‘Who’s gonna believe an 11-year-old kid?’: WTOP anchor speaks out on being sexually abused by Catholic priest


A nightmare has haunted WTOP anchor Dan Ronan for decades. The recurring dream has plagued him for most of his life.

“I’m being chased out of the parking lot,” 63-year-old Ronan told WTOP’s DMV Download podcast. “I’m being chased through that parking lot on a dark evening. And he’s chasing me and he’s … screaming at me. And before he would catch me, I would wake up sweating and crying and shaking.”

In 1971, Ronan was sexually assaulted in Chicago, Illinois, by Father Thomas Gannon — a respected priest and professor who went on to teach sociology at Georgetown University between 1983 and 1986. Ronan was in the sixth grade at the time, and didn’t tell a soul about the assault for nearly 50 years.

“I kept it in and I said, ‘Who’s gonna believe an 11-year-old boy?’ If those circumstances happened nowadays? Yeah, with the [2017] #MeToo movement. They’ll start an investigation. But in 1971, no way. So I just didn’t tell anybody.”

His trauma never left him.

“It impacts you in all your relationships with people and how you function and how you interact with people,” Ronan said. “And it becomes a real problem.”

During an exclusive interview with WTOP’s DMV Download podcast, Ronan told his story of being abused by the clergy member, falling into depression, fighting the lack of transparency within the church and ultimately working through his trauma and finding peace.

‘The church was the centerpiece’

Ronan grew up in an Irish Catholic family in a Chicago neighborhood a few miles north of Wrigley Field. He had four siblings and his grandparents lived half a block away.

“Gosh, we had 26 kids, school-aged, living on my block,” Ronan said. “And the church was the centerpiece. St. Jerome’s, which was a couple blocks from the house, was a big Catholic Cathedral.”

At age 10, Ronan started to work for the church as an altar boy.

“That was a big deal to be up there and be part of the mass,” he said. “The church was very important.”

Ronan often worked masses with his grandfather, the man he was named after. This stopped after a particular Sunday in the fall of 1971.

“My grandfather had been an usher at that particular mass,” Ronan said. “On that day, the other altar boy who was supposed to show up, didn’t show up. So it was just me. And I had just broken my arm when I was playing for the school’s youth football team.”

With his arm in a cast, Ronan said he had a difficult time being the altar boy. He struggled carrying the chalice and other ceremonial items. And he said he remembers that the priest presiding over the mass was not a regular at St. Jerome. He was a “fill-in,” visiting priest. At the time, Gannon was a sociology professor at Loyola University of Chicago. 

After the mass, Ronan was getting ready to go home when Gannon berated him.

“This priest came into the sacristy and immediately was enraged with me,” Ronan said. “He grabbed me and held me very, very tight. He forced my hand onto his privates and made me do whatever he wanted me to do … I don’t need to get into many more details. But I think everybody knows where this goes.”

Ronan said time froze for his 11-year-old self, but after a while he was able to shove off his assaulter.

“At one point, he lost his balance,” Ronan said. “And I don’t know if he tripped over his trousers or his belt, or whatever it was, or his undergarments, I don’t know. But he lost his balance. And when he did, I took my cast and I sort of gave him a little forearm shove.”

Ronan said he then sprinted home, not looking back, fearing the priest was chasing him.

“I became withdrawn,” Ronan said. “And I didn’t go to school for a couple of days. And then I dropped out of being an altar boy. I was so traumatized by it. I said, ‘I’m not going to deal with it and just try to move on.'”

‘We’ve got quite a file on this fella’

Nearly 50 years later, Ronan started to notice that something was off in his life.

“I was sick and tired of being moody, of being depressed, of feeling angry,” Ronan said. “And I just said, ‘I can’t keep living like this, letting a dead guy in an incident of 5 or 10 or 15 minutes, I can’t let that define who I am.'”

He then Googled the priest’s name and found a 2019 article in the Georgetown University student newspaper, The Hoya, that documented Gannon’s long history of abuse. Ronan then called the Archdiocese of Chicago and connected with their sex crimes investigator.

“There was this long pause — it seemed like an eternity,” Ronan said while recounting his phone call. “It was an awkward, long length, pause. And I said, ‘Are you there?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘Well, we’ve got quite a file on this fella.'”

Soon after, Ronan started going to therapy and addressing the trauma he had left untouched and buried for decades.

“It’s kind of like a beach ball — you fill a beach ball up with air, it doesn’t weigh anything, couple ounces, but go down to a body of water, and try to hold the beach ball underwater,” Ronan said. “You will become so exhausted.”

In May, the Illinois Attorney General released a report documenting nearly 2,000 victims of alleged clergy sex abuse. Gannon and his assault of Ronan are listed in the report (see page 202).

