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Abuse Victims Willing to Tell Their Stories

Church: With experiences locked inside for decades, many who were molested by priests are beginning to shed their private shame.

June 02, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WORCESTER, Mass. — First Tom Blanchette poured his heart out, recalling terrible events from more than 40 years ago. Phil Saviano took the microphone next, disclosing with no small satisfaction that the priest who had molested him in the sixth grade is now in prison for 275 years.

Bill Gately came forward, then Bernie McDaid and Susan Brenehan, whose abuse began with an unwanted kiss from a priest when she was 11 years old.

"For the following three years, he would stalk me," she said. "He would hear my confession. Then he would sexually abuse me."

These middle-age adults recounted their stories one recent day--not in the quiet confines of an anonymous support group, but here in central Massachusetts, on the steps of the Roman Catholic archdiocese. One by one, a dozen or more victims of abuse by clergy spoke about experiences locked inside them for decades. Some opened up in defiance of gag orders imposed by church settlements.

"I'm probably going to regret this," said Michael MacDonald. "But here goes."

Clerical abuse victims say that for years they felt silenced by shame, muzzled by lawyers and muffled by a society that did not want to hear their stories. By their very nature, their crimes stripped victims of their power, and until now they saw no point in reliving horrible childhood episodes.

But the flood of scandal sweeping the Catholic Church the last few months has emboldened them. Thousands who say they were victimized have implicated hundreds of priests. With strength in numbers, they are speaking out, loudly and in chilling detail.

Fueled by a new sense of urgency, these victims gathered at the archdiocese to distribute a list of 21 priests in the region who have been prosecuted or who have resigned because of sexual abuse allegations. By doing so, they joined victims across the country who have called for legislation to eliminate or extend statutes of limitation. These clerical abuse survivors also are demanding that all dioceses open their personnel records to prosecutors.

At long last, according to many who say they were molested by men they trusted--members of the clergy--this is their moment.

"We have more credibility than we have ever had," said Saviano, head of the Massachusetts branch of SNAP, or Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "That is why so many people are coming forward. They are being believed. They will get results."

The critical mass of victims began gathering force early this year with the trial in Boston of former priest John J. Geoghan, who was convicted on a single charge of fondling a boy at a community pool.

Documents published in the Boston Globe showed the archdiocese knew about scores of allegations against Geoghan. Rather than relieving him of duties involving children, church officials transferred Geoghan from parish to parish.

The ensuing firestorm was fed by records involving Paul Shanley, another Boston priest, that revealed similar actions by church officials. In their battle for credibility, victims had new ammunition.

"The difference was that this was about the cover-up, not just about the offenders anymore," said Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee who founded one of the country's first in-patient programs for clergy abuse victims. Isely, 41, says he was molested as a high school student in Wisconsin by a priest who was never prosecuted and who since has died.

In the past, victims who took their complaints to the church were told that these acts were aberrations and that suspected pedophile priests would be removed, Isely said. The outpouring of previously confidential records proved otherwise.

After years of being disbelieved, Isely said, "it was an enormous validation" to have written evidence that could not be dismissed.

To cover his own psychotherapy costs of about $4,000, Isely in 1989 signed an agreement with Wisconsin church officials that included a gag order. "I signed it because I wanted it over. Of course, it wasn't."

Then in 1993, Isely said, he watched an extraordinary news conference at which dozens of victims of Father James Porter spelled out what had happened to them in five parishes in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1960s.

In one of the largest cases of clerical sexual abuse ever prosecuted, Porter pleaded guilty in 1993 to 41 counts of abuse.

He is scheduled for parole next year.

Despite civil agreements with the local archdiocese that precluded them from discussing their cases, nearly 100 Porter victims became the first large group to tell its stories.

For some, such as Frank Fitzpatrick, the urge to speak out became almost a second career. In 1991, the 52-year-old high school teacher from Rhode Island founded a group called Survivors Network--really a database on his home computer--that numbers more than 1,000 abuse victims.

But the Porter group slipped into obscurity.

Among the newly empowered victims, they sometimes are compared to Korean War veterans: every bit as injured as those who served in Vietnam but less recognized.

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