Fathers and Sins
By Jason Berry
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."
There's no definitive data about child molesters' professions or socioeconomic statuses; many cases go unreported. Using figures from the Chicago archdiocese as a microcosm, Father Andrew M. Greeley, sociologist and author, projects that at least 2,500 priests nationwide have victimized 100,000 children in the past generation. There are 43,000 active priests in the United States and 59 million Catholics.
Ecclesiastical culture is fiercely protective of its own. Greeley said last October at a victims-rights conference: "Priests can do anything they damn please to lay people, and feel pretty confident that they can get away with it." For years, bishops either ignored charges of sexual abuse or quietly reassigned predatory priests to new parishes with the faithful unaware, leaving a trail of scarred lives. That practice recently led the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in Santa Ana to make an unprecedented ruling that the mother of an allegedly abused boy could sue the Diocese of Orange for failing to warn parishioners about the priest, accused of child molestation previously, who had been assigned to their church.
Before the mid-'80s, even when a charge of abuse was taken seriously by the bishop, the church traditionally expended most of its energy and resources helping the accused: The priests receive well-paid legal defenses and open-ended psychological care. For years, defense attorneys negotiated money for victims' silence in civil suits; in some cases, church lawyers have countersued victims or their families in tactics that amount to legal harassment.
Since 1982, a priest has been accused of abusing a youngster an average of once a week, according to church documents, news reports and many interviews, although many of the allegations fall outside of the criminal statute of limitations. Within the past year, two Wisconsin seminaries have been rocked by accusations of faculty making sexual advances on students. Six priests recently left parishes in the diocese of Belleville, Ill., amid allegations of a sex ring with teen-agers and young men. In Joliet, Ill., 10 men have filed suit against a priest on charges of abuse. In New Orleans last November, two priest-siblings were accused of molesting children for years. And in March, Robert Sanchez resigned as archbishop of Santa Fe after three women told "60 Minutes" that he molested them. A fourth woman, who received an out-of-court settlement but did not go on camera, claimed that Sanchez had raped her, but she never filed criminal charges. Sanchez denied that accusation.
U.S. dioceses have lost more than $400 million in legal and medical costs in what arguably has become the worst religious scandal in American history. A 1985 internal church document, written by an attorney, a priest psychiatrist and an official at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, predicted $1 billion in losses absent a responsive national policy -- which still is not in place.
But more important, the publicity has made it impossible for the hierarchy to continue to deny the problem. The anger and discontent among Catholics now is unlike anything the bishops have seen. Even conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. recently chastised the Pope in print for his silence on this issue: "Why hasn't the Pope thundered against the commission of a crime that disgusts the moral community and profanes his church?"
To the majority of priests, the weight of the scandal brings unearned shame. Father Paul E. Dinter, who teaches at Maryknoll School of Theology in Maryknoll, N.Y., wrote last month in the New York Times: "As a group, our image suffers as we endure what seem to be weekly disclosures that yet more clerics have engaged in sexual activity ranging from standard lust to outright perversion."
As a result, many bishops have gathered lawyers and churned out policies that commit their dioceses to providing care for victims, suspending the accused from parish duties and cooperating with police. Cardinal John J. O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, recently ordered all priests in his archdiocese to attend meetings to discuss the problem. "A grenade could explode at any time," he wrote in a May issue of an archdiocesan newspaper, and the church "needs to tell the world what we are sincerely trying to do about it."
But these are local initiatives; the bishops group has no binding policy, citing that each diocese is autonomous, each bishop answerable only to Pope John Paul II, who has yet to make a public statement about what the church should do. The public discussion that is scheduled this week will be the first halting step in an open process of reckoning by the bishops.
TWENTY MILES FROM THE NCCB HEADQUARTERS IS THE ST. LUKE INSTITUTE, A psychiatric hospital for clergy. The three-story, nondescript yellow-and-blue brick building in Suitland, Md., is one of three church-run institutions in the United States to which the most troubled priests are sent -- those who have sexually violated the young. Treatment for each of the men, who come from across the world, costs $8,550 a month; the average bill of $60,000 per patient is paid largely out of church coffers.
