Elderly Victims of Clerical Abuse Keep Silent

By Sean Kirst
National Catholic Reporter
February 20, 2004

When Charlie Bailey answered the phone recently at his Baldwinsville, N.Y., 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 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 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, N.Y., chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- 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.

But the number of reported allegations from that era remains low.

David 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 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 holds sway.

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.

Clohessy’s answer: “Because the truth will set you free. 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.’ ”

Clohessy described speaking the truth as the first step toward real peace. He recalled a man he met in 1991, outside a church in St. Louis, where he 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 said.

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, 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.


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