|Time to Heal
By Victoria Ross
April 25, 2011
When Becky Ianni was 9, she had a favorite hiding spot. She remembers opening the doors to a small closet under the stairs in her family’s Alexandria basement and tucking herself between the pieces of luggage her mother stored there.
But the little girl wasn’t playing a game of hide-and-seek with other children. She was seeking safety from the popular young priest who often visited her family. At that time, according to Ianni, the priest had been molesting her for two years.
“He would watch TV with me in the basement while my mom prepared dinner upstairs," said Ianni.
The priest would then have her sit on his lap and that's when, according to Ianni, he would sexually abuse her. “He also pulled me out of school and abused me in the vestry of the church," she said.
Before the abuse, Ianni considered herself a happy, typical child. School photos from St. Mary’s Catholic School in Alexandria show a smiling, freckle-faced little girl with long red hair. In later photos, after the abuse began in the late 1960s, school photos show an anxious child, hunching her shoulders. The smile was gone.
Ianni said classmates teased her for always wearing sweaters, which she wore even during warm weather.
“I think that sweater was my shield,” she said. “I was so ashamed, and I believed God was mad at me, that I was a dirty girl. He robbed me of my safety in my home, church and school. I believed him when he told me I would go to hell if I ever told anyone.”
But Ianni did tell. First she told her husband, and then a therapist. Now a 53-year-old mother and wife in Burke, Ianni eventually told her story to the Arlington Diocesan Review Board in 2007. The majority of the board, which is made up of laypersons, deemed her allegations “credible.” The Arlington Diocese, under its Child Protection and Safety Policy, only issues findings of “credible” or “not credible.”
Ianni also told the Virginia General Assembly in January. Her testimony, and similar accounts from victims across the state, helped convince lawmakers to pass legislation that significantly increases the time limit under which victims of sexual abuse can file civil suits.
On Friday, April 15, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) signed SB 1145 into law, extending the period in which a victim of childhood sexual abuse can file a lawsuit from two years to 20 years. With the new legislation, which takes effect July 1, victims can sue their abusers 20 years from the time of the incident, from their 18th birthday or from the time the abuse is remembered.
“While no law can return all they have lost, we can, and must, do more to help them recover and move forward with healing and strength,” McDonnell said in a statement last week.
Del. David Albo (R-42) was one of the sponsors of the legislation in the House of Delegates. “If someone molests a child, victims can now sue the perpetrator for the pain and suffering [they’ve endured], even if they don’t realize what was done to them was wrong and illegal until they get therapy.”
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34) was one of two legislators who voted against the measure. Noting no statute of limitations exists for bringing criminal charges, Petersen said the expanded length of time for a victim to bring a civil suit severely limits the ability of alleged abusers to mount a defense.
“The problem with this bill is that it allows a virtually unlimited time to bring lawsuits, because the action does not accrue until the victim turns 18, so the claim can occur 20-30 years after the abuse,” he said.
“While I understand the unique issues in a sexual abuse claim … I don't believe that churches, non-profits or anyone should be left with an unlimited period for defending claims,” he said.
Petersen said he did support extending the time period to eight years. Currently, 39 states allow victims to bring civil suits within eight years, while six states allow a 15-year or longer period to bring a lawsuit.
Albo said under the two-year statute, many victims, like Ianni, could not file a civil suit because victims may not be able to deal with the effects of the abuse until much later in their lives.
Ianni said she buried memories of the abuse for nearly four decades, until 2006, when she came across a photo of her on the sofa with the young priest, Monsignor William T. Reinecke. Seeing the photo unleashed a torrent of emotions, from despair to abject terror.
“I went through a horrible period. I couldn’t get away from the memories. Some days, I would just curl up in the bathroom, sobbing and terrified that he would find me again,” she said.
She said she began having panic attacks and severe bouts of depression. Therapy helped, but she said she needed the Catholic Church to acknowledge her abuse. “I wanted to be told that I am believed,” she said.
Like many victims of childhood sexual abuse, Ianni wanted to confront her abuser. But she knew from her mother that Reinecke had committed suicide in 1992. According to news reports, Reinecke killed himself with a shotgun after a former altar boy confronted Reinecke with allegations of abuse and pleaded with the priest, then 53, to resign and get help.
According to Arlington Diocese records, Reinecke was never officially accused of sexual abuse during his career. In 1965, he became the parish priest at St. Mary’s in Alexandria and served as chancellor and then vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, a position that was second only to the bishop in charge of the diocese’s 56 parishes.
“Following his death, the diocese received allegations that he had engaged in sexually abusive conduct with male minors. The recent allegation against him … is the first to be made that involved a female,” according to a statement regarding Ianni’s case in the Sept. 13 2007 edition of “The Diocese of Arlington: News and Issues,” which noted that Ianni’s claims were found to be “credible.”
Reinecke was also one of 31 Washington area priests identified in a 2010 Washington Post investigative report tracking the whereabouts of priests accused of abuse.
Ianni, who received a cash settlement from the church, said she did not receive an official apology until 2008, after more than a year of stalled communication with church officials.
She said she is no longer a practicing Catholic. “I was a very devout Catholic. And I would have remained Catholic if the church had treated me with more empathy and compassion,” she said. “I don’t consider myself a Catholic, but I won’t let them take God away from me.”
She credits her strong support system, including her husband and children, for helping her heal. “They are my light, and we are very close,” she said.
Ianni also spends much of her time counseling victims of abuse through the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). She serves as the Virginia Director of SNAP, the largest non-profit support group for those abused by clergy, which counts 9,000 members in the United States and abroad.
“My hope for the future is that every child knows that abuse is wrong, that it’s not their fault, that they can tell someone and they will be believed,” Ianni said. “I don’t want another child to have a lost childhood and a broken heart.”
For more information on SNAP, go to www.snapnetwork.org.
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