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SUNDAYS AFTER: Amid daily struggles, working to conquer fear

December 19, 2019 GMT
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Jacob Olivas, 50, a survivor of priest abuse, poses for a portrait at home on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019 in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Olivas was abused by a priest for a year when he was between the ages of 6 and 7. Still, more than four decades later, his life is difficult. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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Jacob Olivas, 50, a survivor of priest abuse, poses for a portrait at home on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019 in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Olivas was abused by a priest for a year when he was between the ages of 6 and 7. Still, more than four decades later, his life is difficult. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. (AP) — Jacob Olivas savored the smell of the forest, the icy clouds, the sweeping view of Inland Empire below his perch on the top of Mount Baldy.

“I missed you,” he whispered to the pine trees. “I missed you.”

It had been five years since he’d last seen this place he considers a sanctuary. The drive has kept him away. Highways, traffic, winding roads upset Olivas, ever since he had a panic attack behind the wheel and almost crashed his car. His episodes are unpredictable, but he knows where they come from.

“The anxiety is the one thing that really lingers on from my abuse,” he said.

The Rev. Edward Anthony Rodrigue worked at St. George’s, the Catholic school Olivas and his brothers went to in Ontario, California. Their father had a drinking problem and worked long hours and the priest they knew as Father Tony took an interest in the boys, often visiting them in the afternoons when they were home alone. Olivas says Rodrigue sexually abused him for about a year, between the ages of 6 and 7.

Rodrigue died in 2009, after spending eight years in prison and admitting to abusing more than 100 boys. From behind bars, he wrote a letter of apology to Olivas, now 50.

It sits in his attorney’s drawer; Olivas can’t bring himself to read it.

He got a $2.1 million settlement. The money “cannot erase the pain of that experience,” said John Andrews, communications director for the Diocese of San Bernardino. “But, it is one way to offer a measure of reconciliation of healing to the person, and that’s what we did in this case.”

Olivas said the settlement offered him some semblance of validation but little peace. There’s none of that, except on the mountain, or in the pews of the Upland, California, Catholic Church, where Olivas prays every Sunday.

Little by little, Olivas is pushing against the walls of a world that’s become so tiny, so constricting, that sometimes even the space between the couch and his mother’s room down the hallway of the mobile home they share feels overwhelming.

Olivas is afraid of the dark, and of being alone. Each night he settles onto the couch and tries to fall asleep to the hum of the television. Sometimes it works, sometimes he’s startled awake by nightmares, likely from so many years of keeping what happened to himself. It wasn’t until he started having anxiety attacks in his 20s that he told a therapist about the abuse.

Since the settlement, Olivas has found strength in a faith that has evolved but never wavered, even at his lowest points. A rosary hangs from his car’s rearview mirror, a Jesus medallion rests on the dash.

“I was very close to God from a young age,” Olivas said. “I was always in love with the idea that there was somebody out there who really hears me.”

When Olivas’s panic attacks were so crippling he couldn’t go outside, he prayed for relief and when it didn’t come he was angry. But now he views the anxiety, however brutal and frightening, as a means of addressing the root of his anguish.

“When you break a bone, it hurts as it’s healing but in the end it’s stronger,” he said. “I think for me, I needed to go through this pain. This is my soul going through the healing process.”

At the mobile home, pictures of Jesus and Mary are scattered among photographs of Olivas’ son, the love of his life. Around his neck he wears a scapular, a sign of his devotion to Catholicism. One bad priest could not poison his relationship with the church. His faith, he said, is what kept him afloat during his worst years.

“Suffering isn’t always a curse. Sometimes it’s a gift. God saw the strength in me I couldn’t see. That helps me get through it, to reassure me that I’m not alone, and that it will pass,” he said.

Jacob works the early morning shift at a mattress factory. In his free hours he watches movies and practices guitar. He prays and goes to Mass and misses his boy, now off at college. Sometimes he thinks about the mountains.

When he was little he’d skip school and go to Mount Baldy to gather his thoughts and years later, he rented a cabin near its ski lodge. It is still the only place Olivas feels safe being alone.

In early fall, the first time he tried to drive up the mountain, he didn’t make it halfway before he had to turn back. The next day he reached the summit, albeit in the passenger seat.

“Part of the pain I carry is that these are things I used to do that I can’t anymore,” he said. “I want them back.”

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The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.