Broken trust, broken lives: Survivors of priest sexual abuse speak out

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Article Parish Life

For many, it is one of those assuring, evocative aromas, the kind that launches a cascade of warm and welcome childhood memories and recollections of sacred and peaceful moments. But for Christopher Dixon, it's the smell of burned candle, the blackened wax, that drives him away from Mass. It's a smell that never fails to remind him of "Father [John] Fischer with his finger pointing at me, 'Come here,' calling me back to the sacristy."

Dixon, who himself was a Catholic priest for five years, doesn't believe hell ever again enter a Catholic church. "It's sad--I used to be so into that. When I was a priest, I loved liturgy," he says. "I loved church when it was done well."

The man Dixon recalls with such revulsion was his childhood pastor, who for years abused Dixon in the rectory, the church sacristy, or in his car after field trips with other altar boys from his Hannibal, Missouri parish. Dixon is one of many adult Catholics now coming forward to accuse Catholic priests of past sexual assaults and molestations.

Dixon is typical of many victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. His family had been particularly close to the church, welcoming the parish priest into their home, inviting him to be a part of their family. "My parents just adored him," he remembers-part of the reason he was never able as a child to tell them about the awful things that were happening to him when left alone with Fischer.

He served as an altar boy and as an organist during school Mass. It was that closeness to parish life that made Dixon, like other victims, an approachable, vulnerable target. Music rehearsals before Mass left him alone at the mercy of a pedophile predator. "That tended to be the circumstances that provided Father Fischer the opportunity to get a hold of me." Dixon was 11. The abuse would continue until his grammar school graduation. Fischer has denied Dixon's allegations, but he was forced into retirement by the diocese in 1993 after other credible allegations of abuse involving children surfaced against him, according to Sister Ethel-Marie Biri, the current chancellor of the Jefferson City Diocese.

Dixon says he was ultimately abused by more than one priest. In a Hannibal seminary as a teenager, he says, he was assaulted again by its dean of students, Father Manus Daly. When he discussed his experiences with his spiritual advisor, the seminary rector, he unwittingly initiated a psychological grooming process for a final abuse at the hands of then Father Anthony O'Connell, later Bishop O'Connell of the Diocese of Palm Beach. In an effort to "make him comfortable with his body," O'Connell on several occasions disrobed and had Dixon climb naked into bed with him.

At the time Dixon could not admit to himself that O'Connell's bizarre therapy in itself constituted abuse. "I never thought of going to the police, never thought of telling my parents.... I felt like I went to the only man who would have been able to help me. Who else was going to help me? ... Without [faith in O'Connell], I had nothing left to hang onto."

It was Dixon's decision to speak out in violation of a 1996 confidentiality agreement following an out-of-court settlement with the Diocese of Jefferson City that led to the resignation of O'Connell and helped propel what has become the largest exposure of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up in the history of the Catholic Church in America.

Trying to make sense out of his silence as a child and the silence about the incidents that would engulf him for years afterward, Dixon says, "[Fischer] would be holding me, rubbing me. I remember wanting to be anywhere but to be with him, wanting to scream. But `You can't make Father mad.' I remember that to this day, putting on a happy face and pretending I enjoyed it."

As a child Dixon wasn't able to articulate what was happening to him, but "I knew something was wrong because I wouldn't have felt so ashamed and nervous about it otherwise. I didn't have the vocabulary to call it child abuse."

Dixon spent years struggling with a depression he could not quite define, moving between deep funks that left him toying with notions of suicide. "Powerlessness-I would say that was the overwhelming feeling," remembers Dixon. "So powerless in the face of these people and this institution."

Ordained in 1990, he eventually returned to the seminary where he had been molested-this time not as a vulnerable teen, but as a teacher. Daly, his abuser at the seminary, was now the rector. Reporting his suspicions of continuing abuse of young seminarians to his one-time abuser, he was ignored. Struggling with his own sexuality and commitment to his vocation, the atmosphere became progressively more suffocating until he simply got into his car and fled the seminary, and soon after-wards the priesthood.

"By '95, I was so depressed, so down, so sick, I said, `Chris, you're either going to kill yourself or you're going to get help."' Dixon got help, but perhaps the biggest help, he says, was his decision to finally speak out about what had happened to him and to seek justice by initiating a civil case against the church.

