JACKSON, Miss. -- Mark Belenchia didn’t stay quiet.
He told his mother and his uncle, in the mid-1970s. He told a parish priest, then the vicar general, in 1985. Still, the clergyman Belenchia said sexually abused him when he was a child in Shelby, Mississippi, remained in collar and cassock.
“It showed me that the system says you’re insignificant. It doesn’t matter what you said, or what happened to you,” Belenchia said.
Belenchia would not be ignored. Over the years, his quest for answers, to try and make sense of his own personal tragedy, transformed into a crusade against clergy abuse that’s become his life’s focus. Activism, he said, gives him purpose and direction. Through this work he makes use of his pain, to help other survivors struggling to cope with theirs.
The abuse began when Belenchia was 12 and lasted three years, he said, maybe four. But the events of his youth cast a shadow over his life for decades after.
He felt shame and guilt for allowing himself to get close the priest, who’d decorated the church rectory like a clubhouse and plied young boys from the neighborhood with liquor.
He felt anguish and panic when, at 43, Belenchia plunged into a depressive episode that resulted in hospitalization, intensive psychiatric treatment and an extended leave from his systems engineer position at IBM that eventually turned into medical retirement.
He felt defeated when a bishop told him his story was a one-off, “an anomaly,” and resigned when he reluctantly accepted a $44,000 settlement from the Diocese of Jackson in exchange for a promise not to tell. (In a statement to The Associated Press, a lawyer for the diocese acknowledged Belenchia’s abuse, and said the diocese has not included a confidentiality clause in any settlement agreement since 2002 unless it was insisted upon by the victim.)
He felt empowered to go public after reading an article about two local brothers suing the church, and validated when five men from across Mississippi came to him afterward with stories of their own abuse at the hands of the same clergyman.
And then, Belenchia got angry.
“As sick as I was, as bad as it was, that’s when I started becoming an advocate,” Belenchia said. “I realized I’d been screwed into the ground, twisted, turned, manipulated, run through the ringer. I wanted to be part of the movement.”
He didn’t return to work at IBM. Instead Belenchia, now 64, launched a Mississippi chapter of the national group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“It hurts, but it also helps,” he said.
He travels up and down the Mississippi Delta, offering support for those reluctant to speak, those trying to make their stories known and those just trying to stay afloat, helping them find therapy, file lawsuits, and feel seen.
People like Joshua Love, 36, who was beaten and sexually abused by two friars at St. Francis of Assisi School in Greenwood, Mississippi. Love had been depressed, unable to make ends meet. The two men are bonded like family, Belenchia said. He recently helped Love get the lights turned back on.
An antique crucifix hangs on the wall of Belenchia’s home office tucked away in his garage but it’s purely ornamental — it belonged to his grandmother: a relic from the old world, an homage to his Italian heritage and his upbringing.
He disavowed religion more than a decade ago— first Catholicism, then Christianity, then all forms of worship and spiritual belief. Reason, he said, is his guiding principle.
“The best thing for me was to get away from it and when I did, I released this guilt, this fear of death, this fear of hell,” he said. “I let go, and I retained my humanity, and in doing that I felt free.”
Belenchia takes comfort in what he can see and feel. Working with his hands in his wood shop is a salve, he said: the physicality of the process is something like meditation.
Belenchia isn’t interested in pushing for church reforms.
“All I want is the truth,” he said. “Restitution, justice and the truth.”
The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.