St. Luke's director, a 58-year-old Franciscan priest named Canice Connors, has played a pivotal role in Catholic officialdom's efforts to regain the public trust. Connors, who has a doctorate in psychology, was the head of last winter's think-tank. For the past year, he has been trying to forge ties with victims, who are driven to bear public witness, and bishops, who see once-benevolent images of priest and church attacked in the media while their dioceses hemorrhage money to test priests and settle cases.
"We have to investigate why our attitudes are what they are and prevent maximizing of the problem," says Connors, a man of rugged Irish countenance. "If an event is dark, how do we go in as Christ did and ask what is this in our humanity that is not redeemed?"
Like many of the priests sent to St. Luke, Canice Connors was sexually molested as a child, by the man who owned the Syracuse, N.Y., florist shop where he worked. He was 12. And like Mary Staggs, he still has painful memories. The smell of pipe tobacco makes him queasy -- the man smoked a pipe. When another boy confided revulsion at the florist's groping hands, the kids told their folks.
"We had to go down to the police station," Connors recalls. "My father never implied that anything was wrong with me. He showed great pride in me, and that was very healing. My recollection is that the police found that there were others (victimized). But nothing happened to the man."
Nothing much happened to most pedophiles until the early 1980s, when allegations against day-care centers, Scout leaders, ministers and custodial figures began jolting society. But Connors got a hard look at the church's problem before it became public. After serving as headmaster of a Catholic high school in Pittsburgh, he pursued a career in psychology in the late 1970s, and became director of Southdown, a clergy-run psychiatric hospital near Toronto specializing in treating alcoholism and depression. In 1981, a priest who had molested youngsters entered Southdown. In therapy, Connors says: "The guy would be smiling. I'd get furious, and then realize he was in a state of denial. I found myself discharging feelings of anger" because of his own abuse as a child.
That priest was the first. Many came later. So many in fact that Connors oversaw Southdown's shift into treatment of child molesters, utilizing a 12-step approach to recovery, modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous concept of stages in spiritual growth toward sobriety. And in 1990, he headed the Franciscans' investigation of Father Bruce Ritter, the charismatic founder of Covenant House shelter in New York for runaway youths. Ritter resigned after four young men accused him of sexually abusing them. He denied the accusations and was never charged.
Last year, at the behest of his superiors, Connors took the St. Luke job. In addition to treating the men, St. Luke also advises bishops about the priests' chances for future church work. For some, options are nonexistent: of 15 clerics who left St. Luke between Thanksgiving and Easter, two were sentenced to jail for molestation. Of 137 child-molesting priests treated at St. Luke over nine years, 60 have returned to some form of ministry, supposedly without access to children. The other 77 are inactive, without any ministry. Twenty have served time or are behind bars. Some have been laicized, or defrocked, according to St. Luke staffers, though they say they do not know how many. American bishops want greater autonomy to expel sex offenders but only the Pope can do so and he has declined to accede that power to the bishops. To Rome's logic of "once a priest, always a priest," Connors melds a therapeutic gospel of "recovery." He considers these men sexual addicts and sees sexual addiction, like alcoholism, as an illness that cannot be cured, but from which one can recover.
At any given time, 32 patients -- most of them priests -- occupy St. Luke beds; about one dozen others stay in eight neighborhood houses owned by the hospital. Most of the priests receive injections of Depro-Provera, the synthetic hormone that reduces a man's sex drive and the intensity of his erotic fantasies. St. Luke relies on neurological testing, close medical supervision, and individual and group therapy to help patients regain their celibacy, a goal that separates St. Luke from secular treatment facilities, which try to get such men to transfer their sexual affections from minors to adults.
Leslie Lothstein, a psychologist who treats many doctors, therapists and other professionals who have psychological or sexual problems at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., says that of the priests who have molested youths and received care at that institute, most learn to transfer affections from teen-age boys to adult males. "From my standpoint, that's beneficial so long as they're involved with non-priests and non-parishioners."
Lothstein respects St. Luke but says the 12-step approach works only "for a small, select group." The key to programs at both facilities is the process of coming to terms with oneself within support groups. "These men have never had healthy adult relationships," he says. Sexual maturity comes "when they begin to develop intimate relationships with other men for the first time in a working group."
