50 years later, former R.I. man finds peace as priest he says abused him is named for first time
By Brian Amaral
November 27, 2019
Bob Young is on his couch looking at his computer screen, where a picture of the Pawtucket church he attended as a boy in Rhode Island is bringing back memories from more than 50 years ago.
The first thing he remembers is the majestic lighting inside St. Teresa of the Child Jesus on Newport Avenue. He’d stare up at those ornate light fixtures in awe. Then he remembers the area where he and the other altar boys would change into their Mass attire, a role he cherished as a faithful Catholic. Then he remembers the priest who taught him the difficult words in the Old Testament.
He remembers, too, the Latin phrases that were then standard in Catholic Mass. They would echo around the vaulted ceilings — dominus vobiscum, the priest would say. Et cum spiritu tuo, the faithful would repeat. The Lord be with you, and with your spirit.
The other memories about that priest are harder to access, but they are there.
The confessional where, Young says, the priest molested him, beginning when Young was about 8. The bathroom where Young locked himself to get away. The bed where, according to Young, the priest took off his shirt, unbuckled his pants, and tried to rape him.
He remembers the nearby field of high tension wires where he ran afterward. He remembers trying to get his story straight and his face composed before going back to his house on Woodhaven Road.
He didn’t want his family, even his younger brother, Russ, with whom he was close, to find out.
It was dark and snowing when he ran out of the church. He remembers that. He’d done nothing wrong, of course, but in his youth he felt complicit in the act. He remembers that, too.
Young is now 63, has never been arrested for a crime, never sued anybody. But he has been haunted by these memories, especially one troubling detail: He doubted himself. He’d couch it.
These were his memories of what the Rev. Edmund Fitzgerald did to him over the course of several years in the 1960s.
But they were just that: memories. Ones that didn’t emerge and solidify until years later. Could he rely on them?
Now, he is sure that he can: On July 1, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence released a list of names of priests who, it said, were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors.
Fitzgerald’s name was on it. Separately, the diocese confirmed to Young that it could substantiate his claim, two decades after he first came forward, in 1998.
“I’ve begun to say, yes, it happened, and yes, it angers me, and Fitzgerald was a bad man for doing it,” Young said in an interview this month at his home.
Young is one of hundreds of victims whose stories are represented in the list of 51 clergy names on the diocese’s list.
But his case stands out as part of a smaller subset of people for whom the list was even more significant: The diocese had never before widely acknowledged that allegations against Fitzgerald were credible.
Until July 1, when for Bob Young and some unknown number of other people, including someone he loves dearly, everything changed.
When the diocese was preparing to release the list of credibly accused priests last year, Bishop Thomas Tobin downplayed how significant the names would be. Most, Tobin said in an interview on WPRI, would already be known. These were men who had been previously identified — some sued or arrested — providing their victims with some measure of solace and confirmation.
“I don’t think, when the list is released, there will be too many surprises, because they’ve already been publicized,” Tobin told WPRI.
Fitzgerald is one of four living exceptions. He had never been mentioned in The Providence Journal in connection with sex abuse, or on the abuse-tracking website Bishop Accountability, before July 1. It appears the diocese never released his name until July 1.
Fitzgerald has lived quietly for years on Bucklin Street in Pawtucket, “Fr. Edmund Fitzgerald” in faint letters by the doorbell to the basement apartment.
Reached at home recently by a Providence Journal reporter and asked if he had sexually abused children, Fitzgerald, now 89, said: “I’m not going to comment, thank you.” Asked again whether he wanted to respond to the sexual abuse allegations, Fitzgerald said: “Quite all right, thank you.”
The diocese said Fitzgerald was removed from ministry in 1998, meaning he no longer had the bishop’s necessary permission to function as a priest. He never received another assignment, spokeswoman Carolyn Cronin said in an email.
At some point, though, Fitzgerald was again performing publicly as a priest. A 2001 story in The Providence Journal said he presided over a funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Pawtucket for former Mayor Robert F. Burns.
