Mother Writes Letters, Clings to Faith

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
March 21, 2004

The first time Sandra L. Tessier viewed the larger than life-sized statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the now defunct Sacred Heart School in Springfield, she immediately knew she was going to devote her faith life to the sacred heart.

She was 4 years old at the time.

"I was in awe at how powerful he looked," she said, recalling the figure with outstretched arms.

Today, at age 67, she still carries a pamphlet of the Sacred Heart novena in her pocket so that she can recite the prayers daily.

In her lifetime, she has replaced that pamphlet dozens of times because of use.

An office manager in downtown Springfield, Tessier has always looked to God for answers. They are harder to come by since she discovered her son was one of more than 30 alleged clergy abuse victims in Springfield. In the sleepless hours since she learned the horrible truth, she has intermittently prayed and vented her anger in letters to church leaders.

"To know some of the humiliating acts committed against my child is more than I can endure. The church claims immunity? We are the church, Bishop Dupre. The people, we, the people."Letter to then-Springfield Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, Dec. 8

Tessier also prays daily to Saint Theresa, the Little Flower, whose life she was introduced to 30 years ago.

"She was so pure of heart and loved Jesus so much. I wanted to be just like her and love Jesus so much," Tessier said.

Tessier's faith has been so alive and her devotion to Catholicism so strong that sometimes she and her husband, Andre, are good-naturedly teased by friends.

"They find it funny that we live at 33 Holy Cross St.," said Andre E. Tessier, pointing out that 33 is the age that Christ died.

Sandy Tessier believes her husband, a 70-year-old retired mailman, is holier than her.

"I always say I married him for his goodness," said Tessier.

Sandy Tessier remembers a time when she believed just saying a bishop's name was "reverence on the tongue."

Back then, she never would have imagined calling for the bishop's resignation at a protest.

"Your enemy is not me, Bishop Dupre, your enemy is yourself. Are there any morals or integrity left in the leaders of our church?"Letter to Dupre, Dec. 8

Tessier organized a protest Dec. 8, 2003, out of frustration with the diocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse. She believes the diocese has been re-victimizing victims who have sued, including her son, with its hardball legal tactics.

She, her husband, friends and other parents of alleged clergy sexual abuse victims held signs seeking prayers for victims and seeking the resignation of then-Bishop Thomas L. Dupre.

Tessier had no way of knowing that Dupre would resign two months later amid allegations that he sexually abused two minors.

Protesting the very institution that had been the centerpiece of her and her family's life was contrary to everything Tessier had lived until Mother's Day 2002.

That was when she handed her then 43-year-old son Andre some newspaper clippings at her kitchen table while he visited his parents for the weekend.

"I'm always clipping things out of the paper that I think he'll be interested in," Tessier recalled.

For a long while, Andre Tessier pored over an article about an acquaintance and onetime fellow St. Mary's of Springfield parishioner, the Rev. Kevin Sousa.

The article described Sousa's realization as a priest that he was allegedly sexually abused many times as a minor by his former parish priest, the now defrocked Richard R. Lavigne, who was the only publicly identified suspect in the 1972 unsolved murder of 13-year-old Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau.

In painfully dealing with the long-repressed memories, Sousa eventually left his post as director of Holyoke Catholic High School and started a new life in another state away from the church. It took him years to reveal publicly why he fled the region without explanation.

"In this United States of America, our Church is literally in disgrace from the result of the Vatican's ignorance and denial of how widespread the destruction of souls is by over 2,000 ordained men (and still counting). I will never refer to these men as 'priests.' Priests were revered in our home."Letter to Pope John Paul II, March 9

When Andre Tessier finished reading the story, the young man looked up at his mother and said, "That was my story, too."

"What are you talking about?" she asked, getting a sinking feeling in her stomach as she recalled former family friend Lavigne taking her son on dozens of camping and fishing trips and overnight stays at St. Mary's Parish rectory in Springfield.

"I can't talk about it now, but I could have told the same story," he said.

"Whenever you're ready to talk, I'm here," she said.

Sandy Tessier waited several days before she told her husband. Their life would never be the same.

"In one of your homilies you spoke of justifiable anger and injustice. I sat there and wondered if you were thinking about the victims of clergy abuse, their anger and the injustice being done at this time (in pursuit of settlements with the diocese)."Letter to Tessier's pastor, the Rev. George A. Farland of Sacred Heart Parish, Oct. 29The Tessiers met Lavigne when he was first assigned to St. Mary's Parish in East Springfield in 1968. The Tessiers were relatively new to the parish themselves.

They reluctantly joined the parish when their plea to stay at Sandy's lifelong parish Sacred Heart in Springfield was rejected by then-St. Mary's pastor the Rev. John F. Harrington. The Tessiers were told they needed to belong to the parish in the neighborhood where they lived.

"On one of his first weekends at St. Mary's, he announced from the pulpit that he was new there and he would welcome any postcards inviting him to a parishioner's home for a beer," Sandy Tessier recalled.

Her husband suggested they invite Lavigne to their home, a cozy ranch-style house that is decorated with religious art that includes statues, framed and matted drawings, paintings and lithographs of angels, Christ, St. Mary and St. Theresa.

"It's not like we had never had priests over before," Tessier said.

Lavigne and the Tessiers hit it off immediately.

"I told him he never needs an invitation to visit," Sandy Tessier recalled.

Within a short time, Lavigne was having dinner with Sandy and Andre Tessier and their three children at their home three times a week. He would visit the Tessiers at least once a day.

It was not unusual for Lavigne to stop in unannounced and get the Tessiers' grill fired up for the steaks that were planned for dinner, according to Sandy Tessier.

Several months into the relationship, Lavigne invited then 10- or 11-year-old Andre P. Tessier on a fishing and camping trip.

