Victims No More
By Christopher Heffron and Mary Jo Dangel
St. Anthony Messenger
Downloaded June 9, 2003
Two survivors of clergy sexual abuse and the parents of a survivor share
For many survivors of clergy sexual abuse, no passing of time or monetary
settlement or heartfelt apology can ever fully mend their wounds. In light
of the scandals that broke early last year, as well as the uprising of
survivors who have voiced their anger in protest, the Church has vowed
In this section of our special issue, we focus on two survivors, John
Vellante and Bobbie Sitterding, along with Anne and Ray Higgins, parents
of a survivor. They share with us the ramifications of the abuse, their
views of the Church and how they are healing.
Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a national organization of clergy
sex-abuse survivors, as well as representatives from SNAP (Survivors Network
of those Abused by Priests), proved invaluable in helping us find these
Bobbie, John, Ray and Anne bring different experiences to the forefront,
yet they each share the same objectives: To raise the visibility of survivors,
to replace statistics with human faces and to enhance the voices of those
who endured unspeakable crimes, yet have summoned the courage to survive.
The Tireless Advocate
More than four decades have passed since John Vellante suffered sexual
abuse that lasted his entire first year at the Stigmatine Fathers Junior
Seminary in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Yet the memories born from that
harrowing ordeal remain closely with him.
But John Vellante has endured.
Now 58 and living in North Andover, Massachusetts, John is a member of
St. Michael's Parish, as well as a semi-retired sportswriter for The Boston
Globe, the newspaper that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its coverage
of the clergy sex-abuse scandal. John is also a devoted husband of 14
years, a father of five, an activist and, to be certain, a survivor.
In a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger, John speaks of his ongoing
journey of healing. He talks of his loyalty to the Church, his undying
support for survivors-a large, multigenerational family bound, not by
blood, but by spirit-and his lifelong faith in God.
Survivors have differing methods of coping with the repercussions of their
abuse. John Vellante suffered his in silence, burying the memories in
the back of his mind, where they remained for decades. In fact, he was
so good at eradicating the abuse that he even allowed the priest who abused
him in 1958 to officiate at his wedding nine years later.
That marriage ended in divorce in 1985, an outcome that John believes
stems from his ordeal. "I think my divorce was clearly related to
the abuse and the fact that I lived a secret all of those years,"
he says. "Everything that should have been discussed in my marriage,
I kept secret. You say to yourself, 'It'll go away,' but it didn't. What
went away was the marriage."
Only in 1992 did John momentarily unearth the secret to his second wife,
whom he married in 1988. "We discussed it very briefly and I gave
her scant details," he says. "The next morning when we woke
up, it was as if we had never talked about it. It wasn't discussed again
until all of this came out."
After reconnecting with some of his seminary classmates, John learned
that they too had been abused. The dialogue among them started John off
on the road to recovery-one he's traveled ever since.
Silent No Longer
John Vellante lived a great many years in a crippling silence. Today,
his voice is his champion, and he isn't afraid to use it. The abuse, along
with the cover-ups that safeguarded his abuser, who left the priesthood
in 1972 and married shortly thereafter, have led John to see a very real
difference between his faith in God and in the Church as an institution.
"I have come to realize that my faith is not in the pope or cardinals,
bishops or priests," he says. "My faith is in God, the Eucharist
and the sacraments. It's a lot greater than any of the bishops or cardinals
who were involved in covering this up."
Such cover-ups, coupled with the survivors who have gone public, as well
as those yet to come forward, have led John to believe that the Church
may never fully mend what has been broken.
"My gut feeling is that it's fractured beyond repair, but I'd like
to think otherwise. You hear bishops say, 'We'll pray, we'll pray,' but
prayer is not the only answer. You also need with it accountability and
Truth, to John, is an invaluable step toward healing, but he knows that
it may never be forthcoming. "I think the cardinals, bishops and
everyone else who helped cover up this horrific situation should admit
their faults and resign," he says.
"The Church must allow for the laity to have a greater role in its
administration-men and women. I believe the Church must fully reach out
to all victims and not just offer lip service. And priests of integrity,"
John adds, "must stand up, be courageous and condemn the actions
of their bishops."
John Vellante is proud to belong to a large, diverse family of survivors.
As a spokesperson for the North Andover chapter of Voice of the Faithful,
a 30,000-member organization of lay Catholics, John is able to reach countless
survivors. It's an involvement that aids, not only in the healing of others,
but his own healing as well.
"At each and every meeting when I speak, somebody will approach me
and say, 'Thank you. I'm in the same situation. How do I tell people that
it happened to me too?'
"I first let them know that I believe them and that they're not alone.
I tell them that when they are ready to go public, or if they want to
keep it in their hearts forever, they'll know what's right for them."
John finds strength through his brother and sister survivors and he is
tireless in his advocacy for their rights. Many times he has taken to
the streets in protest, shoulder-to-shoulder with his newfound kin, fighting
for their voices to be heard.
"I was in Concord, New Hampshire, a few months ago at a protest.