Removal from ministry is a process short of defrocking, so Fitzgerald remained a priest, but it meant he was no longer allowed to wear clerical attire. Yet a photograph in The Journal from that funeral shows Fitzgerald in clerical attire at St Mary’s.
In a statement this month, the diocese said that when Young first came forward, it turned the matter over to the Rhode Island State Police, in keeping with longstanding policy. After interviewing witnesses, the diocese concluded that “there was insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegation.”
But more evidence about Fitzgerald came to light in 2002, Cronin said, “which led to the revocation of Fitzgerald’s priestly faculties.”
The diocese would not clear up how it differentiates removal from ministry and revocation of priestly faculties, nor would it say whether Fitzgerald’s role at the Pawtucket church that day in 2001 was sanctioned by the diocese. In its list of credibly accused priests, the diocese notes the earlier 1998 date as when Fitzgerald was removed from ministry, not the 2002 date for the revocation of his priestly faculties.
The list was compiled by the diocese’s director of compliance, retired Rhode Island State Police Maj. Kevin O’Brien. He included names when, the diocese said, “he had a reasoned and grounded belief that the allegation was sufficiently supported based upon the presently available and developed evidence.” Factors included physical evidence, whether there was more than one allegation, and the priest’s own response when one was available.
The diocese did not respond to other questions, including: Why wasn’t Fitzgerald’s name released before 2019? How many other victims does the diocese find credible? How many other people have accused Fitzgerald?
The list has resolved doubts for people like Bob Young, but it has also left some questions lingering.
“I think the list was a little late, and I don’t think it was complete,” said Timothy Conlon, a leading Rhode Island lawyer for representing priest abuse victims. “I’ve got issues with the list. But it’s better than no list.”
The list itself has made a difference for some of Conlon’s clients. (Young is not among them.) It’s similar to the recognition they’d receive when the diocese would settle: This did actually happen.
In other cases the list has crystallized the fact that what happened was, in fact, sexual abuse. Conlon said he knows of one woman who only realized she’d been molested by her priest when his name appeared on the list. She thought that what had happened was a consensual affair. She was 8.
“You have to start with the proposition that in order to make the molestation happen, the perpetrator has to normalize the behavior,” Conlon said.
It’s a significant time for priest abuse victims in Rhode Island. The state extended the statute of limitations to sue over childhood sexual abuse to 35 years after someone’s 18th birthday, a law whose limits Conlon himself is currently testing. The diocese and state authorities also reached an understanding to examine decades worth of diocesan records.
But as those news stories unfold in very public ways, private stories are unfolding too.
“When you see the perpetrator’s name out there as credibly accused, it means that not only is an organization that traditionally downplays abuse is validating you, but also it tells the world: ‘You’re not lying. This is true,’” said Ann Hagan Webb, a therapist who works with abuse victims in her clinical practice and as an informal supporter.
Among the victims she’s supported is Bob Young, who reached out to her about a year ago.
When Fitzgerald’s name appeared on the list, Young “could finally exhale,” Webb said. His story shows that people aren’t coming forward to speak about their abuse just to make a quick buck by suing, Webb said.
“It’s easier to fake a whiplash,” Webb said.
Webb is in a position to know how much that validation means to someone: She said she was sexually abused by a West Warwick priest when she was a child, and has become a leading advocate of priest abuse victims since she first came forward in 2002. The law extending the statute of limitations to sue over sexual abuse is named in her honor. She worked with her sister, state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, to get it passed.
But when the diocese released its list, it put her priest, long dead, in a different category: Anthony DeAngelis was “publicly” accused, not “credibly” accused. To Webb, that stung.
Even years after she first went public, Webb has doubts — not about what happened. Of that she is sure. But when talking to a relative recently, the woman who inspired “Annie’s Law” paused and asked: “People believe me, right?”
Bob Young had to pray to God before he spoke to a Journal reporter at length. He relied on the unwavering strength of his faith in Jesus to hold it together.
The sun was still high over the Rocky Mountains outside his comfortable apartment when he began talking. By the time he stopped, it was dark out, and Young heaved a sigh.
