Sexual Abuse by Clergy Leaves Greater Damage, Experts Say
'Murder of the Soul' Is One Description of Sexual Abuse Inflicted by Priests
By Shirley Ragsdale
Register [Des Moines IA]
April 4, 2004
Confronting the issue of priest abuse has created conflict, controversy and pain in the U.S. Catholic Church.
But on one point, church officials, victims advocates and researchers agree: Children abused by clergy often suffer deeper damage than other victims of child sexual abuse.
"The priest was an icon of the transcendent, and hence the abuse had consequences that went beyond the damage caused by similar cases of abuse not involving clergy," Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley said in January in a conference at Boston College on the impact of clergy sexual abuse. "The wound left by the abuse was not only to one's psyche, but also to their spiritual life and identity."
David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, calls child sexual abuse by priests a "murder of the soul."
"Some survivors become atheists and others are intensely devout," Clohessy said. "Some are promiscuous and others are petrified of emotional attachment. They can be overachievers or incapacitated, unemployable and terribly depressed."
Kenneth Pargament, Bowling Green University professor of psychology and author of "The Psychology of Religion and Coping," calls the damage"spiritual desecration."
"It's pretty clear now that abuse by clergy causes psychological, physical and spiritual trauma. Studies show a good relationship between clergy abuse and the child's broken relationship with church and God," he said.
Particularly significant is the fact the victims often were from very religious Catholic families who were active in parish life and who granted priests a revered position in their lives.
William Ferreter, 53, fits that profile. Growing up near Cedar Rapids, his Irish Catholic family was large, poor and devout. When Father John Brickley visited, he was treated like royalty.
The priest was also a pedophile who Ferreter said began molesting him in 1962 when he was 12.
Sister Carol Hoverman, communications director for the Dubuque Archdiocese, confirmed that the diocese received credible child-abuse allegations against Brickley, who died in 1998.
Ferreter recalled Brickley's visits to his home were of showman quality. "With all the papal presence he could muster, he would always invoke a blessing on our home and my family as we all knelt in a circle around him. His choice of language was Latin and ended with us making the sign of the cross as he pronounced the final phrase . . . "In nomine Patris, et Filii, spiritus Sancti. Amen." "
Ferreter, who now lives in Kansas, broke from Catholicism long ago. He hasn't entered a church since, except for funerals.
"For decades I have had a smoldering hate that mainly manifested when I would see a priest wearing a Roman collar," he said. "Most time I would only stare at the individual with a glare that probably expressed dissatisfaction, at the least. Sometimes I would physically tremble with rage, enough to want to initiate violence. Thankfully that never happened."
In whose name, Ferreter now wonders, was "Father John" acting when he sexually abused a young boy, who at age 8 had promised his mother he would become pope for her.
"Was he acting in nomine Patris - in the name of the Father?" Ferreter asked.
The identification of the priest with the presence of God, with holiness and the wholeness of life cannot be underestimated, according to the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.
"In Roman Catholicism it has been sacrosanct," Silva said. "It has meant that the relationship of a priest to those persons with whom he interacts is perceived as most intimate, sacred and most trustworthy. It is, in effect, for the individual to be in touch with what leads to God."
Pargament has researched what happens when values perceived as sacred are attacked. He found that victims with shattered spiritual perceptions suffer more anxiety and depression than those who do not hold the values as dearly.
Charles Kenney, who with Dr. James Muller wrote "Keep the Faith, Change the Church: The Battle of Catholics for the Soul of Their Church," interviewed many abuse survivors.
"The survivors of sexual abuse by priests may have been betrayed not once but twice, and in some cases more than that," Kenney said. "They were betrayed by having to endure dreadful sexual abuse as a child. Then if they sought help from the church, instead of being helped to heal, they were rejected. The bishops refused to talk to them and assigned the case to lawyers."
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, reports that child sexual abuse by clergy is among the more serious traumatic and injurious relationships.
"It is a betrayal of trust by someone generally seen as having community status," Finkelhor said. "It can interfere with the victim's spiritual development and closure. We know that some of the trauma is related to secrecy and shame - the child is not able to talk about it or may believe people will not respond supportively if they do speak."
Researchers also are coming to believe that predator priests often targeted children they believed to be needy and troubled, Finkelhor said.
"We're not saying the abuse wasn't the source of the individual's problems, but they may have been on a troubled path when the abuse happened," he said.
Ferreter kept the abuse secret, stuffed away while he tried to live a normal life. After he viewed a 1994 "60 Minutes" expose on a pedophile priest, he broke down and told his wife.
He reported the abuse to the Rev. Daniel W. Kucera, who was then archbishop of the Dubuque archdiocese, only to be told that Brickley was shocked and had no memory of the incidents.
"Every indication points to the fact that Father Brickley has served well in the church for these many years," Kucera wrote. "He is now well advanced in age and retired. . . . As difficult as it is, I hope you can find it possible to forgive and accept the possibility of conversion and repentance."
Ferreter sent a second letter in April 2002 after reading about the diocese's anti-abuse program.
"I used phraseology like "SHAME ON YOU," " Ferreter said. "It was great rhetoric. I wish I had kept a copy."
Clohessy, who is an abuse survivor, is often asked if he and other members of the Survivors Network have lost their faith.
"I tell people no, we didn't lose our faith - it was stolen from us," he said. "It remains a gaping wound in people.
"On Sunday morning, when I'm walking the kids to the park, we go past people on church steps laughing and hugging. I look at the comfort and fellowship and meaning and joy Catholics get from belonging to the church. We see it happening for others, but never happening for me."
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