It was about five or six below zero and we were out there protesting for
three hours," John explains. "But it felt good. I know it was
cold outside, but I was warm."
And until survivors' rights are honored, John has no intention of quieting
his voice. "Until this stops," he says, "I'll always be
John's story-unlike those of other survivors, many of whom must summon
the will simply to stay alive-is one that seems bound to end happily.
"I'm certainly blessed," he says. "I have a wonderful,
supporting wife and beautiful children. I have a supportive family and
a wonderful group of friends."
But John's praise doesn't end there. "And yes, hard as some may find
this to believe, I have some wonderful priest friends who are also very
John Vellante will most likely travel the road of healing for the rest
of his life. Perhaps his greatest blessing is that he will never walk
The Path of Rediscovery
Bobbie Sitterding, a 52-year-old survivor from Chicago, experienced an
awakening at the bishops' conference in Dallas last year. When a newspaper
photographer outside the Fairmont Hotel asked if he could take her picture,
Bobbie agreed. When he asked for her name, she refused.
When Bobbie later saw a copy of that Dallas newspaper, the caption underneath
her photograph struck a sounding, and unpleasant, chord within her.
"It really hit me," she says. "It read, 'Unidentified Woman.'"
She pauses briefly. "I don't want to be the unidentified woman anymore."
Bobbie's phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger is one step in rediscovering
the power and significance of her identity. For many years only her husband
and daughter knew of the sexual abuse that she endured. Bobbie zealously
guarded her secret from most of the outside world.
This interview, coupled with a speech she gave at a Voice of the Faithful
meeting in late March, indicates an evolution for Bobbie Sitterding-a
move toward a new healing.
The "unidentified woman" now has a name.
The Broken Vase
Bobbie heard an analogy several years ago about surviving the aftermath
of sexual abuse that has been embedded in her mind ever since.
"The victim's life is like a shattered vase that's been reassembled,"
she says. "From a distance it looks normal but when you look at it
more closely, it has all of these cracks. Even though it looks the same,
it's never the same."
With Bobbie, the analogy is only partially accurate. There are unbroken
portions to the vase as well-smooth, unharmed sections that symbolize
her blessings: an unsullied faith in God, a thriving marriage, a 28-year-old
daughter, a career as a legal secretary and scores of family and friends.
Even so, cracks can be found along the vase-fractures that represent the
horrific sexual abuse that she suffered, both as a young teenager and
as an adult, by different priests. And because of this, Bobbie wrestles
with ongoing guilt.
"The hardest part has been trying to forgive myself for trusting
so blindly," she says. "Many abusers make you feel special-they
give you gifts and they take you places. They groom you to trust them
and then they betray you. And like many victims, I thought I was the only
Bobbie's guilt shifts to anger, not only for the priests who damaged her
innocence and trust, but also for the bishops who systematically covered
up the crimes, which, in effect, spread the anguish to her loved ones.
"They have to recognize the horrendous effect it has had, not only
on the victims but on the secondary victims-the family members. This doesn't
just affect me, it affects my husband and my daughter as well."
Bobbie still feels the painful sting from those who were aware of the
abuse she endured, yet, in acts of re-victimization, turned a blind eye
to the crimes.
"For me, personally, the bishops who made conscious decisions to
put the good of the Church before the good of children must pay the consequences
for what they did," she says. "They have to start listening
to their hearts and not to their public relations people and lawyers.
"They shouldn't treat survivors like damage control. They shouldn't
blame the victims, or the victims' parents or those who put their trust
in those priests," she says. "It's a betrayal. It's not just
'inappropriate behavior'-it's evil."
Bobbie is understandably hardened by those dark moments of her past but,
nevertheless, looks with hope and with promise to the future.
A Listening Heart
Bobbie looks for a day when a revitalized Church can fix what has been
broken and begin again. In the meantime, she has no intention of leaving
"Why should I leave and give up my Church?" she says. "It's
my Church as well as anybody else's." Bobbie, who says she often
weeps during Mass, finds some comfort there too. The Church, despite its
faults, draws her still.
"I don't feel I need to go to church every Sunday because if I don't,
it's a mortal sin. I go because I choose to. I get something out of it
when I go to Mass," she says.
Attending Chicago's Old St. Patrick's offers Bobbie a spiritual refuge.
Her decade-long involvement in The Linkup, a national organization of
clergy sex-abuse survivors, and with Voice of the Faithful provides the
emotional support and camaraderie she needs.
"The only way for me to survive this is through other people, by
talking about what's going on in their lives and how much it's affected
them," Bobbie says. "It's the giving of yourself to somebody
else. What I do is listen. I can't fix what's hurting them, but I can
be there to listen to what they have to say, to their stories."
Bobbie and her husband have found a family in other survivors. As such,
tears and laughter, new memories, sadness and peace are the threads of
their family's tapestry.
"I think it's important to realize that when you cry with people,
you can also laugh with them. You try to be the best person that you can.
The more you help other people, the more you get back," she says.
