It’s time to spotlight a personal experience with priestly abuse
By Maureen Powers
March 07, 2016
They say timing is everything.
In view of “Spotlight” just receiving an Academy Award for best picture, last week’s grand jury report on two Catholic bishops’ cover-up of rampant child sexual abuse by 50-plus priests over 40 years in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese couldn’t be more timely.
(“Spotlight” is the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation of massive child sexual abuse and its cover-up by Cardinal Law in the Archdiocese of Boston.)
I grew up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, and I can say unequivocally from personal experience that child sexual abuse by clergy existed more than 50 years ago. I was sexually molested by a prominent priest of that diocese between the ages of 12 and 14, and I can shed light on some ways in which these acts are kept secret from a victim/survivor’s standpoint.
Of course, there was the grooming of both me and my family. I played the organ in church from the time I was 12, and also volunteered in the church office. I accompanied my abuser on various overnight trips, one of which included my sister and parents.
This man was a real go-getter, universally admired and trusted. To be honest, I loved him and was flattered by his attention. He couched some of his actions as “research,” some as “educating” me, and some as “friendship.” When things got to a point that I drew the line — this was witnessed by a friend of mine — the behavior stopped.
That’s when the cover-up started.
First, he brought in from a remote part of the diocese his own confessor for me to “confess” to. This accomplished two things: He made sure I wouldn’t confess to another local priest who might report the abuse. And it clearly indicated that I had “sinned” and needed God’s forgiveness. This resulted in feelings of guilt and shame on my part, to add to my confusion, sense of betrayal and loss of innocence.
Soon after that, I took a battery of tests to enroll in the local Catholic high school. One day my abuser took me aside in church and told me he had been contacted about my test results. He said they indicated I was academically gifted but emotionally fragile. He acted as if he were doing me a favor by telling me rather than my parents. If I could pull myself together, no one else need know.
I have no way of knowing if any of this was true, but I believed it at the time. It added emotional instability to the list of things wrong with me. I determined to soldier on in silence.
Eventually I felt the need to tell someone. Over my high school years, I confided in three other priests, seeking guidance.
The first one sought to have his own inappropriate relationship with me. The second told me that I certainly wasn’t the only girl that this had happened to and advised me to treat myself to a candy bar once a day. The third advised me to seek counseling. Not one of them encouraged me to report the matter to either civil or religious authorities.
Decades later, thinking I wanted to report it to the church hierarchy, I consulted a fourth priest. He supplied me with the name and address of the bishop. When I asked him what he thought would happen if I went ahead, he replied that it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. So I didn’t bother.
I’m sure he was right, because the bishops cited in the grand jury report were the same ones in charge at the time I disclosed my abuse to clergy members. As they say, timing is everything.
Since the grand jury report was issued, I have made a report to the district attorney in Cambria County and to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.
My abuser is now quite an old man, and of course the statute of limitations has run out. He has received various honors from the Catholic Church for his work, but he lives with the knowledge of who he really is.
And me? I am proud to say that for nearly 30 years I led an organization that annually counsels 750-plus victims/survivors of sexual abuse, a third of whom are children.
I decided to come forward with my story to help people understand some of the reasons victims don’t disclose their abuse. It’s about time.