Elderly Often Stay Silent about Long-Ago Clerical Abuse
Elderly Often Silent about Long-Ago Clerical Abuse
By Sean Kirst firstname.lastname@example.org
Post-Standard [Syracuse NY]
January 9, 2004
A few days ago, Charlie Bailey picked up a ringing phone at his Baldwinsville home. The caller identified himself only as an elderly man. He wanted to express his sympathy for Bailey, who had gone public with his account of boyhood abuse by a Roman Catholic priest.
The caller said the same thing had happened to him, as a child, many years ago.
But he would not give Bailey his name or phone number.
The conversation ended. Bailey's caller went back to suffering alone.
His reluctance to seek help underlines a concern for national and local leaders in the movement for healing victims of clerical abuse: The overwhelming majority of allegations against priests or other church employees have come from children of the baby boom, children who grew up from the 1950s into the 1980s.
As for older Americans, most of them are keeping their horrors to themselves.
"In that generation, you didn't question the church," said Bailey, 52, coordinator of the Syracuse chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "I believe there's just so much shame and guilt and embarrassment."
Men and women born in the late 1930s or earlier were especially vulnerable to sexual predators.
Countless thousands of elderly Americans spent their childhoods in Catholic orphanages, seminaries or convents during the Great Depression, isolated from any way of seeking help.
Catholic parents were often immigrants or first-generation citizens, steeped in church rules of obedience.
Compound that with the clinical reality that abuse begets abuse - meaning that many of today's pedophile priests are part of a chain that started long ago - and logic would indicate that pre-World War II conditions made a fertile ground for molesting children.
If anything, said David Clohessy, the abuse in those years was probably much worse.
Even so, the number of reported allegations from that era remains low. Clohessy, 47, became national director of SNAP after he found the courage to go public with his own tale of abuse. Of the hundreds of victims he has met or counseled over the years, Clohessy estimates that only a small percentage came of age before World War II.
The memory of one victim is enough to bring Clohessy to tears. He recalled taking a phone call from an 86-year-old, a retired basketball coach. The man wanted help in writing a letter that would be added to his will. The letter would explain to his children what a priest had done to him.
"The guy called me out of the blue, and he had been living with this (alone) for decades and decades," Clohessy said. "He'd always been afraid that if people knew he'd been abused by a priest, that they wouldn't want their kids on his basketball team."
The image haunts Clohessy, this vision of white-haired men and women who continue to hide their ordeals from their spouses and their children. The code of silence, Clohessy said, was much stronger in the America of 60 or 70 years ago. Mothers and fathers were afraid of challenging the church, and a child's word had little chance against the aura of a priest.
Even now, Clohessy said, that code of silence still holds sway.
"For a 70- to 80-year-old Catholic to deal with this is different than it is even for a 30- or 40-year-old Catholic, because it's two different worlds," said Teresa Secreti, assistance coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, who said her "heart goes out" to that entire generation.
One major difference for elderly victims is that the priests who caused their pain have probably been dead for years. With no chance to bring about a reckoning, many victims might wonder why it's worth it to seek help.
"Because the truth will set you free," Clohessy said. "Because you can say to your children and your grandchildren, 'This happened to me and this is how I suffered, and don't you dare stay silent if the same thing happens to you.' "
Danielle Cummings, spokeswoman for the diocese, agrees with Clohessy. She said Secreti is available to help any victims of abuse. That includes elderly men and women who were molested by priests, staff or other children in any orphanage or institution, and "anybody who's been abused by a member of church personnel."
"We want to help them," Cummings said of that older generation. "We want to hear their stories and up to now, we haven't heard their stories."
Both Clohessy and Cummings described speaking the truth as the first step toward real peace. As an example, Clohessy recalled a man he met in 1991, outside a church in St. Louis, Mo. Clohessy and others from SNAP were handing out papers explaining their purpose. The man, tall and white-haired, stopped and read a leaflet.
"He looked at me, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'This happened to me, too,' " Clohessy recalled.
The man's name was Bill Russell. "There are an awful lot of us with the same story to tell, if we wanted to tell it," said Russell, 74, who still lives in Missouri. In a phone interview Wednesday, he said he was molested as a child, by both a family member and a Methodist minister. For more than a half-century, Russell shared the burden with no one, including his wife.
Finally, to his great relief, he let his story out. But he knows that among his peers he is the exception. His generation endured the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War. It consisted of men and women accustomed to quiet sacrifice, men and women taught that sharing your own trauma was unseemly.
Instead, as Russell learned, it's the only ray of hope. Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at email@example.com
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.