Betrayal of Faith
By Cris Foehlinger
Sunday News [Pennsylvania]
January 16, 2005
LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Patricia Cahill is overcoming a life of abuse and
secrecy at the hands of the Catholic church.Her childhood was destroyed
by the sexual abuse of a priest and later when she was a teenager by the
very nun in whom she confided the abuse.
Through alcohol, drugs and a position of authority, Sister Eileen Shaw
determined, in large part, the woman Cahill is today. One with no sexuality
and no understanding of normalcy, yet one with a strong drive to right
the wrongs of a church that molded her into a quagmire of guilt.
|Patricia Cahill describes a long-term
sexually abusive relationship with a Catholic nun, who gave her the
gifts entwined in the fingers of her left hand.
Although the nun's ministry has since been restricted, Cahill, now 52
and living in Lancaster, is angry at the church for stealing her childhood,
her family and her dreams.
She has found support through the nationwide Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests, or SNAP. And, in turn, she is trying to focus on the
future. Later this week she will launch a support group in Lebanon to
help local survivors. (See related story.)
Child of faith
Cahill and her five siblings were born into a wealthy Ridgewood, N.J.,
family and attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel elementary school. Their
father sold cars at his dealership and their mother sold real estate between
bottles of vodka, Cahill said.
She said she was in first grade when a priest took her to his bed, the
clergyman always wearing pieces of his priestly garb.
"He never took the white collar or stole off," said Cahill.
"He said it was a mortal sin to talk about anything we did while
he had them on. Catholics are taught that if you commit a mortal sin you
will go to hell." So Cahill wouldn't breathe a word of the abuse.
At home, she'd pick up empty liquor bottles before her father's return
from work. "I took over for Mom raising three younger siblings,"
said Cahill, whose parents are now deceased.
"I remember cleaning Dad's bathroom when I was 7. He made a big deal
about it and I thought, "Wow!' " Craving that kind of positive
attention, Cahill set her sights on the rest of the house.
"I was the chief bottle washer and surrogate housewife," she
said. "I was very strict and rigid like my Dad. I demanded a lot
of my siblings and I regret that now, but I didn't know anything else."
Cahill said her father was abusive. He was not an alcoholic, but the disease
is a family one. "He would rule with an iron fist and for no reason,"
she said, "he would pick out one of the three oldest and send them
upstairs for a beating." Meanwhile, the priest's abuse continued
until she was 13. It stopped because Cahill said, "No." "I
felt 100-percent responsible because all I had to do was say "no,'
" she said. "I don't know if his abuse was widespread, but I
know of some victims and am looking for others."
From priest to nun
Although Cahill was able to remove herself from the priest's grasp, she
couldn't escape the need for the love and support she didn't get at home.
At age 15, she confided the priest's abuse in a family friend: the nun.
"She said, "He was a sick man so it wasn't his fault',"
Cahill recalled. "Looking back, I see a lot of conflict with what
she said." Cahill said Sister Shaw, a member of the Sisters of Charity
at Convent Station, N.J., saw that she was in dire need of love and attention.
Shaw offered encouragement, spent time with her and told her she was special.
"She took me out of a dysfunctional home and promised me the world,"
Cahill said. "She said no one would ever hurt me again." By
age 16, Cahill spent summers at the shore with Shaw and the nun's family
and friends. "All of them were 20 years older than me," Cahill
said. "What were they thinking? Why didn't they think it was odd?"
The sexual advances didn't start right away, Cahill said.
"She became my mother figure but," Cahill said with obvious
fury, "you don't sleep with your mother.
"I had kept secrets my whole life. I thought I was a sinner. Then
Eileen told me I was. She also said it was my job to keep her vows because
I was the stronger of the two of us." Cahill said she was 15 when
Shaw introduced her to alcohol and drugs, namely Valium and Librium.
And Shaw gave Cahill a medallion to wear only when the two were intimate.
Cahill calls it her "medal of shame" as she was never to speak
about what went on while she wore it.
One night when Cahill was 17, she remembers crying and asking Shaw to
let her go. "She should have let me go, but she wouldn't," Cahill
"She made me call her "Sister Eileen' in bed and told me that
she loved me," Cahill said.
"No one had ever loved me before."
Search for justice
That love, however, cost Cahill a chance to have a family and children
of her own, she said. Because of internal conflicts caused by the relationship,
she said, it cost her a chance to join the Sisters of Charity in her teens.
And it cost Cahill her sexuality. Since she's been away from Shaw, Cahill
said, she has never been attracted to another woman. Because she remembers
fear and pain from the priest, she won't get involved with men.
For her, the guilt and shame blend with anger and bitterness.
Cahill, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, said one of the biggest
obstacles to healing is trying to understand why so many nuns turned their
heads and allowed the abuse to continue.
Ten years ago Cahill received help from the Sisters of Charity, who did
"everything they are legally obligated to do," according to
a recent statement issued by Mother Superior Maureen Shaughnessy.
At the time, Cahill received treatment and about $46,000, Cahill said.
She is seeking additional treatment costs, a request she and members of
her support network see as a moral obligation of the church.
Part of her larger mission now is to make sure nuns are punished for abusive
actions. Because they are part of a religious order, they are more insulated
and protected, Cahill said.
"We (Shaw and Cahill) would sleep in convents up and down the East
Coast," Cahill said. "Nuns would turn their heads when I ran
up the back staircases." Yet the conflict for Cahill remains.
Shaw encouraged her to go to college, something no member of Cahill's
family managed to accomplish. Her first teaching job was at St. Cecelia's
in Kearny, N.J. Shaw was the principal of the now-defunct school.
Shaw gave Cahill a ring during that first year of teaching, one that was
identical to one the nun wore. "It never dawned on me what that ring
was supposed to mean," she said. "But it's pretty clear now."
