It is time for life to cut Mike McDonnell a break — even if it’s 39 years overdue.

That time, it seems, may be nearer than ever.

Mike was 12 and serving as altar boy at St. Titus in East Norriton when the Rev. Francis Trauger sexually assaulted him. The parish at the time was a cesspool for priest predators in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But rather than calling police as they learned about Trauger, church leaders moved him from parish to parish and kept it mum.

Mike was 38 when the same archdiocese got justice against Mike. He was prosecuted for taking $100,000 in church payments for therapy but spending it elsewhere. He went to only one of the 662 “therapy visits” he had claimed over several years, and submitted fake receipts for the rest. Mike was jailed in 2010 after failing to post any of his $110,000 bail. (By contrast: When his defrocked priest-abuser was arrested, only recently and for the first time in four decades, that guy didn’t have to post a penny of $250,000 in unsecured bail.)

Now 51 and sober for years, Mike is clear-eyed — and eyeing what may finally be glimmers of justice on the horizon.

A few months ago, FBI agents reached out and met with Mike as part of the Catholic clergy abuse probe announced late last year by U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia. Then, a few weeks ago in Bucks County, the local district attorney ordered the arrest of Mike’s now-defrocked abuser, charging Trauger with abusing two boys who are now in their 30s.

Mike McDonnell in his Bristol home.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Mike McDonnell in his Bristol home.

When this month ends, the church-backed compensation fund established last year after the scorching Pennsylvania report into Catholic clergy abuse by the Attorney General’s Office will stop accepting requests for payment. Mike’s claim against Trauger, he says, is in the pipeline.

“I was held accountable. I was held responsible,” Mike said after taking my call, out of the blue this week, and agreeing to a conversation at the tidy apartment near the Delaware River waterfront where he lives with his partner, Deb, and their son in Bristol Borough. “I came out a better man.”

Can we say the same about the church?

With a federal investigation being conducted behind closed doors, a recent arrest by the FBI but little other publicly known about it, and other matters pending, the answer to that remains less clear. What we do know is that despite investigations into all eight dioceses in Pennsylvania, few priests have spent any time in jail and, certainly, not a single bishop, either.

Still. All of this activity is something. And if you’re a guy like Mike, that’s no small thing.

Defrocked Archdiocese of Philadelphia priest Francis Trauger was all smiles as an Inquirer photographer captured him on the day of his booking on sexual assault charges in Bucks County earlier this month.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Defrocked Archdiocese of Philadelphia priest Francis Trauger was all smiles as an Inquirer photographer captured him on the day of his booking on sexual assault charges in Bucks County earlier this month.

I first met Mike in 2016.

He was at a small gathering of clergy-abuse survivors and their relatives near archdiocesan headquarters in Center City. Mike and others were calling for the church to drop its opposition to a change in state law that would have allowed adults to sue for having been sexually abused as kids.

The church’s opposition has prevailed ever since. Republican state Senate leaders in Harrisburg have led the charge to shield the church and insurance industry from retroactive litigation. It was only against an effort last year to yet again change the statute of limitations that the church finally offered up money for damages to victims for the first time: diocesan compensation funds.

In October 2018, the Pennsylvania Capitol was the scene of three days of protests and negotiations that ended with the defeat of a statute of limitations bill for child sexual abuse that the Catholic Church had opposed.
Jacqueline Larma / AP File
In October 2018, the Pennsylvania Capitol was the scene of three days of protests and negotiations that ended with the defeat of a statute of limitations bill for child sexual abuse that the Catholic Church had opposed.

I have spotted Mike through the years at the Pennsylvania Capitol. He’d be away from his job as a social services counselor in Philadelphia, to attend an abuse rally. Sometimes he’d be with Deb and their 13-year-old son.

With Trauger’s arrest this month he was out in the public again — but for something that cut right through his ribs: His own abuser facing criminal charges, finally.

Mike cried when he first heard the news, but "it quickly turned to joy,” he said this week.

Michael McDonnell, who has accused defrocked priest Francis Trauger of assault from his days at St. Titus in East Norriton 38 years ago, spoke to the media the day of Trauger's recent arrest in Bucks County.
Vinny Vella / Staff
Michael McDonnell, who has accused defrocked priest Francis Trauger of assault from his days at St. Titus in East Norriton 38 years ago, spoke to the media the day of Trauger's recent arrest in Bucks County.

This after years of much darkness.

At his worst, Mike would sometimes down as much as a case and a half of beer in 12 hours on a bar stool. His first attempt at sobriety ended after being subpoenaed, soon after the 2010 theft case, to testify at the trial of Monsignor William Lynn, who had controlled priest assignments under former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

Mike’s second shot at sobriety, about seven years ago, has stuck.

Other things, though, can’t be erased.

Mike is still paying back the church for the stolen therapy money. That crime, he now says, was an act of revenge, and from a place of incredible pain that he had not yet found a way to control. It has left him branded a convicted felon, a badge he carries even as hundreds of priests and bishops identified by prosecutors across Pennsylvania as having abused or concealed child rape have remained untouched by the law.

As for all those bishops?

I asked Mike, If you could tell U.S. Attorney McSwain one thing, such as `Don’t stop this probe until you do this one thing,' what would that be?

Mike McDonnell holding a picture of himself when he said he was 12 years old.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Mike McDonnell holding a picture of himself when he said he was 12 years old.

Mike paused. He remained silent on the couch of the small apartment that is all he can afford right now. In pressed khakis and unblemished brown loafers, he had insisted just minutes earlier that he was stronger than ever, emotionally. A father who now holds his head high for his son. The answer to my question came soon enough.

“Lock up some high-ranking officers within the church,” he said. “Because they knew.”