“I’m still working on this every week,” Young said, settling back into his couch. “It’s like falling out of a boat into the water and you don’t know how to swim.”
Young, who is divorced, lives by himself in the Denver suburbs with two black cats, Myles and Standish, whom he adopted together because they are brothers. Photographs of his children and his grandchild decorate the living room, along with Matchbox cars, which Young likes to give to people he visits. He offered a front-end loader and a dump truck to his most recent visitor.
“That’s the therapy,” he said, holding the front-end loader in one hand. “That’s driving all that [stuff] away,” he said of the dump truck.
It hasn’t always been so easy for Young to talk about, even joke about.
Young said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the abuse. He also has suffered from physical ailments including COPD, which is why he uses an oxygen tank, feeding air into his system through a tube in his nose.
Are his illnesses related to the abuse he suffered as a child? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to even quite identify the ways in which the abuse set his life on a different course, especially now in the relatively peaceful time, after years of therapy, after July 1.
In the bad times, he’s spent days bundled up inside, getting out only to go to his weekly therapy appointments. The periods of deep depression have sometimes given way to gales of anger. Toward Fitzgerald. Toward his own uncertainty and doubt.
He did not like to talk about the details very much, not even to his family, even his younger brother Russ, although they eventually found out. Not during the years they were roommates as boys, Bob on the top bunk and Russ on the bottom.
The boys were close when they were growing up, probably in part due to their itinerant childhoods, never quite putting down roots. After living in North Carolina, they went to Pawtucket, but left for California, then left there too, eventually settling in Colorado.
Even after Russ moved to Guam, an American island territory in the Pacific where he manages a golf course, the brothers kept in touch over the years.
One conversation between the brothers, about three years ago, was particularly difficult for Bob to bear. A new painful memory. He was not expecting it. It had taken years to come out. But there it was. And he had to deal.
“Russell and I have been good friends all our lives,” Bob said. “That’s why it hurt me so bad, to hear of his troubles with this guy.”
Russ Young, 61, sounds just like his brother on the telephone. Gravelly but kind, straightforward, unvarnished, a hint of mountain folksiness.
He’d always wanted to be just like his older brother, he explained in a recent phone interview from Guam. That would come true in a terrible way.
Fitzgerald also abused him, Russ said.
Russ only came forward when the abuse crisis was making headlines a few years ago in the Archdiocese of Agana on the island.
Like his brother, Russ buried the memories of abuse for years. Russ dealt with rough patches as a young man.
“I’d just do stupid stuff when I’d get drunk,” Russ said. “And I guess getting drunk — I don’t know what happened, but sometime in high school, I was a sophomore, the first time I tried alcohol, and I said, ‘Whoa, this makes me feel OK.’”
On one of those drunken benders as a young man, Russ was with a few other young people in Colorado, carrying a knife. One of his friends said he was just carrying it to look tough. He went into a store. He left with $211. He didn’t hurt anyone. Wasn’t going to.
“Next thing you know, I was arrested for armed robbery,” he said.
This behavior was not in his character. He’d been a normal kid until his experience with Fitzgerald. Then things changed. He started acting out. And he kept acting out. And it had consequences.
“In prison, I realized that when they say you’re going to five to seven years in the state penitentiary, they’re not kidding around,” he said.
Since his release, in 1983, Russ has not gotten so much as a parking ticket, he said. But it took many more years for him to finally tell anyone that he’d been abused as a child too.
His abuse, he said, occurred in the area behind the altar, when he was about 9. Fitzgerald, he said, made the abuse ritualistic: He’d have him drink the wine that Catholics believe is the blood of Christ and eat the bread that Catholics believe is the body of Christ. This was reserved, Russ recalls Fitzgerald telling him, only for special people like him.
Before long, Russ said, Fitzgerald was masturbating under his priestly garments. He also made Russ perform oral sex on him, Russ said.
“When you’re a young kid like that, an altar boy, that’s the priest, you almost think, they can’t do anything wrong,” Russ said.
Russ didn’t tell his brother until a few years ago, and the details are still scarce. Bob said he expects to learn some of the details from this story.
For years, Russ told his brother he didn’t remember.
