Agreement Doesn't Heal All Wounds Victims Speak out
Pain Is Still at the Surface for Those Who Were Abused in Catholic Church Sex Scandal
By Adam Parker
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
March 11, 2007
A story on Page 1G of Sunday's editions requires clarification. James Nyhan, who pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, worked at the Church of the Nativity on Folly Road in 1979 and 1980.
Despite a court settlement agreement Friday enabling victims of child sexual abuse to join a class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, two victims say the diocese still has not done enough to make amends or help victims get on with their lives.
Shawn McDonald is one of four brothers who were molested repeatedly by the Rev. Justin Goodwin over the course of two years beginning when the brothers were 12, 10, 7 and 7. McDonald, who works as a delivery driver for a local bakery, often passes by Blessed Sacrament Church in West Ashley, where he was abused. It never fails to make him cringe, he said. Or cry.
Allen Sires was a 13-year-old altar boy at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a boy who considered the church a safe haven when the Rev. James Nyhan took advantage of him. Today, Sires is a self-employed handyman struggling to come to terms with the past and fighting to retain custody of his 6-year-old son, Grayson.
Both men say they have petitioned diocese officials and others over the years for help - access to long-term counseling, financial assistance for prescription drugs and an ethical remedy to what they say is a pervasive culture of abuse and cover-up in the church - but that the diocese has done little to provide meaningful aid. Instead, they say, church officials have tried to avoid facing the inconvenient facts of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Neither McDonald, 35, nor Sires, 40, can claim damages under the terms of the current class-action suit, though Sires is one of the "John Does" forming the class of plaintiffs who helped lawyers launch the suit. Both men reached independent settlement arrange-ments with the diocese, and both worry that other victims who
step forward to participate in the class-action suit will not be adequately served by the monetary award.
The suit, while an expedient way to settle many claims and avoid further litigation, fails to provide victims and their families with all that is needed to piece their lives back together, they say.
Diocese spokesman Stephen Gajdosik said the settlement agreement was negotiated in good faith by church officials and lawyers representing seven victims and that the diocese, which has encouraged victims to step forward, is prepared to meet its obligations.
Allegations of sex abuse, dating back to 1950, have been raised against 28 diocese officials, 26 of whom were priests or clerics, according to the class-action suit.
Victims during this period number 50, and some already have brought claims against the diocese, some of which failed and some of which were settled.
"In almost all of them, the diocese has asserted the statute of limitations, charitable immunity and lack of notice/negligence, among other things, in defense of the claims," the suit reads.
Victims born before Aug. 30, 1980, and whose claims prove to be legitimate can receive up to $200,000 each, according to the terms of the class-action suit.
Parents and current spouses of victims can be eligible for $20,000 each. The suit provides a clear-cut option for victims to seek legal remedy, but would prevent participants from pursuing other litigation.
Those born after Aug. 30, 1980, also may be eligible to pursue independent litigation because of a change in the statute of limitations.
On Friday, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein said that before she could give final approval to the settlement, she would require an investigation to determine if there had been any coverup by the church.
Creating a class-action
When he heard about the proposed settlement, Sires decided to help. He wanted to assemble enough victims to form a "class" so lawyers could effectively negotiate terms with the diocese.
He found several, including three "John Does" who, along with Sires, are party to the class-action suit.
"What bothered me was a lot of guys I found have drug problems," Sires said. "If you throw $100,000 at a survivor, it looks good on paper, but it doesn't meet the need."
Sires was molested by Nyhan in 1979.
He was a 13-year-old altar boy at the Church of the Nativity on Folly Road. Immediately afterward, he began to abuse alcohol and drugs, spending about 15 years in what he called a "coma."
He had attended Catholic school and thought of the church as a safe haven. The abuse he suffered confused him.
"At the time, I just figured that God hated me," he said. So he lost himself in drugs. "I was hiding from God himself. I had assumed all the guilt and all the responsibility as a participant. And at the same time, it just seemed God really had it out for me, that I had really done something wrong. I was walking around in shame for years."
He became a recluse. He had nightmares and flashbacks. He was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. All the while he eked out a living in the construction trade.
Eventually he married and had a child. His wife (they have since divorced) persuaded Sires to check into a rehab center, and on Jan. 12, 1994, he quit drinking.
"For two years, all I was doing was healing - spiritually, emotionally, physically."
But the healing process has been difficult. His early trauma continues to haunt him. After his divorce, he struck up another relationship and had a son, though the relationship did not last. Sires now is fighting his mother in family court to retain custody of his son.
"I get an overwhelming sense that I've done something wrong, and it doesn't make any sense," he said.