Sandy Tessier recalled Lavigne saying, "I'll take Andy to the rectory overnight so we can get an early start tomorrow."

"You stated in the newspaper that you wished for just 10 minutes to feel good about your church. I wish I had just 5 minutes to feel good about my son's life and my Church."Letter to Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, acting diocesan administrator, Feb. 15

In what other alleged victims said was a Lavigne ritual, the priest would have the boy wear a man's white T-shirt - often with no other clothing - to bed. Lavigne also asked that the boy dry him off after showers, son Andre said.

On several occasions the boy was asked to ride a dirt bike, he said. Lavigne asked the boy to get dirty so he could later clean him, Andre said.

Andre Tessier, now 45, has told his parents about some of the things Lavigne allegedly did to him, but says he can't bring himself to tell all the sordid details.

Even when he testified during the current clergy sexual abuse settlement talks, Tessier couldn't tell everything to lawyers, insurance company and diocesan representatives.

"There were several women in the room, and I just couldn't do it," he said several weeks ago.

"Whatever happened to church dogma that the body, our bodies, are temples of the Holy Spirit? Well consider the invasion of these 'temples' by your sadistic priests as contradicting our Church's teachings. Behold your heretics, your Holiness!"Letter to Pope John Paul II, March 9

When Andre Tessier told his parents for the first time two years ago that he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse, it set off an emotional chain reaction that affected his entire family.

He, his parents, his biological sister, an adopted sister and an African American brother (who was raised by the Tessiers but whose drug-addicted mother never allowed him to be adopted), represented a family once envied by others on their street. But suddenly they faced a pain that so far shows little sign of subsiding. They all know it will never disappear.

Son Andre suddenly understood a past that included an inability to trust others and his one-time substance abuse. Although in recent years he has run a successful art framing business in West Hartford and has a strong marriage, he has been prone to fits of rage, powerlessness and frustration while facing up to the abuse.

His mother is often overcome with anger and guilt. His father, who became depressed upon learning about the alleged abuse, remains angry and confused.

Since learning about their son, neither parent ever sleeps for more than a few hours at a time at night.

Young Andre's sister Renee M. White of Ludlow finds that visits to a close friend - once filled with smiles and laughter - are now often occasions to shed tears. Unlike her parents, White has lost faith in the church and rarely attends services anymore.

Sandy Tessier said, "My mother used to say, 'Better you be the victim, than the one who commits the crime.' I'm trying to hold on to that, but it's easier to say than to live it," Sandy Tessier said.

She recalled trying to comfort her son on one occasion and starting a conversation with, "You should ...

Her son angrily interrupted her, saying, "Don't let anyone tell me what I should do. I was told what I should do when I was molested ..."

"I will digress a little so as to get back to the protest. A few men (on their way into Mass) actually mocked me and two nuns in habits insulted me. I accepted this and did not get angry with them. I just politely asked them to at least pray for the victims."Letter to Sniezyk, Feb. 15

Sandy Tessier is angry. She is angry at herself, the Catholic Church's leadership and abusive priests.

She blames herself for allowing her son to be abused.

"I almost threw him into the monster's arms. There were times he didn't want to go, and we said, 'It's good for you. Go, Andy.' We literally forced him to go," said Sandy Tessier.

Most of her anger is directed at the church. She believes church leadership and even some parish priests knew there were abusers within the clerical ranks.

She vents her anger at her kitchen table at 2, 3, and 4 o'clock in the morning by writing letters to church leaders. She describes her pain in the hope that they can understand how the abuse of one child affects so many people.

"For me it's therapeutic. And hopefully it can bring about change," said Tessier, adding she spent $32 to send the letter by express mail to the pope.

"I wanted to make sure he got it," she said.

Dupre, Sniezyk and Farland all responded with letters or notes to her.

"We are all harmed when a child is hurt ... It is not my intention to cause the victims and their families more harm," Dupre wrote in a letter dated Dec. 18, 2003.

"I am committed to preventing future abuse," wrote Dupre, expressing gratitude for Tessier's painful honesty.

Tessier believes all the responses were heartfelt and sincere.

"I sent my son, Andre Tessier, into the arms of evil. How does one recognize pure evil? The nuns used to tell us in school that evil comes in many forms. How did I know it would come in the form of a priest?"Letter to Dupre, Dec. 8

Learning of her son's abuse hasn't diminished Sandy Tessier's faith.

"I have been praying harder since learning what happened to Andy," said Tessier.

She still sits in the front row of Sacred Heart Church every weekend for Mass, but she recently decided to no longer donate money to weekly collections because she believes some of that money is used to support sexually abusive priests in the diocese who have been taken out of ministry.

Instead, she donates to the parish's fund to renovate the church.

Although her anger at the church grows when reading things like the recently released John Jay College study into clergy abuse of the past 50 years, Tessier finds comfort in her faith.

"My favorite scriptural passage is: 'Come to me all who are weary and find life burdensome. I will refresh you,'" said Sandy Tessier, "I say that so many times in my day."

Tessier said she doesn't feel abandoned by God.

"I've never once said, 'Why me?'" she said.

Instead, she prays for change.

While at work as an office manager at City Opticians in Springfield, she goes into the bathroom every day around 3 p.m., gets on her knees and bows her head.

"I beg the Lord to heal the church, heal the priests and heal my son. I do it at 3 p.m. because it is the time of his greatest mercy," said Tessier of the hour Christ died on the cross.

Tessier believes her prayers are being answered. On some days, she is hopeful the church is changing. On many days though, she thinks "The church still doesn't get it."

She is definitely seeing positive signs of a healthier son.

"He's made big strides and I know they will continue," she said. "I thank God for all the goodness in my life."


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