‘They didn’t clean their own house’

When asked about how he feels about the Catholic Church now, Ronan said he’s ambivalent.

“I realized that the church does some really great work for people,” he said. “I mean, for my grandfather, the church was fabulous in his life. But they let some really, really awful people in going back 100 years ago and they didn’t clean their own house. They didn’t take care of their own business. And now they’re having to pay the price for it.”

Ronan still believes in a benevolent God, but not so much in the church.

“It’s sad because the church should be a real beacon of God’s work,” he said. “And yet, it’s been so sullied by these really, really bad, awful people, and the church and the leadership of the church, let these guys run amok. They let them … run around, do their thing. That’s the horror. That’s an even bigger crime.”

Since he started telling his story, Ronan has had meetings with Archbishop Wilton Gregory in Washington and Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago.

“I think that they’re trying to get to the bottom of this, but it’s very difficult,” Ronan said. “I really do think that the church does do a lot of good things, but they’ve got to clean this up and they’ve got to come to grips with it.”

When asked if he still suffers from that nightmare of the priest chasing him, Ronan said he has come a long way.

“It hasn’t happened in a while,” Ronan said. “And I’ll find myself thinking about it. And I say, ‘he’s a dead guy, don’t go there. Don’t allow him to get into your head.’ And that’s the way I go about it.”

Renewed calls for transparency

This past weekend, survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests gathered in Arlington, Virginia, for the annual Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) conference.

“It’s one of those weekends that we’re able to really come together and celebrate the accomplishments — reforming statute of limitations,” interim executive director for the network Mike McDonnell told WTOP.

More than 26 states have reformed their statute of limitations allowing victims to file lawsuits against their abusers. Maryland passed such a law a few months ago after a report from the state’s attorney general documented more than 600 victims of sexual assault at the hands of priests, seminarians and deacons within the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The new Maryland law got rid of time limits for cases of child sex abuse.

Despite these legal victories, McDonnell said his organization’s work is far from over.

“We need more names exposed,” he said.

McDonnell said church leaders within the Archdiocese of Washington are still protecting alleged abusers by not releasing their identities to the public, robbing victims of validation and putting unknowing individuals at risk.

“We are calling on Archbishop [Wilton] Gregory to do the right thing: get those names of perpetrators on the list so society can be aware,” McDonnell said.

Back in 2018, the archdiocese released names of known abusers. But SNAP has always contended this wasn’t the full list of known abusers.

This call from SNAP comes weeks after Pope Francis met with survivors of clergy sexual abuse in Portugal. The pope also criticized members of the country’s Catholic hierarchy for their response to the long-ignored scandal. For McDonnell, this show of support from the Pope means little without action.

“Public relations by the Vatican — we’ve heard it time and time again,” McDonnell said. “Just because Pope Francis lands in Portugal does not make any child safe.”

Yet Courtney Chase, executive director of Child Protection & Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the church is addressing the scourge of abuse from within.

“When I get a report of abuse, whether it’s historical or current, it is immediately reported to the appropriate jurisdiction,” Chase said. “And that way, it prevents any sort of cover up.”

Chase is a licensed clinical social worker and former Montgomery County law enforcement employee. She started working for the diocese in 2014.

“We’ve come a very long way since 2003 when Boston came down,” Chase said. “Every year is stronger and better, but I would say the process in place is working to get the report to civil authorities and to the community in a timely fashion.”

Chase said whenever she gets a report of abuse, the alleged abuser is immediately removed from ministry and the appropriate law enforcement department is notified.

“I’m there as a layperson to make sure that everything is being followed,” Chase said. “So that the offender is removed when there’s an allegation of abuse, removed from their position, while the civil authorities are working their case.”

Despite these assurances from Chase, McDonnell said the Archdiocese of Washington isn’t doing enough.

“We hear each and every church official say they are being truthful and transparent,” McDonnell said. “And yet time and time again, every secular report tells us differently.”

The recent report released by Maryland’s Attorney General Anthony Brown documented multiple cover-up schemes by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and civil authorities between the 1940s and 2000s. During an interview with WTOP, Brown said his office is now looking into other dioceses in the region for potential misconduct.

“We’ve got an investigation in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. and the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware,” Brown said in April. “We’ll see what we uncover, and whether or not there will be indictments coming out of that investigation or not. It’s too premature for me to say, we still don’t know.”

For McDonnell, the continued resistance by the Archdiocese of Washington to release all the names of alleged abusers comes down to one thing.

“Each and every day the church tries to protect their reputation because on a weekly basis — they need that income,” McDonnell said.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2023 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a report and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022 and takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in D.C. region.

Showing 1 comment

SNAP Network is a GuideStar Gold Participant