Last April, during Nyhan's criminal trial, Sires asked the diocese for help. He was told to come back after the conviction. But when he did, he received no aid, he said.
"Clergy are fearful of survivors. They're not qualified to deal with the situation. It's not so much that they're evil, they just don't know what to do," Sires said. "So you feel like you've just talked to a wall and been ignored, and you think, 'Maybe I am crazy.' "
Gajdosik said the diocese actively encourages victims to come forward. Its Web site includes a link on the home page to a report form that victims can fill out and submit.
If abuse is confirmed, the accused church official is suspended, Gajdosik said. If the official denies the allegations, the case is adjudicated according to a prescribed method.
The diocese also offers pastoral counseling to those who request it and assigns a victim assistance minister whose focus is to offer victims support, he said. "Litigation changes the dynamic," Gajdosik said.
It adds a set of rules and limitations by which the parties must abide. But even then, he said, victims can obtain unlimited pastoral counseling from the church.
But why would victims of sex abuse seek counseling from the institution that enabled the abuse to occur in the first place? asked Barbara Dorris, victims outreach coordinator for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
What they need is a licensed therapist unaffiliated with the church, she said.
"Victims need someone who is totally on their side."
Friend and father figure
Shawn McDonald and his twin brother, Shannon, finally discovered in 1992 that their two older brothers, John and Warren, also had been molested when the subject came up during a rare gathering of siblings. The family had been through a lot. In 1973, their father, Warren Francis McDonald, died when his gun went off. A former marksman in the Marines, his death was shrouded in mystery, Shawn said. Maybe he was cleaning his gun and didn't know about the bullet inside; maybe it wasn't an accident at all. Shawn was 3.
Carole McDonald remarried, but her new husband, Ray Hill, died of cancer in 1976.
Then in 1977, Carole was killed in a car wreck.
The children went from home to home, staying with uncles and aunts and foster parents, eventually ending up in the Charleston area.
Their grandmother introduced the boys to Goodwin, hoping he would be a friend and father figure, hoping he would help them after so much calamity.
Shawn said he remembers vividly how Goodwin, a priest at Blessed Sacrament, would take him and Shannon into the rectory and sit them on his lap, Shawn on the right knee, his brother on the left.
The twins would look at each other with uncertainty, Shawn said, but they were in the care of a priest, a trusted friend of their grandmother - perhaps this is what's supposed to happen to 7-year-old children.
"It's something that doesn't go away," Shawn said of the trauma he suffered nearly 30 years ago. "Something has to be done."
But Shawn and his brothers have little recourse now. Goodwin, who was sentenced in 1995 to five years of probation, died not long after his trial.
And the settlement agreement the McDonald brothers negotiated with the diocese that same year forbids them from seeking further damages.
In that settlement, the four brothers received $200,000, minus lawyer and other fees. Shawn's share: $37,466.13.
Shawn said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and twice attempted suicide. On one occasion, the gun clicked but failed to fire.
He loved school but was distracted all the time and did not do well, he said.
Once in the eighth grade, a male teacher touched him innocently, probably to guide him out of the way or toward some destination, but the incident set Shawn off.
"Get your hands off of me!" he shouted. Shawn was suspended from school for three days.
A couple of months ago, a priest nudged Shawn in a local store, prompting an outburst.
"Don't you ever touch me!" Shawn screamed.
When he sees a priest, any priest, he pictures Goodwin.
Gajdosik said the diocese in recent years has devised an explicit policy for dealing with child sex abuse.
The policy, first adopted in 1994, was revised in 1997 and again in 2003.
"The idea of dealing with victims of sexual abuse is new," Gajdosik said. "It's not like there is a long history of dealing with this."
He said the church is still struggling with how to deal with it.
'Kicking and screaming'
Larry Richter and David Haller, attorneys who negotiated the class-action suit, wish the diocese would have dealt with it much faster.
The diocese has not been particularly cooperative, Richter said.
"We fought them kicking and screaming and dragged them to this settlement," he said.
David Clohessy, the national director for SNAP, said legal action is usually a last resort employed by victims of abuse. Most victims settle out of court or avoid the issue altogether.
"Usually these days, church officials work hard to seem compassionate because they don't want victims calling the police, prosecutor, civil rights groups or lawyers," Clohessy said. "They want the chance to deal with child sex abuse behind closed doors."
Yet delay and avoidance serve the interests of the church, he said.
"Every day that goes by, a victim somewhere gives up, dies or commits suicide," Clohessy said. "So delays always work to the benefit of the guilty."
The politically correct term for a victim of child sex abuse is "survivor." But that term implies that the trauma is past, McDonald said.
"I'm still a victim," he said.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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