The Truth, and My Voice
By Cynthia Desrosiers
June 3, 1999
I have come to see that the decision to file a lawsuit in a sexual abuse case is as individual a decision as the circumstances of each incident of abuse are unique. For me, going the legal route was more about having the truth known to protect other children than anything else. The law did not allow me to file any criminal suit, but I could file a civil suit. As you read this, you may wonder why I went through with it? It is a legitimate question. For me, I needed to resolve issues within myself and to know that I did all I could possibly do to raise awareness about clergy abuse and to tell my truth. Being silent had allowed my perpetrator to continue to abuse for many years. Now that I had remembered everything and was dealing with it, I had to speak out.
I was just 4 & 5 years old when Fr. Robert Kelley abused me repeatedly—sexually, emotionally and physically. I repressed the memories until I was 29, when my daughter was that very age. Notre Dame Church in Southbridge, MA, of the Worcester Diocese, was where my family went to worship and where Fr. Kelley was sent for his first assignment in 1968. He had gone through the seminary in Canada and often would volunteer at orphanages. The reports from his personnel file were glowing of his ability to raise money and get parish participation at its highest levels. He was commended for his involvement with families in the parish. What was not documented was his urge to sexually abuse children, at least not in early years of his career. There was no public knowledge of his misconduct until his abuse of a teenage girl, who courageously brought charges against him. He pled guilty to gross sexual assault of a minor and was imprisoned for seven years. He was denied parole each time he was up for it—thanks to letters written by myself and other victims and our families.
Looking back now, I can see that I had absolutely no knowledge of the legal process, how much it would take out of me, how consuming it would be, nor how rewarding and disappointing it could be. It is really quite an emotional roller coaster. I began my suit in 1994 and just recently, in 1999, received two rulings that basically ended it. The Catholic Church's Worcester Diocese is very good at spending money on lawyers who file every possible motion imaginable to hide the truth and muddy the waters, rather than helping victims with therapy costs. It was all legal, but was it ethical?
I brought suit against Fr. Kelley, the Bishop and the Diocese. Fr. Kelley never defended himself; thus I received a default judgment against him. I had to testify before a Judge to assess damages. Taking the stand and telling the truth was incredibly empowering and healing. Judge Toomey of the Worcester Superior Court, awarded me $500,000 plus medical costs in damages, which meant that he believed me and that he felt Fr. Kelley should be held accountable for his actions. To date, I have not seen a dime of that judgment.
Seeing my perpetrator, three times over these five years (once in jail, twice when he was free), has also been healing. In my memories, I was still 4 years old and powerless. What I gained from facing him was that he no longer had control over me. He could no longer hurt me and no matter how he justified his "special love" for his victims or how much he denied having abused me, he was powerless over me now. Fr. Kelley was the one who had to sit and answer uncomfortable questions about his actions. I was holding him accountable and that felt great. It was frightening at first and I often had to leave the room, but most of all, it was extremely validating.
I attended almost all the hearings and depositions in my case. There have been too many to count, but I would estimate there have been at least 12 depositions and 5 hearings. An example of my experience is day two of my three days of being deposed by Atty. Joanne Goulka for the Diocese. She was not my ally and I knew that going into it. I had seen her tactics while sitting through my Grandmother and Mothers depositions. Even so, I had no idea how cruel she would be. I preface this instance with the fact that during my lawsuit my personal journals and my therapy records had been produced as part of discovery. That meant that all my innermost thoughts about my abuse, my recovery, my therapy—all of it, was there for them to scrutinize. I had written about how seeing nuns and priests in their habits had bothered me and acted as a trigger for me. I had also mentioned that I had vivid memories of my perpetrator's cross dangling over my face as he raped me.
With this information, Atty. Goulka showed up in a black suit with a white collared shirt-just like a nun's habit. Hanging around her neck was a four-inch cross of garnets. During one of the breaks, I was in the restroom wiping my tears and the court reporter was in there. She told me that I was doing good and that she didn't see how I could do it. Thinking that she was being friendly enough to talk to, I asked her if this attorney ever had worn this cross or outfit before? She responded, "I have done many depositions here and she has never worn either before." Also, that same day, Atty. Goulka asked me if Fr. Kelley was the only one I had ever had oral sex with? I took offense to the way she asked that and repeated, "I did not say I had oral sex with him—I said he forced me to perform oral sex!" There is quite a difference. Her questions pretty much went like that the whole day, but looking back, her actions made me more determined, stronger and kept me quite focused. I was not going to let the Church's tactics ruin me.
During that deposition and to prepare for the initial demand package, I had to re-live each and every account of abuse in great detail. During the deposition, I was asked to draw each room that my abuse took place in at Notre Dame Parish. These were by far the most draining experiences throughout the legal process. I was incredibly fortunate to have an extremely supportive husband and immediate family. My husband attended almost all the depositions. My therapist, even after hours, talked to me and supported my needs by telephone. Along with them, I had very supportive friends who listened to my anxiety beforehand and my tears afterward. Even my team of Attorneys and their staff were, for the most part, compassionate and kind. Had I not had that type of unwavering support—things would probably had been quite different for me.
My suit against the Bishop and Diocese ended in disappointment for me. I had not been able to gather enough evidence of their knowledge of Fr. Kelley's misconduct prior to my abuse in 1968. Pedophiles were not being watched at that time and the Catholic Church did not evaluate candidates for the priesthood on this issue. I am truly not sure if they actually do now, regardless of whether or not they now have policies in place. There was a document that was never given to me as part of Fr. Kelley's personnel file and was only discovered while I was reviewing the deposition of another victim. The missing document included a question on an evaluation form from Fr. Kelley's seminary years, which I felt raised definite suspicion about how much the Church knew or should have known before he was actually ordained.
I filed Sanctions against the Church because of this blatant omission. As a result, Judge Toomey ordered the Church to go back into their personnel files again and this time, to provide me with a complete file. He also ordered the Diocese to pay for the re-deposing of any and all witnesses that I had previously deposed. Unfortunately, during this time two of the key witnesses had died. After the Court Order, the lawyers gave me additional documents, which revealed the names of other victims that I had had no previous knowledge of! When I contacted them, they were unwilling to talk, and one of the lawyers representing them suddenly "lost" his client's files. I had to respect their decision to stay silent, even though I strongly feel it only perpetuates the problem. After all this, however, a Worcester Superior Court judge ruled that I did not have enough evidence to prove my claim against the Bishop and Diocese.
What I feel best about, is that I did not allow the Catholic Church to silence me. I have been interviewed numerous times. I have been on TV and I have spoken out at rallies. I have testified twice before Maine lawmakers and have raised awareness about clergy abuse tenfold. I witnessed, with my children by my side, Gov. Angus King of Maine, sign into law a bill that would require clergy to be mandate reporters. I have been active on committees to have stronger harassment policies in my children's schools. I also now sit on the Board of an area Rape Crisis. I believe I will never stop being an advocate for children and speaking out on issues of sexual assault. Each time I speak out, I free myself of the pain and silence that once held me a prisoner of Fr. Kelley's abuse.
The Catholic Church has never once apologized to me for any part they played in my abuse or for the re-victimization I feel I endured at the hands of their attorneys. Fr. Kelley never admitted his actions and is a free, registered sex offender in Mass. I take comfort in knowing that when this is all done, each month he will be forced to send a check to my Attorney and thus, will be reminded that I did not let him get away with abusing me and that the truth is out. In the end, I have something neither the Church nor Fr. Robert Kelley have—THE TRUTH and MY VOICE, and I can live with that.
Cynthia Desrosiers, Survivor & Activist
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