The nun even selected Cahill's apartment, one where Shaw's car could be
parked undetected, Cahill said.
"During the day, she was extra authoritative with me in front of
other people," Cahill said. "Away from school, she would tell
me not to befriend the other teachers and not to bring my home life into
work." Brief trips were routine.
"One weekend, we went to a convent in Connecticut and got snowed
in," Cahill said. "I think it was a bit obvious when we both
didn't show up for school, but she wouldn't talk about it." After
a year of teaching under Shaw, Cahill realized she needed to get away
and took a job in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. "I really liked teaching
and made friends," she said. "Shaw would still come on weekends,
which wasn't a problem since no one knew her." By this time, Cahill
said she was sick with drugs and alcohol. "I would drink on my way
to school," she said.
Cahill shared an apartment with a friend. "She was very indiscriminate
with sex and would entertain men at night," Cahill said. "After
walking in on her one night, she came up with a system where she would
put the man's shoes outside her door to let me know she was with a man.
"So I would leave Shaw's shoes outside my door and hang her veil
on the doorknob," she said. It's an image that still haunts Cahill
and one that will become the title of her book, "Veiled Threat."
Cahill said the nun thought the roommate's conduct was immoral. But as
Cahill's questions persisted, Shaw refused to answer or make any sense
out of her relationship with Cahill.
"What happened at night, happened at night," Cahill said. "What
happened during the day saved my life.
"She helped me out in lots of ways that I felt indebted to her so
much that I kept her secret for too many years." Cahill viewed everything
as her fault. But then her emotional struggle becomes evident and contradictions
"She was 36 and I was 15," Cahill said of their early relationship.
"It couldn't have been my fault."
Path to peace
By 1979 Cahill sought help through a 12-step program. It cost her any
hope of a relationship with her siblings; they felt Cahill betrayed them
by airing the family's laundry, she said.
In her 30s, Cahill again studied to become a member of the Sisters of
Charity, Shaw's order. "I have learned since then that victims almost
always return to the scene of the crime," she said.
Cahill could not complete her quest because of internal conflicts that
centered on the relationship with Shaw.
By 1992, Cahill knew she was in trouble and approached the Sisters of
Charity for help. "I was very foolish," she said. "I wanted
therapy and nothing else." Yet she also asked that Shaw be removed
from her position as school principal. "They took her out and promoted
her," Cahill said.
Shaw is now the administrator of the Caritas Community in Jersey City,
N.J., a retirement home for nuns. Repeated attempts to reach her were
unsuccessful. Nuns who answered the phones said Shaw was on "holiday."
Caritas Community is in a convent that sits next to an elementary school.
When recently questioned about Shaw's duties, Jim Goodness, director of
communications for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., said that the nun
"is not allowed in the school." She does attend Mass in the
local parish, but is not part of the spiritual team. She is not involved
in parish functions.
"The community has dealt with the issue and she is restricted in
her ministry," he said. "There has never been an incident where
she broke her assignment since this came to light." Goodness clarified
that the Sisters of Charity is not officially part of the archdiocese.
"But the sisters work in the archdiocese under the spiritual direction
of the archbishop," he said. "Religious communities operate
under their own rules and authorities." This is part of the problem
as far as Cahill is concerned. "Priests are defrocked when they are
exposed for abuse," she said. "But there is no punishment for
nuns." Shaughnessy, Sister of Charity's mother superior, said there
was a confidentiality agreement at the time the sisters offered Cahill
help. "I'm certainly not going to break that, and I have nothing
to say about it." Shaw has been cleared to serve in her new position,
Shaughnessy said recently. "I don't want to talk about this."
In a letter dated July 1, 1994, the Sisters of Charity agreed to pay for
"certain professional services" from July 1, 1994, through June
"In order to qualify for payment by the Sisters of Charity, the services:
(a) must have been provided by a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist,
or social worker, and (b) must, in the provider's professional judgment,
have been made necessary by the alleged inappropriate conduct of a member
of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, who is alleged to have had
sexual contact with Patricia Cahill at various times between the years
1968 and 1992," the letter states.
The letter goes on to say that all charges must be included on an invoice
mailed to Sister Mary Canavan, general superior, in an envelope marked
"personal and confidential." "The Sisters of Charity consider
this letter and the information contained herein to be confidential,"
the letter, signed by Canavan, states.
"I never healed because they made me sign a gag order not to talk
about it," said Cahill, who is now recovering from alcohol and drug
She moved to Lancaster in 1997 to get away from her family and Shaw.
She thought about suicide. Reaching rock bottom, she again turned to the
nuns she had grown up with.
By this time, the order had established a response team, made up of nuns,
priests, lawyers and psychologists.
Shaughnessy encouraged Cahill to meet with them. She agreed.
Lancaster friend Donna Wilcox accompanied her to the session held at the
Mother House in New Jersey. While the two were greeted cordially, Wilcox
said, "The building was imposing and it was dark and empty. The surroundings
felt very big and I felt very small." Cahill wasn't intimidated by
the familiar atmosphere. But at the meeting there with two lawyers and
two therapists, she said, " "I feel like I need a lawyer,' and
they said, "No dear, we're here for your healing."' Cahill described
the exhausting 3-hour session as "interrogation with a smile."
"I was impressed by one nun who seemed compassionate," Wilcox
said. "Patricia was so articulate and focused while my composure
was gone. When you hear her story, it's very humbling.
"They seemed caring and supportive," Wilcox said. "I left
thinking help was on the way." Two weeks later Cahill received word
that there would be no further therapy from the sisters, but "we
will pray for you." That's all it took.
The anger that roared through Cahill catapulted her on the road to healing.