St. Luke staffers and Lothstein distinguish between pedophilia -- the sexual fixation on prepubescent children -- and ephebophilia, or sexual contact with teen-agers. Ephebophiles' recovery chances are considered better because their proclivities are not as fixated. About three-fourths of abusers treated at St. Luke were determined ephebophiles involved with boys.
But many people wonder why all such priests are not kicked out of the priesthood. "I don't think exile is the answer," Connors responds, "I would never, ever, recommend putting a pedophile back into ministry. He should be removed from any active responsibility with children. But removal from priesthood has a parallel with incest. I can never cancel out (an abusive father's) relationship to that child. You're still that child's father. And I can't cancel your priesthood by some decree on high. I do not like the thought of the church, which may have been a participant in selecting this person, suddenly saying, 'You are an alien.' If we put you out on the street, you may become an offender again because no one is supervising you. Are we saying that this is the one unforgivable sin?"
Victims-rights groups wonder why the church has not extended the same healing hand to them. Last November, Barbara Blaine and members of SNAP staged a protest as the NCCB convened in Washington, D.C. After Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and two bishops met with the group, Mahony told 275 assembled bishops that listening to the survivors was "one of the most moving experiences I have ever known. The church (must) show herself as a loving, caring and healing church and not as a legal obstacle protecting errant priests."
Even before Mahony's statement, the bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry appointed Connors to study reassignment of priests and care of victims. For the project to work, Connors knew he had to have the involvement of victims' advocates.
DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS, SEVERAL thousand men and women, driven by a voracious need to be heard, have created an activist network where none had been before. Linked by computers, faxes, newsletters and searing memories, they are bent on making the bishops act responsibly toward those who have been harmed.
Jeanne Miller, 46, whose son warded off the sexual advances of a priest 11 years ago, is a driving force behind the movement. A red-haired woman with clear, open features, Miller is at once maternal and an extremely focused adversary of the church that was once central to her life. Her Wheeling, Ill.,-based group, Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup, founded in 1991, has 3,000 members throughout the country. Blaine, who was molested as a teen by a Toledo priest, is a member who founded SNAP, a smaller and more confrontational group. Linkup's first conference, in Chicago last fall, drew 300 survivors. Since then, Miller gets 30 calls a day from people asking for information on how to join the group.
"The church that raised me ended up betraying me," says Miller. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs; her parents, both alcoholics, sold real estate, moving from house to house. Nuns at school provided a stability that home life lacked. In 1966, she entered a convent in Dubuque, Iowa. "After all the turbulence growing up, it was serene, secure, a camaraderie my family never had. (But) one 4th of July, wearing a veil, holding a sparkler, gazing at the river, I thought, 'This is another planet. I want to go into the real world.' "
She left, went to college and married. The revolution in her life began in 1982 when her oldest son, several weeks after returning from a lake outing, said that their assistant pastor, Robert Mayer, had made sexual passes at him and his pals. Jeanne and her husband, Rick, confronted the pastor, who reportedly said: "This man has a problem with young boys. Pursue it."
But the archdiocesan office in Chicago was a brick wall. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin refused to remove Mayer. For two years, the couple fought to have Mayer removed from the parish. After endless stalls by church attorneys, the Millers swallowed $15,000 in legal fees and threw in the towel.
Mayer was eventually transferred three times and each time police visited her, seeking information yet unable to build a case. Rick renewed his involvement in parish life. Jeanne recoiled from a power structure that in her view devalued children. Unable to bridge their rift, the Millers divorced.
As Mayer moved on to a series of parishes, Miller plunged into a manuscript about the traumatic struggle with Bernardin's lawyers and chancery staff. In 1987, she published "Assault on Innocence" under a pseudonym, using fictional names for key figures but sticking to the legal record. The book got her on talk shows, where she repeated her message: Bishops should stop reassigning child molesters and start reaching out to the victims.
As she followed news reports of cases in other states, Miller concluded that the problem was systemic. She began gathering information from lawyers and dozens of victims themselves, building a mailing list and a network of contacts that became Linkup.
"I wanted to hold the church accountable so that it would be the church it is supposed to be," Miller says.