“And I probably didn’t want to remember,” he said.
That changed as the abuse crisis started to rage in Guam.
As Bob recalls it, Russ said to him one day, in a vague but indelible way: “What if — me too?”
Russ does not currently go to therapy, although he says the Diocese of Providence offered to pay for it. There’s only one therapist on the island who’s right for it, he explained.
“I haven’t really gotten any help,” Russ said.
Brothers Myles and Standish purr and cuddle and jump over the oxygen tube that keeps Bob Young feeling energized enough to speak for three hours about the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.
It’s still not easy. But his experience hasn’t stopped him from going to church. Once a Catholic school student and altar boy at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus in Pawtucket, he is now a regular at the Church of the Risen Christ in Denver.
“The Jesus part, I find very easy,” Young said.
Therapy, which Young said the diocese has paid for since 2016, has helped immensely. So has Zoloft, an antidepressant.
Nowadays Young does not seem to bear much ill will in his heart: He speaks frequently with Mike Hansen, the Diocese of Providence’s victim assistance coordinator, who is a “peach.” The diocese itself, he said, is a “stand-up organization” for paying for his therapy. (The diocese said it has offered Young support from the beginning, but he has only availed himself of it more recently.)
It has gotten to a point now that when Bob Young looks back at his life, even back at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, it doesn’t seem all bad.
“Lots happened in this building besides him molesting me,” he said, as images from his computer, hooked up to his TV, flitted across the screen. “There were lots of good things. He was pretty much the only bad thing.”
Has the list helped him heal?
“Hell yeah,” he said.
Young’s psychiatrist agrees. Hell yeah, clinically speaking.
“It was validation, right there for everybody to read,” said Dr. Charles Glass, who has treated Young at the Colorado Center for Anxiety and Stress-Related Disorders. “This is the guy that abused him, abused others, and now there’s official acknowledgement.”
Glass specializes in these sorts of cases, using what’s called prolonged exposure therapy. Watching a scary movie one time is, well, scary. Watching it 500 times takes the punch out of it.
People like Young, who are dealing with the consequences of years-old trauma, need to run toward the pain and anxiety, rather than away from it. They need to re-imagine that trauma, re-experience it, over and over, so that it’s desensitized. Life isn’t about avoiding pain or anxiety, but living with it and coping with it as a natural consequence of being a human in a fallen world.
It takes a lot of bravery to face up to that fact. To talk about trauma, a lot, until the emotional response doesn’t sting so much. Nobody will ever get to zero, Glass said. The goal is to get better.
“It requires a lot of courage, but with the willingness to confront something, lots of things can be dealt with, accomplished, overcome,” Glass said. “It doesn’t mean the problem goes away completely. But it brings it to a level that’s manageable.”
Sometimes you have to see someone else modeling that bravery to be able to take the leap yourself. Glass recalled the story of a man who was afraid of getting a spinal tap, a painful medical procedure, and avoided it until he heard a young girl saying she was scared, too, but knew she had to do it. He got the spinal tap.
To someone out there, someone who’s been avoiding going to therapy for whatever the reason, that could be Bob Young.
“I hope he becomes an inspiration to others,” Glass said.
The main problem for humans, as Bob Young sees it, is treating one another justly. With the image of St. Teresa still flickering on his TV screen, he started looking for a Bible verse to illustrate his point. His pocket-sized Bible sits on his TV tray for ease of access. It is worn with use and notation.
“Fitzgerald, for example, he was not just in his treatment of me,” Young said as he continued flipping. “There was no justice in that. I did not deserve it. It was not proper. It was perverted.”
But there is little anger here as he recounts this trauma once more. St. Teresa of the Child Jesus is still on his television screen. The lighting inside is still majestic. Children still cherish the role of altar servers. The priest will still wish peace, although no longer in Latin. In some measure it seems that Bob Young has found it.
He finds the passage he was looking for: It is in 1 John, and it is a favorite of Young’s. He pauses, then reads.
“The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness,” he said at last. “The one who loves his brother abides in the light. And there is no cause for stumbling in him.”