The priest encouraged my son to join the altar boys and gave him plum assignments such as weddings and funerals where altar boys always received a tip. When my son needed academic help, Father Tom tutored him in the parish rectory. He took him bike riding and to dinner and the movies. Since my son loved the military, Father Tom even went so far as to re-enlist in the reserves, at least in part so that he could take my son on tours of Andrews Air Force Base.
It took me about a year to discover that the man I thought was a blessing was actually a predator taking advantage of our family's vulnerability: To my shock and horror, I learned that Father Tom had been sexually abusing my son on a regular basis for several months -- in the rectory, the church school, even in my own home as I sat upstairs reading. Later, I learned that my son was not Father Tom's first victim and that when suspicions about him had arisen in the past, he was merely transferred from one parish to another. Our Lady of Victory, where Father Tom latched on to my son in 1989, was his third parish in two years.
Father Tom is now doing time in a state prison. But despite my hopes back then that the Catholic Church would do more to excise pedophiles from its midst, the news that four Washington-area priests are only now being disciplined for sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s tells me that not much has changed.
When I read newspaper accounts of these most recent incidents, my sense of betrayal by the church and the archdiocese of Washington came flooding back. I thought back to my own family's experiences and how, over time, I had become increasingly suspicious of Father Tom's behavior toward my son. Gradually, the priest started acting more like a jealous lover than a solicitous role model. Father Tom began calling our house on a daily basis and demanding to speak to my son, even if he was sleeping. He became unduly covetous of my son, and resentful of my son's friends. As much as I, a devout Catholic, didn't want to believe it, I sensed that something was wrong with this relationship.
When I confided in a deacon who knew Father Tom, I was told to remove my son from the school immediately, even to leave the area, as a precaution in the event there was sexual abuse.
Although I was not absolutely sure of what was going on, I drove to the rectory at Our Lady of Victory on MacArthur Boulevard the next day and told Father Tom that he "had crossed the line" with my son and that they were to have no further contact. For two hours he pleaded with me -- "I'm on bended knee" he said, asserting that the real problem was not between him and my son but between my former husband and me. He told me that he was my greatest advocate. If I thought my son had problems now, he said, just wait until my son couldn't see him anymore.
Though he admitted to nothing improper, I left the rectory sensing more and more that Father Tom was sexually involved with my son. The next day when I spoke with my son, his first reply, amid the tears, was "if you think there is anything sexual happening there isn't." But that evening when he talked to an attorney friend of the family's, my son admitted for the first time that Father Tom had had sexual relations with him. "Freedom, freedom at last," he said after pouring out the details to my attorney friend.
The following day I went to the school to inform the principal that Father Tom was to have no contact with my son. As I revealed to her what had taken place, with tears in her eyes she said, "I prayed that it wouldn't be that." She said that we needed to inform Monsignor Benson, the pastor. I repeated to him what had taken place and he too responded that he had hoped otherwise. I tried to comprehend what I had just heard. Had these authorities suspected something and never said anything to me? Was it possible their fears of bringing negative publicity to the church had overruled the welfare of a child?
My attorney contacted the archdioceses of Washington. We needed to know what they were going to do about Father Tom. My attorney spoke with the chancery several times -- and we were told that Father Tom had been sent the very day I reported the sexual abuse to Jemez Springs, N.M., for treatment. The well-being of my young son seemed to be the least of their worries; all anyone we spoke with at the church would say is that the problem was being taken care of. They wouldn't answer any more questions we had about Father Tom and what steps the church might take next. Indeed, they challenged us as to whether my son was telling the truth.
After initially refusing our requests, Cardinal James Hickey, along with his lawyer, agreed to meet with us. Although our discussion was cordial, I left feeling that the church was only trying to pacify us with a meeting and was still not answering our questions. I came to believe that the church did not care about us or the serious crime that had taken place. We were on our own.
Fortunately, I had a strong and trusting relationship with my son, as well as with my attorney. He was able to stop our lives from spinning aimlessly and provide the rudder that I needed to proceed. I had never felt so overwhelmed, but I was determined to stop Father Tom from abusing someone else's son. As the ordeal started to unfold, I talked to my son about the options we had.
My immediate concerns and energies were directed toward the well-being of my family. We all entered therapy two days after the discovery. We still had some extremely serious decisions to make; my body felt as if it was being pulverized. My mind kept repeating "My God this is for real!" My son was quiet, but his body was speaking, he was covered with a rash and I could see the fear in his eyes. How could someone so young be so courageous?
For me, the choice was clear: Father Tom's behavior was wrong, and so we decided to press criminal charges. When the charges made the nightly news, I was verbally attacked by the pastor at my son's school. He came at me saying "Look what you have done now! Father Tom is going to be tried in public." I calmly took my son's hand and walked away.
It was a painstaking process, but over the next several months we had to piece back together the different times and locations at which contact occurred between Father Tom and my son. Initially, he vehemently denied the charges. But when the charges became public, another brave young man came forward and told of the abuse that he too endured by the same priest. With two boys ready to testify, Father Tom pleaded guilty to solicitation, sodomy and taking indecent liberties with a youth.
The Rev. Thomas Chleboski was sentenced to more than 35 years in prison for abusing my son and the other boy who came forward. What hadn't been fully brought out was whether the church had tried to cover up past incidents of abuse, something I was determined to find out through a civil suit.
The full story emerged slowly. After taking depositions from nearly 40 church officials, students and others with knowledge of the incidents, we gathered evidence to support our charges that the archdioceses tried to move Father Tom from parish to parish so that his pedophilia would not be detected.
One nun at the school told us that she was so concerned about my son, that she had gone to the second floor of the school where she could see into the priest's bedroom. Had anyone acted on their first suspicions, the abuse could have been stopped much earlier.
Throughout the proceedings, it seemed to me that the church was chiefly concerned with its own public image, not with what the ministry could do to counsel or somehow ease the pain of those who were victimized. Ultimately, the matter was settled out of court.
By the time it was all over, both of my sons lost the innocence of their childhood -- one because he was abused directly, the other because of the emotional trauma involved in the ordeal. I now realize that the one group that most loudly professes the sacredness and dignity of family and children -- the Catholic Church -- is the same one that permits the destruction of those families' lives. It has been five long years and the painful grip of this traumatic experience has not abated.
As Jason Berry reports in his book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," in the past decade nearly 400 priests were reported to the Catholic Church or civil authorities for molesting youths. But the real tragedy is not with the fraction of priests who are pedophiles, but with the failure of the church hierarchy to openly acknowledge the problem and work actively to remove the abusers.
If the archdioceses were truly serious about mending their dreadful history, the priests now in the news probably could have been removed of their own accord, not after another victim came knocking at their door. I have heard from many sources that most dioceses view the outspoken survivors as pests whom the church wishes would simply go away. We will not.
I am sure there are priests who are an inspiration to their vocation and are outraged about the shame that has settled over the church. But I keep asking myself: Where are their voices? Too many, I fear, lack the conviction to risk their careers in order to right a dreadful wrong. And so the children lose.
If I sound angry, I am. There is nothing in my family's life that has not been changed or lost forever. I think often about all those who still believe and trust the church. I wish I still could.
Mary Burns lives with her two sons in suburban Virginia.
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