In 1991, Bernardin yanked Mayer from a Chicago parish when he was found nude with two young men on the rectory roof. At a parish meeting, a 14-year old girl announced that Mayer had abused her. The story hit local television like a bombshell and the aftershocks escalated into stories about more Chicago priests. As Miller, now a recognized spokeswoman, blasted Bernardin in interviews, the cardinal sought a truce.
After several meetings with Miller, he named an auxiliary bishop and two lay Catholics to review all Chicago priests' personnel files and draft a policy. On their recommendations, he removed 23 priests from area parishes because of sexual problems in their past. But the archdiocese, citing separation of church and state, has refused to turn over the personnel files to the Cook County prosecutor. Mayer was tried and sentenced to three years in prison for child molestation.
CANICE CONNORS KNEW THAT his efforts for NCCB could not gain legitimacy without Miller's support. He asked her to fly to St. Louis for the think-tank in late February. He also invited Dennis Gaboury, who was sexually abused by former Massachusetts priest James Porter. Last year, Porter admitted to a reporter that he had sexually abused between 50 and 100 youths before leaving the priesthood in the mid-'70s. The enormity of his crime and the subsequent publicity brought attention and support to victims-rights activists, and two Massachusetts dioceses agreed to pay the victims a reported $4.5 million out-of-court settlement. Gaboury, who had been raped by Porter when he was 10, had become a leading figure among the Porter survivors.
Sitting in the Baltimore law firm where he is office administrator, Gaboury, in a blue blazer and striped tie, recalls the assault in 1961 in a rectory in North Attleboro: "I split in two -- one boy looking at the horror, alone and safe, while the other smothered and shuddered under this man in his Roman collar with his pants down to his knees."
Gaboury was wary of joining the think-tank, because of an article Connors had written in a religious publication about the church's pedophilia crisis. "It is so rare as to be unreported that a priest has ever used violence in abusing a child. We are not involved with the dynamics of rape, but with the far subtler dynamics of persuasion by a friend. . . . We must be aware that the child still sometimes retains a loving memory of the offender."
"I just about choked when I read that," says Gaboury.
As soon as he received the information about the conference, Gaboury wrote Connors, complaining that the St. Louis lineup was top-heavy with people working with offenders, rather than victims.
Two nameless "recovery priests" were also on the list. The phrase ate at Gaboury, who washed out on drugs after college before rebuilding his life. Was his sobriety like theirs? Gaboury had read Connors' preliminary memo that categorized certain priests "with few incidents all involved with post-pubescent youths and whose offenses have not been widely publicized." Did public ignorance make them better risks? "I felt the deck was stacked in favor of perpetrators," Gaboury says.
Despite Gaboury's and Miller's skepticism toward Connors, they attended. The presence of two nameless "recovery priests" "was awkward," says psychologist Lothstein. "One man was quiet, the other outspoken, hated what he did, wanted to be for the victims. I hear that all the time. I wondered about his veracity."
The conference got off to a rocky start when Connors explained that the two-day session was underwritten by an anonymous donor and that there was no guarantee the NCCB would accept the group's recommendations. "Hearing that the bishops had no investment sent me down an elevator shaft," Miller says.
"Canice was trying very hard to be the diplomat, to be honest and candid," says Susan Secker, a Seattle University moral theologian who participated. "But it was astonishing that we didn't know who sponsored us, yet information was going up this hierarchical chain of command. It looked to me -- and one priest admitted privately -- that (the bishops) are afraid to be too public, too critical because of their own careers. This loyalty to the brotherhood taps all kinds of defensive chords."
Sister Barbara Doherty, president of an Indiana college, St. Mary's of the Woods, was one of the most outspoken. "Her consistent cry," Secker says, "stronger than any of us, was that the children must be our moral priority as a church. I think we all acknowledged a need to be sensitive to offenders, but the priority has got to be turned around."
"The women took charge," Lothstein says. "It was a clear voice -- the most important issue was the victims. This was an important change from prior meetings I attended, with psychologists and attorneys who focused on how to deal with the priests. The women were pushing to stop the secrecy and cover-up."
A month after the think-tank, Miller published, without his permission, the recommendations that Connors had drafted, in The Linkup newsletter. He made an eloquent plea for "lifting the veil of secrecy," warning bishops that to "deal with (victims) in a cold, defensive or legalistic fashion is to increase the pain of their wounds and to bring down a justifiable derision on the church herself."
