Survivor rises above paralysis, priest abuse
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | June 01,2014
Dan Gilman titles this personal photograph “I am unleashed.”
Dan Gilman was a 15-year-old free spirit when, climbing a tree lurching over a friend’s aboveground pool July 28, 1972, he leapt upward.
“I imagined I was one of those cliff divers they show on ‘Wide World of Sports,’” the Vermonter says. “In that split second, everything was light and sparkling and summer was perfect and I was the center of attention.”
Then it all came crashing down. Fracturing his spine, the teenager was paralyzed from his shoulders to the soles of his feet.
“This is bad, this is bad, this is bad,” Gilman thought as he lay in a hospital bed listening to doctors give him a less than 1 percent chance of recovery.
Feeling helpless and without hope, the boy accepted a priest’s invitation to receive “the Lord’s blessing.” A clergyman’s hands hold healing powers, the stranger said as he pulled the curtain for privacy.
Gilman knows this is the point where most people tune out. For decades, the lifelong Rutlander stayed silent about his sexual abuse as he struggled to harness the lingering feeling in his left biceps and shoulder to power a motorized wheelchair and mechanical arm.
But the 57-year-old has reason for telling all today.
“If I had left it as a story of a spinal cord injury,” he says, “people would have seen it as inspirational but not recognize the severity.”
Gilman knows some might fear the specifics. But they ultimately reveal an even more remarkable tale of courage, faith and resilience.
Gilman, the oldest of four boys in a churchgoing, working-class family, grew up testing limits. He wasn’t afraid to catch snakes, or sneak beer, throw bullets into a bonfire or plunge headfirst into an inner tube floating atop a 4-foot-tall pool.
“Everything was more peaceful and quiet than I’d ever felt,” he recalls of the moment hot air gave way to cold water. “The world turned blue and soft and silent. I floated in the clouds.”
That’s when his friends, seeing him sinking and swallowing water, pulled him from the pool.
“I couldn’t feel their hands,” he recalls. “I couldn’t feel anything.”
Gilman could only see his parents’ frightened faces, hear the ambulance siren, taste the wet swab wielded by the hospital nurse who said he’d have to wait for the doctor to answer his questions.
Soon came whispers in the hallway, worries of lung and kidney infections and bedsores, the words spoken when everyone thought he was asleep: “Life expectancy, at best, around nine years.”
No one believed he’d walk again, let alone live to age 25? Gilman was despondent. That was just one reason why he kept quiet as the Rev. Edward Paquette touched places the boy could see but not feel.
“You will be cured,” the priest said. “It requires many healing sessions. Have patience in the Lord.”
At least someone was trying something, the embarrassed teenager reasoned. And what could he say or do to stop it? Who’d believe him if he told? Would “the neighborhood’s toughest guy” be branded a girl?
The abuse continued for two years. Then, suddenly, a new priest arrived. The clergyman said nothing about the fact that the state Roman Catholic Diocese transferred Paquette after discovering he had molested several other boys at the Rutland hospital. Instead, Gilman was told simply, “He moved away.”
So would the teenager. He visited a rehabilitation center in Virginia and learned how to finagle a faucet handle, washcloth and electric toothbrush. Then a brute of an orderly, purposely injuring the teenager with bandage tape, sent him home and back into the hospital.
The resulting years repeated the pattern: Two steps forward, then one back. Yet slowly but surely, Gilman went to college in the 1980s, to work in the 1990s and online with the start of a new millennium.
Gilman learned to type by prodding a hand into his wheelchair’s mechanical arm and pecking the keyboard with a finger-shaped attachment.
He practiced in an Internet chat room: “Hi.”
A woman responded. Her name was Meredith, the screen said — Meredith Kelley, from North Carolina.
The two typed for weeks, then talked on the phone for months. Gilman mailed Kelley a plane ticket to Vermont for Thanksgiving 2002. Just before her return flight, he took her to a jewelry store and asked if she wanted a ring.
She has lived here ever since.
Then again, the story isn’t as simple as “And they lived happily ever after.” Kelley realized Gilman couldn’t legally marry so as not to lose his attendant-care benefits. But she didn’t understand his unexplained mood swings as the press began unearthing a nearly half-century-long statewide priest misconduct scandal.
Paquette, according to records, abused boys in his home state of Massachusetts and at his next assignment in Indiana before problematic transfers to Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976. A total of 35 Vermont men would sue the diocese for negligence in hiring and supervising the eventually terminated priest, who is now 85 and retired in Massachusetts.
“I don’t know if that is a comfort or a horror,” Gilman says of the fact he wasn’t alone.
Gilman eventually shared his story with a counselor, his girlfriend and a lawyer. His case was one of a dozen resolved in a 2013 blanket settlement that capped an 11-year, close to 40-lawsuit saga for the state’s largest religious denomination.
Gilman agreed to the terms on one condition: “I wanted the freedom to tell what had happened.” And so letter by letter, “painful memory after painful memory,” he typed a memoir titled “The Blue Hole,” named for both a favorite childhood fishing spot and his spiraling, seemingly inescapable emotions after the accident and abuse.
Spilling with detail, the new 232-page independently published paperback — praised by David Clohessy, director of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests as “extraordinarily well-written, moving and important” — is horrific and haunting.
It reveals the heartache and guilt of the two women who felt most responsible: his mother, who would care for his most personal of hygiene, and her friend whose pool he dived into, who would hang herself.
It records Gilman’s own sadness and shame, anxiety and anger, depression and delusion. One moment he couldn’t sleep; the next, he’d drift off and imagine adapting his wheelchair’s mechanical arm so he could shoot and kill Paquette.
One day, he began planning for real.
“I couldn’t follow through,” he writes in his book. “A gun couldn’t define me as a man any more than being able to walk could. Being a man was something deep in my heart and had to do with being a strong and honest person.”
And so this coming Friday, Gilman will greet the public with gratitude at an author’s appearance from 3 to 4 p.m. at the Rutland Free Library. (His book also is available at The Bookmobile at 58 Merchants Row in Rutland and on www.amazon.com.)
“I no longer have nightmares,” he says. “I have dreams.”