Grieving, ashamed, emotionally shattered, they suffer alone. A trusted ally had betrayed them. They assumed it hardly ever happened to anyone else. It was too awful even to mention. So they kept silent.
But now they are finding they are not alone, that many others have been subjected to clergy sexual abuse, that it is widespread. So they are increasingly speaking out about it.
"People are being freed up to come forth," said Jeanne Miller of Palatine, Ill., president and executive director of a new organization, Victims Of Clergy Abuse Linkup, or VOCAL.
The group hopes to give victimized families the confidence to "vocalize" their suffering by getting them to band together and to realize that they are not isolated cases. Another goal is to prevent such future abuse.
"There's a whole backlog of people who have never had their injuries resolved," Miller said in an interview. "They thought they couldn't talk about it. They've suffered in silence for decades with no support system, turning in on themselves."
VOCAL held its first national conference in Chicago Oct. 16-18, drawing about 300 people from across the country. Miller said about 3,000 others are launching VOCAL chapters in 25 cities.
Speakers included Jason Berry of New Orleans, a Roman Catholic and investigative writer whose new Doubleday book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," documents about 400 cases of priests sexually molesting youngsters.
Miller said studies indicate 3% to 6% of 52,000 priests--1,500 to 3,000 of them--are pedophiles with a pathological sexual fixation on children and that a pedophile typically abuses 273 youngsters in a lifetime.
Pedophilia is an "addictive illness" and most child molesters "are repeat offenders," Barry says. He says settling such cases so far has cost the U.S. Catholic church about $400 million.
"No wonder we're seeing more and more cases," Miller said. "Each of these guys have taken scores of victims. More and more people are coming forth that have been silent for so long.
Miller, a paralegal worker, a Catholic with a master's degree in theology and a mother of four, said the new organization mainly involves two categories of sexual victims: women church members in vulnerable situations who seek counseling from their ministers but are sexually exploited, and children, who are taught that priests represent goodness and God, but are sexually abused by them.
Barry cites a study of 3,000 mainline Protestant ministers, most married, in which 13% reported adulterous relationships with women church members.
Both for the vulnerable woman and the vulnerable child, "it's a breach of trust," Miller said. "It's a violation of sacred-psychological trust. It reaches further into the psyche than any other kind of breach because it's an exploitation of power that gets its authority from a higher plane."
She said that both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests who took vows of celibacy are held in "reverence and respect," and when that trust is broken, it shatters "your entire faith system.
"Your faith system is locked into everything you do in life, the way you approach your family and all your other relationships. When that whole faith system is short-circuited, it's like total destruction of the psyche.
"People have a hard time coming back from that. You no longer have a belief system in place anymore. Every facet of life has to be reconstructed in every way--if you have the strength to put it back together."
Miller, who said one of her sons was sexually abused by a priest, said it had brought on a "profound grieving and a loss of belief, trust, a loss of many things. But religion was too important to abandon."
She went back to college, getting an advanced theology degree. "I needed to reconstruct my faith somehow. That's how I did it."
She said the prolonged, devastating effects of such abuse "has a lot to do with the way we were conditioned as Christians. In our belief, the highest virtue was to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to suffer in silence.
"The whole conditioning Christian system was to be very quiet and suffer. But there is also a Christian tenet of healthy outrage. That's real basic. You see a wrong, and you right it."
That's a goal of her organization. Both she and Father Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago praised a newly launched program by Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin for an independent board to act promptly on reported cases of clergy sexual abuse.
VOCAL can be reached at P.O. Box 1268, Wheeling, Ill. 60090.