The group recommended that the church make a great effort to be sensitive to victims, as well as helping the priests. It also called for a task force to conduct regional hearings across the country about what church policy should be.
"I came without expectations, thinking that whatever develops, so be it," Miller says. "That's why I've stayed with it. We participate. It's part of a paper trail. Part of history."
THE DYNAMICS OF THE CLERICAL system are being openly challenged now as never before by Catholic thinkers. Celibacy is a requirement for priests, but it is church tradition that any Pope has the option to change, and polls show that most Catholics believe the church would be a healthier institution by allowing priests to marry. Since a 1967 papal encyclical affirmed celibacy as the church's "brilliant jewel," thousands of men have left the priesthood to marry.
On the other hand, various researchers estimate that 33% to 40% of U.S. priests are homosexual in orientation, making church prohibitions of homosexuality a vast hypocrisy. Most homosexuals, like most heterosexuals, do not molest children. Nor does celibacy cause priests to molest children; abusive behavior is usually rooted in early childhood. But enforced celibacy is the cornerstone of a system of sexual segregation, honeycombed in secrecy. Blaine of SNAP compares the hierarchy to "an incest family keeping a lid of secrecy on the children."
Church spokesmen, when these cases arise, have traditionally said that sexual abuse among priests is no higher than in any other profession. However, the assertion has not been tested.
"The study that people in the church don't want done," says Lothstein, "is comparing deviant sexual behavior among Protestant, Jewish and Catholic clergy. (At Institute of Living,) we've seen over 100 priests involved with teens or children, compared to one Protestant minister and no rabbis. Ministers of other denominations are usually (sexually) involved with adults."
At the Linkup conference last fall, Baltimore psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of "A Secret World," a study of celibacy, began his speech by saying: "My friends, welcome to Wittenberg" -- where Martin Luther in 1517 hammered his treatise on the cathedral door, launching the Protestant Reformation.
"The survivors movement is a voice for many other people who are saying that the church does not practice what it preaches," Sipe says. "Celibacy is a wonderful ideal, but people are aware that the ideal is not the practice.
"You can kick out ephebophiles, but the (seminary) system is constantly producing others to fill their shoes . . . by favoring those who are emotionally immature and reject women."
Bishops frequently turn to St. Luke seeking diagnostic evaluations of priests. But one priest whom St. Luke recently recommended for further care protested that his bishop, Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, had no right to suspend his priestly duties and order him into treatment. The priest, facing civil charges of abusing a teen-age boy, obtained the services of Count Neri Capponi, a canon law professor at the University of Florence. Capponi appealed Wuerl's orders to the Signatura in Rome, the effective supreme court of the Vatican.
Capponi's brief argued that Wuerl erred procedurally, citing the wrong canon in suspending the priest. Capponi also said that his client refused to discuss sexual fantasies in the St. Luke evaluation, citing priestly ethics. He wrote: "St. Luke Institute, a clinic . . . based on a mixed doctrine of Freudian pansexualism and behaviorism, is surely not a suitable institution (for) a Catholic priest."
The Signatura accepted Capponi's position, and in a striking rebuke to Wuerl, ordered him to reinstate the priest -- who is still awaiting trial. Wuerl refused and petitioned for a new hearing.
The decision jolted bishops trying to persuade the Pope to let them laicize abusers, prompting letters and calls of support to St. Luke from U.S. cardinals and bishops. But St. Luke is just one buffer between a calcified hierarchy and Catholics who see a celibate system in decay.
The central problem is how to rejuvenate the priesthood, how to attract healthy people who have the fire of faith and desire to serve the church, including the married men and women whose priestly ambitions are blunted by the celibacy requirement. The governing system has failed to uphold family values because it has historically considered wives and children to be an impediment to the all-male power structure.
Connors' sinuous path between victims and the hierarchy has given bishops an opportunity to come clean. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, the victims are demanding moral decency -- and accountability -- from leaders robed in shame. If the U.S. bishops remain stalled in the politics of inertia, the protest tactics are bound to escalate -- to Rome.
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.
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