The Long Day's Journey
Bobbie has emerged as a survivor from an unspeakable wreckage. She knows
that her past will linger, but she is grateful for the joy in her life
that still abounds. "Living a happy life is the best revenge,"
Bobbie's healing has been an evolution, and she realizes the battle over
her own survival has been a hard-won victory. "You go from victim
to survivor to thriver," she says. "But being able to thrive
doesn't mean that you put it behind you. It's always with you."
The complex story of Bobbie Sitterding is one with numerous chapters.
What has been written cannot be changed, but that is of lesser importance.
For Bobbie, a lifelong faith, the love and support from family and her
continuing journey of growth and healing will undoubtedly fill the pages
still to come.
Ray and Anne Higgins
Secondary Victims Include Parents
Ray and Anne Higgins learned firsthand that clergy sex abuse has a ripple
effect on secondary victims: relatives and friends of the victim. In 1992,
these soft-spoken parents discovered that their son had been sexually
abused by two Franciscan friars during his high school years in the early
1980s. At the time of the abuse, their son was a student in Santa Barbara,
California, at St. Anthony Seminary, which closed in 1987. One man is
no longer a friar or priest and the other is not in active ministry.
"Our son was at the high school seminary and we used to go to Mass
there," says Ray, a retired businessman. He and Anne were very active
in this non-territorial Catholic community.
Even though they say they've gotten over feelings of guilt, the effects
of the abuse still linger. "They've defiled my son, my child, the
person I gave birth to," explains Anne, a retired nurse.
"We do not want to see this happen to another child," she stresses.
"It is criminal activity."
Ray and Anne shared their story with St. Anthony Messenger at The Linkup's
11th annual conference, "The Road to Healing," held last February
in Louisville, Kentucky. "Victims coming to these conferences get
affirmation that they're not alone," Ray explains.
The Linkup advocates repealing statutes of limitations, knowing many victims
take years to come to terms with their abuse and take action, reports
Ray explains that he and Anne worked with other advocates to change the
law in California: "There's a one-year window of opportunity for
anybody to file a lawsuit regarding child sexual abuse."
He clarifies the reason for referring to victims as survivors: "We
want to convince them that they're getting beyond the victim stage and
into the survivor stage. But when you are talking about the crimes that
have been committed, then they are the victims of those crimes."
After their son told them about the abuse, Ray and Anne recalled changes
they had noticed at the time. Their son stopped getting haircuts and didn't
bathe regularly, which they now realize was an effort to make himself
appear unattractive. "He slept with a baseball bat and switchblade
at his bedside," says Anne about the times he was home. "He
would get up in the middle of the night and walk and walk and walk....This
was directly related to the abuse by one of the friars who came into the
dormitory room at night and would supposedly 'soothe' the boys."
Ray adds, "In his junior year, he said that he wanted to leave but
wouldn't tell us why." They made their son stay until the end of
the year, "which caused a lot of guilt on our part because we subjected
him to about six more months of that torture."
Unlimited Counseling Needed
When they discovered that their son and others had been molested, Ray
says their Catholic "community put pressure on the Franciscans to
have an investigation." The Franciscan Province appointed a board
of inquiry, of which Ray was a member. The board found that over a 23-year
period "34 young men came forward against 11 priests."
In an out-of-court settlement their son received $90,000, of which his
attorney's share was 40 percent. "It won't even pay for his therapy,"
He believes it is important for survivors to file lawsuits because it
"empowers the victim to get a measure of justice and gives them some
financial resources so they can help organizations like The Linkup....It
also makes it so expensive for the Church that it can't afford [to allow
abusive priests] to continue."
Anne explains why the Church needs to offer unlimited counseling to victims:
Events throughout life often trigger memories that can return them to
"the victim mode, in which they must seek additional help."
Her experience, however, has her convinced that the Church is "more
concerned about preserving the image of the Catholic hierarchy and their
purse than with helping the survivors."
"Where is the outrage by all of the good priests?" asks Ray.
Because of the way the Church has handled the sex-abuse crisis, he believes
"the Catholic clergy have lost all credibility."
For healing to begin, Anne believes Church leaders must "acknowledge
that they have criminals in their ranks. They must turn these criminals
over to the law enforcement and judicial process, and live with the consequences."
Ray and Anne, who both graduated from Jesuit universities, have deep wounds
from their experience. "Both of our families have been cradle-to-grave
Catholics for many generations," says Ray. But "there is no
way I would ever come back to the Catholic Church."
"I was a pillar of the Church," says Anne. "Many things
related to my views, my values, my ethics are related to the Catholic
education I received. But I'm not a participating member of a Catholic
parish, nor do I ever intend to be. Our children have withdrawn from the
Catholic Church ranks and so have my brothers....I do not think that organized
religion has a place in my life."
Christopher Heffron and Mary Jo Dangel are assistant editors of this publication.
Christopher interviewed Bobbie Sitterding and John Vellante. Mary Jo interviewed
Ray and Anne Higgins.