For people abused by clergy, the "follow-up" victimizations often crash together like breakers along a beach: the abusive priest, the unwelcome news to a horrified and disbelieving family, the insensitive response of diocesan officials, the self-serving and useless counsel offered by church-sponsored or -directed psychologists. The final affront is often witnessing the accused predator continuing his journey at another diocese or another church, sometimes even after the victim has devoted years to provoking some response by those higher authorities within the church that all Catholics have been taught to trust.

"They told me to forget about it and get on with my life," says Father Gary R. Hayes, recalling with a bitter snap of a laugh the advice his spiritual advisors and counselors gave him after he told them about the years of sexual abuse he had suffered as a teenager at his parish in Millville, New Jersey. Hayes is pastor of St. Rose of Lima/Holy Guardian Angels Parish in Cloverport, Kentucky and is the acting president of the Linkup, a network of survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

Hayes has been keenly following the news. The revelations about Boston's Father Paul Shanley and Cardinal Bernard Law's gross mishandling of this predator priest have literally left him breathless and sputtering, trying to organize his thoughts. "I mean, I hear about these things all the time, but this ... this is shocking even for me," he says. "It's hard to know what to think, it's just awful. We all knew how bad our own situations were, but we never knew how bad the church was [overall]. This is astounding ... the level of deceit, the lies to protect the perpetrators, the lengths they'll go ... the evil is just so consuming."

Hayes did odd jobs around the parish, including answering the phones at the church rectory. He was abused by his pastor and the pastor's "buddy," a priest from another diocese, after being groomed for the abuse through months of drinking sessions with his pastor that were devoted to viewing hard core pornography and sexually explicit discussions. "I didn't know what the hell was going on, I just knew it was awful," he says. "There was no one to tell; no one would believe you. He threatened to keep me from becoming a priest or to tell my parents things I said.

"It's physical and spiritual rape. Really, there are no words for it." Considering his experience, it may strike some as surprising that Hayes not only remains part of the church but serves it as a priest. But Hayes says he has felt a strong call to the priesthood throughout his life and throughout the turmoil he has endured. "I've wanted to be a priest since I was a little boy. When we were kids, my brother and I used to play `Mass."' That vocation took a long time to fulfill, as Hayes drifted among a number of jobs close to the church and in and out of seminary until he was finally ordained in 1990.

Hayes knows that stories of clergy pedophilia and sexual abuse are hard for most Catholics to hear-and, more important, hard to believe. "I don't even like to believe it, and I know it first hand." All the same, the disbelief of fellow Catholics has been one of the hardest burdens for survivors. "It's demoralizing [for survivors] to encounter the resistance of other Catholics, but I also understand. We are a church of believers. All of our instincts are directed at believing, and our faith is so connected to our trust in the clergy."

Hayes began to find clarity about his problems of depression and drinking, which up to then he had never connected to his abuse, when he learned about other survivors of sexual abuse and joined the emerging network. "That changed everything. I really thought I was the only one this had happened to.... We talked the same language, went through the same things. It was amazing. But it was also pretty sad that we had this terrible thing in common." Before meeting other survivors and breaking his silence, he says, "I thought if I prayed hard enough, studied enough, went to enough therapy sessions, I would get better."

While a young parishioner and altar boy at the Church of St. Joseph in Mendham, New Jersey, Mark Serrano says he was sexually abused by its pastor at the time, Father James T. Hanley. The molestation-including groping, sodomy, oral sex, and forced masturbation-lasted from 1974 to 1981, from the time he was 9 until he was 16. Serrano now runs a public relations consulting firm in Leesburg, Virginia where he lives with his with wife and three children.

He says an ingrained sense of fealty to the church and its authorities ultimately worked against his efforts to remove Hanley from pastoral work. "We as Catholics Serrano says, paraphrasing author Jason Berry, "have played into the pathological secrecy of the ecclesiastical structure of the church."

Years after the abuse, as a student at the University of Notre Dame in 1985, Serrano read of the conviction of Father Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana for child sexual abuse and finally had a name for his terrible experience and an understanding that it had been a crime. But he didn't go to the police; he went to his bishop.

