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FATHERS AND SINS : An Uneasy Coalition of Activists and Clerics Is Forcing the Catholic Hierarchy to Confront the Problem of Sexually Abusive Priests

June 13, 1993|JASON BERRY | Jason Berry is a New Orleans - based journalist and the author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children . "

THE FLASHBACKS STARTED FIVE YEARS ago, when she became involved with the youth group of a Christian church in Anaheim. Mary Staggs was 26, and the face of the priest who had molested her years earlier kept breaking into her thoughts, even when she made love with her husband. Staggs had known Father John Lenihan since her early adolescence in a Catholic parish in Anaheim. A troubled youth from a broken family, she had turned to her parish priest for solace but instead, she says, the young cleric sexually abused her off and on for four years.

When the flashbacks began affecting her marriage, Mary Staggs went to the police. The criminal statute of limitations had run out, but she was able to pursue a civil damage suit. In a deposition, Lenihan admitted fondling Staggs on one occasion and disrobing her on another in 1978, when she was 15. He also said he sent love letters to her and testified that in 1982, he underwent eight months of therapy to resolve his sexual conflicts.

In 1991, the Diocese of Orange paid Mary Staggs an out-of-court settlement, but Lenihan remained pastor of St. Boniface in Anaheim. Because she wanted to meet people who spoke the same vocabulary of pain and suffering, Staggs, the mother of three children, recently joined SNAP--Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a Chicago-based group with 800 members throughout the country. In March, she appeared on a Phil Donahue TV show about abusive priests and chokingly told the talk-show host about the abuse that she said began when she was 13. A few angry viewers called the rectory after the program, but Lenihan--whom parishioners knew as the pastor who helped the poor and participated in the city's anti-drug efforts--rode out the storm. "I did wrong," he concedes now. "I'm not guiltless. But it's nothing on the scale being indicated."

No amount was disclosed in the settlement, but Lenihan, 47, says the church paid Staggs $20,000 to drop the suit. "Do you think that money was an expression of guilt for four years of molestation?" he says. "The only reason it was paid was to keep this from becoming a public scandal." Lenihan insists that she was not 13, but "at least 14 1/2 when we met." He admits writing letters to her but says, "There was nothing sexual in them"--contrary to what she claims. (Her stepfather destroyed the letters.)

Before they met, Lenihan says, "I had never been in a heterosexual relationship." He grew up on a farm in rural Ireland and says that when he met Staggs, "it was like my adolescence, too--a very sad thing I had to go through at that stage of my life. I was trying to help her, took her under my wing."

He refers to what happened as "puppy love" and calls her accusations "falsehoods." He denies having any sexual compulsion for teen-agers today, and asks, in a hurt voice: "How do I defend myself in a case like this?" "What I did was a mistake," he continues. "But the person who is without sin should cast the first stone. This 15-year-old was not totally unaware. She was no child." Now he feels victimized by something dredged up from years ago. "I face my congregation. They're loyal. But how much can they take?"

Staggs likens her protest to "breaking shame, a way of saying, 'I'm not the problem. It's not my fault.' This isn't going away and I'm going to speak out."

SINCE THE EARLY '80S, WHEN THE SILENCE THAT SURROUNDED THE sexual abuse of children was broken, the Catholic Church has seen hundreds of its priests accused of a deed made even more horrific by their vocation. To the faithful, a priest is a Christ figure, celebrating Mass, preaching the Gospel, forgiving sins, watching over his congregation. A priest who molests a child betrays not only that child but all those who believed in the institution he represents.

And that institution, historically powerful and secretive, has, until now, largely chosen to protect its own servants rather than the people they are pledged to serve, to deny that a systemic problem exists. The chasm between Mary Staggs and John Lenihan is symptomatic of a clerical culture riven by sexual conflicts, now being openly challenged by those it has harmed, by victims turned activists. For the first time, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops will hold an open session to discuss the sexual abuse of minors by clergy at its summer convention this week in New Orleans. The bishops are also expected to focus on recommendations that came out of a two-day think-tank held this year in St. Louis. It drew to gether more than 30 Catholic therapists, priests and, for the first time, victims-rights activists.

During the convention, however, SNAP activists will stage a protest of the longstanding tactics of stonewalling and counterattack that the bishops and their attorneys have used against victims and their families. "We have a right to be treated as good people," says Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP, "not as enemies of the church."

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