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SUNDAYS AFTER: Patrick Shepard finds healing in basketball

December 19, 2019 GMT
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Patrick Shepard poses for a portrait at an outdoor basketball court on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Wylie, Texas. He was 10 years old when he moved into Chicago’s St. Charles Lwanga rectory and first encountered the Rev. Victor Stewart, who was the head priest, high school theology teacher, basketball coach and father figure for so many boys who came to live there. For seven years, Shepard says, Stewart sexually abused him. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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Patrick Shepard poses for a portrait at an outdoor basketball court on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Wylie, Texas. He was 10 years old when he moved into Chicago’s St. Charles Lwanga rectory and first encountered the Rev. Victor Stewart, who was the head priest, high school theology teacher, basketball coach and father figure for so many boys who came to live there. For seven years, Shepard says, Stewart sexually abused him. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

WYLIE, Texas (AP) — It was the priest who taught Patrick Shepard to love basketball — how to dribble and block and position his body just so, to sink the perfect shot.

That is why, for many years, he wouldn’t touch a ball.

“There were so many bad memories,” he said. “I wanted to get as far away from it as I could.”

He was 10 years old when he moved into Chicago’s St. Charles Lwanga rectory and first encountered the Rev. Victor Stewart, who was the head priest, high school theology teacher, basketball coach and father figure for so many boys who came to live there.

For seven years, Shepard says, Stewart sexually abused him.

And then Shepard left St. Charles Lwanga to join the Navy, and struggle with the aftermath of a broken childhood. Shepard would find a way to survive, however imperfect and incomplete. Basketball would help.

For a long time, Shepard told no one. On the South Side, silence was a means of survival.

“A black male in Chicago, you don’t want to be seen as weak,” he says.

Besides, Shepard had nowhere else to go. Before the church, he’d slept in the back of a record store. His mother left him at the rectory and never came to visit.

Stewart bought him clothes, paid for school, baptized him Catholic and made him an altar boy. There was always basketball, but his abuser also encouraged Shepard to embrace his academics gifts, and never apologize for his intellect.

Shepard left the rectory, but what happened there stayed with him. He’d explode in bouts of rage so unpredictable and intense they ruined his Navy career and his marriage. He’d fall into periods of depression so deep he’d stay under the covers for days or weeks at a time. The tears would come without warning.

Some of the other boys from the rectory, also abused, succumbed to addiction, overdose, suicide. There were times he thought he might, too.

Shepard, now 48, still struggles with bad dreams, enveloping sadness, intimacy, trust and maintaining relationships. Therapy has helped some, antidepressants more so. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He worries that if those around him knew about his abuse they might think he’s damaged or capable of such acts himself.

“I’m still learning how to cope,” he says. “I don’t want this to define me.”

Shepard says he’ll never step foot in a church again. Still, he has not lost his faith; his anger has lately given way to a belief built on hope for the future.

“I thought, how could God let this happen to me, to so many people?” he says. “But, I’m still here. I’m not completely devastated. All I’ve been through, I think God was protecting me through it.”

He prays privately each morning before sunrise. He walks along the winding paths of his subdivision and gives thanks for his partner, Nikky Brooks; for his son Patrick, his namesake; for his life, lumps and all.

His move to Texas in 2003 and a desire to teach his son brought Shepard back to basketball.

Shepard had been reeling from divorce and alcohol abuse, and living in his car in Seattle. An old friend from the rectory coaxed him south — and later, back onto the court.

Shepard raised his son here; giving him a safe, happy childhood is his proudest achievement. And it was here, too, that he moved in with Brooks after six years together.

Shepard worries she’ll decide his darkness is too much to bear. “It’s dangerous to trust people,” he said, but he’s trying. Each morning after his walk he cooks breakfast for Brooks and serves it to her in bed; each night, she fixes him dinner.

Stewart would end up on the Archdiocese of Chicago’s list of clergy credibly accused of sexually abusing children. In 2005, Shepard received a $300,000 settlement.

With the money, Shepard bought a house and paid off his then-wife’s student loans. Most of the rest was lost in divorce.

The last of Shepard’s settlement check went to a cleaning business, now closed; he has since been out of work. While he figures out what comes next, basketball gets him out of the house every afternoon, and out of his head.

It isn’t always easy.

“When I play alone I still hear his voice in the background telling me, ‘Keep your arm straight, bend your knees,’” says Shepard. But every scrimmage, every pickup, helps him reclaim the game as his own.

“I try to remember that was a different life, a different time,” he said. “I don’t have to let him keep abusing me.”

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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.