That was a decision he now regrets, particularly after revelations included in a new civil suit against the Diocese of Paterson, N.J. They include charges that its bishop, Bishop Frank

Rodimer, over a period of seven years during the 1980s, shared a two-bedroom beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey with another priest, Peter Osinski. Osinski admitted molesting a boy-sometimes at the Long Beach house- for 7 years beginning in 1983 when the boy was 7. Osinski was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Bishop Rodimer told Serrano and his family that he had confronted Hanley with Serrano's accusations and that the priest had admitted to the abuse, blamed it on his alcoholism, and assured the bishop he "wouldn't do it again." That was enough to satisfy the bishop, who "accepted [Hanley's] apology" and took no further action, according to Serrano. Ten months after notifying Rodimer, the Serrano family opened their diocesan paper to find a picture of Hanley presiding over a children's Mass, "surrounded by little boys."

It would take renewed and this time furious prodding by Serrano and his family before the Diocese of Paterson finally removed Hanley from pastoral work, though Serrano says Hanley was seen as a visiting priest at another diocese some years later. Hanley has never been criminally charged because, as in many similar instances of child abuse, the statute of limitations has expired on his crimes. Nor has Hanley, now retired on a church pension, been defrocked.

In a worst-case reading of his experience, Serrano has begun to wonder if pedophile priests and their superiors are exchanging sexual secrets for mutual silence, crucifying Catholic children in the process. His suspicions have only been propelled further by the silence of other Catholic priests as this national scandal unfolds. Where is the moral indignation of the clergy who should be speaking out against their criminal brethren? he asks.

At a minimum, he says, "I think that the U.S. church leaders really believe that the U.S. Constitution stops at their door and that they follow a different law, canon law. What we're seeing now is that they really don't even follow that law."

When he tries to dissect his experience, delimiting which was worse, the impact of the long-term psychological grooming he experienced, the physical abuse at the hands of his pastor and the devastation it caused his spiritual life, or the infuriatingly tepid response of the institutional church, Serrano throws up his hands. "It's all rape," he says. "It's physical rape; it's institutional rape.

"All of this was so anguishing to me. It's anguishing to me now as an adult. I'll never forget the discomfort, the anxiety, and the stress that [the abuse] caused me. The whole time he was touching me I would be screaming in my mind, `How do I get out of this? I'm trapped' because he worked so well and so assiduously to trap me in this cage of silence, to strip me to my core." He says Hanley tore away all of the innate defense mechanisms a child has.

"Paul" is the brother of a woman who endured ongoing abuse between the ages of 12 and 16 by an "outgoing, charismatic" priest long trusted by his mother and fathen Their then 30-- year-old pastor began what he later excused as a "love affair" with Paul's then 12-year-- old sister after a painstaking psychological campaign that distanced the girl from her own family.

"[Pedophiles] are amazing deceivers," says Paul. "He really could fool you. We were all swindled by him. This was not someone you would ever think would have a problem like this."

He calls it, sadly, "the single defining experience of our family life. It was devastating." His sister is unwilling to discuss the abuse now. She can't even bear watching media coverage of the current scandal because it triggers too many bad memories.

Trying to somehow depict the level of despair and spiritual violation inflicted on victims by people so trusted and esteemed and so integral to a Catholic understanding of faith, Paul quotes another survivor of abuse he once heard speak. "It's `soul murder,"' he says.

But a victim's soul is not all that can be killed by sexual abuse. His sister's abuse led to years of strife within the family as her parents and siblings attempted to make sense out of what happened to her and the violation of the trust and affection they had placed in their local pastor.

The experience put a terrific strain on Paul's parents' marriage as they tried to assess blame for the catastrophe. His father believed no one could have anticipated, therefore prevented, such a violation. His mother, Paul says, was swayed by the argument of diocesan officials that she and her husband had to share some of the blame for the abuse because they had not adequately supervised their daughter.

Paul tells a story many victims' families will find familiar. When her parents discovered a box of their pastor's love letters to their daughter as well as explicit sexual photographs, the abuse was revealed. After informing the local hierarchy, they endured their pastor's admission of a "love" the family couldn't properly understand. Local diocesan officials asked the family not to go to the police because it would "only cause more harm" to Paul's sister and "Father Mike."

They waited months for some action to be taken while his sister's abuser continued to serve as the local pastor. Only after Paul's father threatened to inform the rest of the parish during Sunday Mass was Father Mike finally removed,only to be relocated to another church. Almost worse than the discovery of his sister's violation at the hands of one so trusted, he says, was this complete lack of a "loving, pastoral" response by the church to the emotional turmoil that engulfed his family.

