Clergy Abuse Victims Seek out Some Peace at the Farm in Ky.
Site Is First Backed by Catholic Leaders
By Amy Green
July 19, 2004
CRESTWOOD, Ky. -- Tom Weiter is a straight-talking truck driver with a sarcastic streak, a former altar boy, and the nephew of two nuns. He said he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest four decades ago.
Weiter said that he has dealt with drug and alcohol problems stemming from the abuse, and that he has healed a rift within his family that the abuse caused. But he said it was not until he came to The Farm to meet with other abuse victims and spend contemplative time in its garden that he really began to confront how the abuse affected him.
"Maybe, psychologically, it feels like I'm being nurtured," said Weiter, taking a cigarette break from tending the flower beds and looking out over acres of corn. "Maybe someday I'll bear fruit."
Weiter, 51, of Germantown, Ky., said he has found peace through the first treatment center for victims of clergy sex abuse to win the support of US leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, a place on 1,300 acres outside Louisville where victims can come together and help one another heal.
The Farm grew out of a desire to cut through the animosity between church leaders and victims and provide victims a quiet place to reflect on their experiences while gardening, hiking, and attending seminars, said Susan Archibald, a 13-year Air Force veteran and an alleged clergy sex-abuse victim who organized The Farm.
The Farm shares property with a holistic clinic and spa, giving visitors access to a variety of medical and relaxation treatments. It offers weekend seminars on sex abuse. A seminar especially for Boston victims is in the works.
Visitors are encouraged to focus on themselves through gardening, art, and other solitary activities. Fees vary, and financial help is available. Overnight visitors stay in a lavishly restored farmhouse. The place has drawn about 30 visitors from across the country since its first seminar in June.
The Farm is the result of months of meetings with church leaders, some of them tense, said Archibald, director of The Linkup, a victims' advocacy group.
Archbishop Harry Flynn, head of the church's national Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, has endorsed The Farm, and so has the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer at the Vatican's US Embassy who gave up his career in the church to advocate for victims. Flynn sent a letter urging support of The Farm to bishops across the country. Doyle, a longtime activist with The Linkup, commended The Farm as "a way to hopefully build some bridges for the long term. The leadership owes it to these victims."
The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, a Catholic organization of leaders of religious orders in the United States, also endorsed The Farm. It sent brochures and letters of support to all its members, said Ted Keating, the organization's executive director. He described The Farm as "groundbreaking." "It's the first time we've found an institution so willing to bring the voices of the victims to the table in ways that can bring more light and understanding," he said.
About $60,000 of the $100,000 donated to The Farm has come from US archdioceses, religious orders, and others within the church. But the church does not control the retreat, Archibald said. Her group continues to work for support from the Louisville archdiocese, which last year settled with 243 victims for $25.7 million.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he worries that some church leaders will donate to The Farm merely for the sake of good public relations.
"I'm just real skeptical about overselling one action by a handful of bishops as being a sign of transformation," he said.
Shannon Age, 44, who said she and her sister were raped repeatedly by a priest when they were young children, said the church's support is significant.
"Now they're showing themselves ever so slightly as being the Christians they're supposed to be," said Age, an X-ray technician who lives in Taylorsville, Ky., near Louisville.
As for Weiter, he attended The Farm's workshop in June and now volunteers there. He had been in and out of therapy for drug and alcohol abuse until his 30s, he said, but this was the first time a program directly addressed the effects on him of two years of abuse that began when he was 10.
When Weiter spoke up as a teen about the abuse, he said, it caused a rift in his family, which endured for decades. He said his mother thought he concocted the story merely because he did not want to go to church.
Weiter said that he has reconciled with his family, but that he no longer believes in God. As for The Farm, he cannot explain what has touched him so deeply.
"Since I've been involved," he said, "I don't revert back to that hurt little boy anymore."
Weiter said he has joined a close group that considers itself a family. He has kept in touch with friends from the workshop he attended.
He described Archibald as the group's "fearless leader." She grew up as a devout Catholic and was voted at her Horicon, Wis., high school as most likely to become a nun or an astronaut.
After high school she enrolled in the Air Force Academy, where she says she was abused by a chaplain whom she had sought out for counseling during her tough freshman year.
Despite the ordeal, she remained with the Air Force and worked as a meteorologist and teacher but eventually left over disappointment about how her abuse complaint was handled.
Archibald, 39, joined The Linkup in 1999 and became director in 2002. Today she describes herself as spiritual but no longer Catholic. Her work to reach out to victims and church leaders is ongoing, but she said she finally has found peace.
"It's healing for me personally because the work I've been involved in has really diminished the effect of my own abuse," Archibald said.
"I don't regret what happened now because I feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing now. In a way it's hopeful that something good can still come out of this."
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