston archdiocese and church officials.
After six years and more reports of abuse, Birmingham was moved to a church in Gloucester, where he became a pastor, before making a final stop in Brighton.
Birmingham was placed under house arrest by Cardinal Bernard Law after more abuse allegations arose in Brighton. He died a year-and-a-half later.
Among the those allegedly abused in Lowell by Birmingham was Horne’s lifelong friend, Dave Lyko, now 43.
At 11 years old, Lyko was an altar boy at St. Michael’s Church. After the 9 a.m. Mass, he would meet with Birmingham. Lyko said it started out with them talking and escalated to Birmingham fondling him.
The abuse ended for Lyko when he met a girlfriend at age 14. Lyko said once one of the boys found a girlfriend, Birmingham did not want him anymore.
“(Childhood) innocence was stolen from me. I can never get that back, but what I can do is fight to make sure this never happens again,” Lyko said. “It was over two decades of people being put through this.”
Lyko and Horne knew other boys were being abused, but the subject only came up in dirty jokes while throwing a baseball or football around.
Horne and Lyko are both members of The Survivors of Joe Birmingham, formed earlier this year to support victims. The group has representatives from all the churches Birmingham was assigned to and speaks to groups such as St. Anselm’s Parish Voice and Voices of the Faithful.
Surprising to many in the audience at St. Anselm’s Church on Monday night, Horne is not angry with Birmingham. Instead, he is angry with the system that allowed Birmingham to be moved from church to church.
Horne and Lyko want to see more dialogue and easier access to the archdiocese. Education and understanding is how to move forward, Horne said.
“Anger is like curry. It’s not its own spice. It’s bewilderment, it’s frustration, it’s confusion. It’s a mix that produces anger,” he said. “We’ve got to get over the anger. To get over the anger you have to have the facts in front of you. You need to know what happened, where you’re going and what you’re doing.”