"The church has always dealt with the survivors of abuse with suspicion-they saw them only as potential lawsuits and liabilities-while they've always dealt with the priests with compassion and mercy and forgiveness." Paul believes the church would be facing fewer and less-costly civil court confrontations if its approach had been reversed-if it had been the victims who received the church's "healing and love" while the abusing priests were recognized as the fiscal liabilities they have so painfully proven to be.

Chris Dixon says he and his family have never received an apology from the church. "It just boggles my mind." To Dixon it's "inexcusable" that the church is "just responding to the media and the people pounding on the door" instead of reaching out to victims on its own, he says.

Despite protests of some in the hierarchy that the scandal is being exploited by a Catholic-hating media and other "enemies" of the church with agendas of their own, Dixon says, "It strikes me that people like me and the media have now become the church's conscience when the situations should be reversed."

While the media continues to focus on these past violations and imperfect attempts to squelch their exposure, Dixon tries to get on with his life, both material and spiritual. The ex-priest says he will never again participate in an organized faith, preferring a personalized spirituality of his own making.

These survivors don't talk about healing or closure. "There are still moments today," says Serrano, "in intimacy with my wife when something will trigger the memories and it will all come flooding back to me." Most believe that the process of recovery from their experiences will simply have to unfold throughout the rest of their lives.

"Healing is not a good word," says Paul, "because it implies peace and serenity, and there is nothing peaceful or serene about this process, and there is nothing final about the outcome."

But acknowledging that their lives will probably never be the same because of the violation of body and spirit doesn't mean survivors feel doomed to a permanent state of emotional tumult.

Surveying the years he spent living in confusion and despair, "feeling less than other people, letting other people take advantage of me," Dixon does find himself wondering "what kind of a person could I have been, what other choices might I have made" had he never met Father Fischer. But these are impossible questions to answer, and he has found some relief from his regrets by "recovering his voice," first with his civil suit against his abusers and now by speaking out again beyond the enforced silence of his confidentiality agreement.

"If anything good can come out of this," says Dixon, "I want it to be to show people that you can get past this. I'm not consumed by what happened to me anymore.

"I really don't want [other victims] to suffer longer than they need to. Suffering is a natural consequence of being abused, but it doesn't have to last forever. My healing took a great step forward when I found my voice again and began to talk about it. I hope I can help people find the courage to step forward."

Serrano seems to have channeled his suffering into a fierce determination to see that his victimization is not repeated on anyone else's children. He conducts a grim campaign to keep track of his abuser's whereabouts and activities and to press his diocese and the church at large to improve their handling of these cases. He worries about people who have suffered past abuse and have yet to come forward to tell their stories and seek whatever help they need, but he is even more concerned about children who are being victimized today. He's convinced the church has to do more to weed out the pedophiles and other sexual abusers who are currently active or who are contemplating abuse in the future.

"I've heard all the theories and [psychological explanations] for how this happens," he says, "but I don't think priests become pedophiles; I think pedophiles become priests." Noting the access to children, confidence and trust placed in priests, and the inherent secrecy of the life of a priest, he shares an ominous thought: "It's the best game in town for them."

Serrano urges all lay Catholics to get involved in seeking the institutional changes and demanding full disclosure of all that diocesan officials know or suspect about past and present abusers. He doesn't put much faith in the hierarchy reforming itself. They had their chance already, he says, and failed terribly.

"These are the guys who drove the getaway cars," he says, "and they don't want us to look at the institutional problems. They just want us to think that there are a few bad apples and that these are isolated incidents, but this is institutional corruption."

Despite the struggle he and his family have been through, Paul has remained active in the church, though two of his brothers have departed. "I am still Catholic, and I am very faithful. I don't know why I have such a great love of the church, but it transcends this experience," he says. "I guess that's grace.

"I've been blessed with some experiences that tell me my spiritual home is in the Catholic Church and I am determined ... to join those trying to weed out this problem. I still believe the church has a special place in God's plan to be Christ to others, but it is failing miserably now."

Paul's sister also remains active in the church. "She told me: `I'm not going to let some abusing priests and those who cover up for them take that away from me."'

Hayes thinks it's telling that the ongoing scandal began to emerge during Lent and Easter. "I guess death and resurrection are what it's all about, and right now we're going through a pretty hard death, but the resurrection awaits.

"I still love this church, I love Jesus," he says. "It just breaks my heart to see what's happening."

This article appeared in the June 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic.