Faith in the Roman Catholic Church ended for Mark Bogdanowicz inside a priest’s bedroom in Fremont late one Saturday night when he was 15.
“I worked for the Santa Paula parish, and after Mass the priest told me to take the money from the collection plate and put it in his room in the rectory,” Bogdanowicz said during a conversation in his lawyer’s office.
“I walked into the bedroom to do that. He was in the rectory and came in behind me and closed the door. He pushed me against the door, undid my 501s and tried to attack me the smell of his breath made me sick.”
Bogdanowicz stopped talking.
He stared out the window toward the Nimitz Freeway, already crammed with commuters going home. He is 38, of medium height, good-looking with bronze skin, dark eyes, a shadow of a beard and short hair. A thick silver earring hangs from each ear.
The priest, Robert Freitas, 57, was sentenced in January to six months in county jail and five years’ probation after pleading guilty last month to sexually molesting Bogdanowicz in 1980.
Bogdanowicz agreed to talk publicly for the first time to this newspaper, hoping his story would persuade other victims of sexual abuse by priests to come forwardand help cleanse their souls of old nightmares and bring their abusers to justice.
“I know that since this case became public, a couple of other victims have come forward. If I can help anybody else that would be cool,” he said.
Allegations of sexual abuse have been made against 23 priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which ministers to a half million Catholics in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Ten of those men are dead and three priests have denied the charges, the diocese said.
As part of the sentencing deal against Freitas, the District Attorney’s Office has agreed not to pursue charges involving two other victims. But they can press charges if any new victims come forward.
The allegations against Freitas, who was arrested April 8, 2002, surfaced when Bogdanowicz moved back into his parents’ home in September 2001 and told his mother what had happened 20 years earlier.
Sister Barbara Flannery, who heads the diocese’s reconcilation program for victims of priest abuse, said the diocese is profoundly sorry for what happened. “Robert Freitas had indicated he wants to leave the priesthood totally,” she said. “When his jail sentence is completed, we will be negotiating with him about the future.”
Freitas was not reached for comment, but his attorney, William Gagen of Danville, noted Freitas pleaded guilty under a court arrangement. “The diocese did send him for six months’ confined treatment (in the 1980s), and he underwent years and years of counseling.”
Bogdanowicz has filed a civil suit against the priest and the diocese, charging the church failed to adequately supervise the priest. His lawyer, R. Lewis Van Blois, said Bogdanowicz hopes to reach an out-of-court settlement with the church.
“He’s (Freitas) one of those priests we have been hearing about, who went into seminary at 13, which arrested the adolescent process,” Gagen said.
This all happened years ago when Freitas was fairly young, and there have been no incidents since, Gagen added.
Bogdanowicz, who lives in San Francisco, said the church knew about Freitas. “They knew he had molested someone prior to moving to our church,” Bogdanowicz said.
“No one knew about him outside of the diocesan office,” Van Blois added. “We only learned this in the last six months, through the church records.”
Bogdanowicz said the priest’s attempts to molest him began months earlier. “He came to our church, and he got really involved in the youth ministry. He became very popular. Everybody loved the guy.
“I had the keys to the rectory because I had to clean up on the weekends. I had to take the collection to the rectory after Mass. I always opened the front door and put it in a closet.
“But he told me to put the money in his bedroom,” Bogdanowicz said. “The first time I did it, he wasn’t there, but he had a spread of pornography magazines on the bed.”
Week after week, the magazines would be there. “He’d leave notes saying, ‘You can take them home.'”
When the attack finally came, the priest pinned him against the locked door, Bogdanowicz said. “I fought it, but I couldn’t do anything. He was a big man and at that time I was still really small,” Bogdanowicz said. “It happened a bunch of different times.
“I wouldn’t say anything. The money still had to go in his room every week. Finally, I left the church.”
Bogdanowicz said he buried what happened deep inside his mind. “I didn’t tell anyone. I just wanted to get away from there,” he said. “This was my first sexual experience. I often think about that trying to date girls and having this happen.
“I was very confused. I wondered if I was gay. I tried to fight that by going into the military,” he said. “I spent 13 years in the Navy, four years on active duty, the rest in the reserve. I was in the Gulf War. I tried to make a life. I got married. I tried to make that work. It didn’t.”
Bogdanowicz wound up in San Francisco, he said. He ended a relationship with a man recently. His family accepted that he was gay, he said. But living as a gay man in San Francisco was perilous. “I lost all my friends to AIDS,” Bogdanowicz said.
He was diagnosed HIV positive seven years ago, which became AIDS.
He said he went home to his family in Fremont to die. But the new AIDS drugs worked and today he is a strong, healthy person.
And then the nightmare that he has lived every day for 23 years surfaced again.
“We were having a surprise retirement party for my mother,” Bogdanowicz said. “She came home from where she works at Sisters of the Holy Family mother house, a retirement center for Catholic nuns in Fremont.
“She said, ‘Guess who is saying Mass at my work? Father Freitas.'”
“I flipped out,” Bogdanowicz said.
So Bogdanowicz came out. He told his mother what had happened so long ago. “I told her I would do whatever it took to get him out of that church. I just didn’t want her to have to see him there every day.
“I really didn’t know much about the sex abuse involving priests. I don’t watch TV. The next day she walked in the door and gave me a phone number at the Oakland diocese. I called.”
That afternoon Detective Theresa Martinez called from the Fremont Police Department. “She was wonderful,” Bogdanowicz said. “She went above and beyond. She was totally supportive to me and helped me through it. I don’t think I would have made it this far without her support.”
On March 26, 2002, Bogdanowicz met Freitas. This time he wore a wire-recording device. “I got him to confess to everything he did to me,” Bogdanowicz said. “I got him to confess that he had done it with someone else.”
The events have shaken his religious family, he said. “They don’t go to church. They are very disheartened and hurt.”
He adds that he hates to even enter a Roman Catholic church, although he deeply believes in God. “I wonder every day how different my life would have been if my first sexual experience hadn’t been like that,” Bogdanowicz said. “It has hurt by relationships. I don’t really trust anybody.”
Asked which is worse the molestation by the priest or living with AIDS, which has no cure Bogdanowicz slowly shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”