A Sense of Healing
By Lynne Tuohy
March 10, 2001
Sharon See, 36, and John Fleetwood, 29, appear at first glance to have so little in common.
They grew up in different towns and attended different Catholic churches. She works in sales and marketing, and looked chic Friday in a tailored black pantsuit. He is a lineman for CableVision of Connecticut. His jeans, sweater and eyebrow ring gave him a rugged appearance.
But anger and indignation cut both deeply. And their tales of sexual abuse at the hands of their parish priests bear a chilling similarity. In both cases, the priest ingratiated himself with the victim's family, dined at his or her home, lavished attention on the young teen, then shattered -- through sexual assault -- the child's self-esteem and innocence.
Both victims wallowed -- she in therapy, he in substance abuse and soup kitchens -- before fighting back in court. Now they will receive an undisclosed amount of money from a settlement announced Thursday by the Diocese of Bridgeport -- and a sense of healing no money could buy.
What they cannot recover, both said in separate interviews Friday, is the ability to trust.
"He spent many months befriending me before he did anything physical," See said of the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, her priest at Holy Name Church in Stratford during most of her teen years. "He came to my home, had dinner with my family. He was very adept at infiltrating my whole family."
Then, one day at the rectory, Pcolka undid her pants, slid his hand inside and fondled her, she said.
"I was very upset," See recalled Friday. "In an effort to console me, he walked me over to church and heard my confession to absolve me of my sin. That's the way it immediately was put to me. I needed to be absolved."
See was hurt and confused. Pcolka told her no one would believe her. The abuse escalated to rape.
"I have pieces of memories, of being held down, of him forcing himself on me," she said. "From the beginning, he created the situation where it was my fault, so I was ashamed and didn't feel I could tell anyone."
Fleetwood's grandmother knew everyone at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Norwalk, and she became the Rev. Charles Carr's gateway to her grandson.
"He became a family fixture," Fleetwood said. "I used to work at the rectory, answering phones after school."
Carr would come into the office where Fleetwood, then 13, worked, and poke him in the ribs or tickle him. "He was real touchy-feely," Fleetwood said.
The priest invited Fleetwood into his living quarters to watch movies -- nothing racy or pornographic. But while they sat on the couch, Carr reached over and fondled Fleetwood. It was a scene that would repeat itself for nearly a year.
"I felt trapped," Fleetwood recalled. "I felt I had nowhere to go, no one to even say it to or speak it to."
At 14, Fleetwood stopped going to the rectory. Carr called his home repeatedly, and Fleetwood would tell his mother to tell Carr he wasn't home. Despite his mother's concern, Fleetwood offered no explanation. His father told him he should be considerate of Carr's feelings, that priests needed friends, too.
"The way he fooled me and my family, it has built up an anger that's hard to control sometimes," Fleetwood said Friday. "I really don't trust anyone. I suffer from a lack of confidence in everything I do."
See spent her high school years living as two separate people, living the lie her life had become.
"I had learned how to separate myself," she said softly. "I was a teenager in school. Then, when I came out, there was this.
"My schoolwork suffered," she said. "My teachers and friends always were saying I wasn't applying myself, that I should be getting better grades. And they were right, but they didn't know."
As she got older, she came to understand her victimization. She confronted Pcolka in the kitchen of the rectory and told him their relationship was over. His response was to try to lure her upstairs, to his living quarters. She kept a kitchen table between them, and vividly remembers moving around the table, moving to maintain the distance and security the table afforded, as they talked and he walked toward her. She prevailed. But closing the door to the rectory did not seal out the shame and trauma.
See said she spent years in therapy, "working very hard" to regain some sense of normalcy.
"It has affected my ability to trust people and to get close to people, and to allow people to get close to me," she said. "It took me many years to figure out what a healthy relationship was."
While See turned to therapy, Fleetwood swallowed drugs and alcohol, lived on the streets and ate what charities would feed him. "You name it, I was there. I'm not too happy with the way I was carrying on with my life."
See was the first to file a lawsuit against the diocese, in 1993. Fleetwood's father read the article and something in it rang familiar. Thinking his concerns eight years earlier may have been misplaced, he phoned his son.
"It took me by surprise," Fleetwood said of his father's call and inquiry about whether he, too, had been abused by a priest. Fleetwood said he had. "And as I was speaking the words, I was reliving it and I was really upset. He's not used to seeing me like that."
The next morning, Fleetwood's father took him to see their family lawyer, who referred them to the Tremont & Sheldon law firm in Bridgeport. In all, the firm represented 24 of the 26 plaintiffs who filed claims of sexual abuse against five priests named in the lawsuit and a sixth -- the Rev. James Malloy -- who was named in the settlement. The other priests named as defendants were the Rev. William Coleman, the Rev. Joseph Gorecki and the Rev. Martin Federici.
Cindy Robinson, one of the lead lawyers on the case, said the diocese vehemently denied the allegations until last spring, when settlement talks began. It was at roughly the same time Edward M. Egan, archbishop of the Bridgeport diocese, was elevated to cardinal and archbishop of New York.
"I'd find it hard to believe this was coincidence," Robinson said Friday. "I think this case just became too messy to deal with, especially for a cardinal."
In a statement Thursday, the diocese acknowledged the incidents of abuse, condemned them and apologized for them. The dollar amount of the settlement has not been disclosed. Most of the incidents of abuse date from the 1970s and 1980s, precluding criminal prosecution because of the statute of limitations on all crimes but murder.
For Fleetwood and See, the magnitude of the outcome is just settling in.
"I'm just now realizing I have a victory over something that affected how I grew up," Fleetwood said. See is beginning to permit herself some pride for the role she played.
"I'm starting to realize how important this is," she said. "Had I not done this, a lot of other people wouldn't have come forward. It's helped me, because I thought I was alone."
Correction was published Saturday March 10, 2001 on Page A2.
The first name of Jon Fleetwood, a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a Norwalk priest, was misspelled in a story on Page 1 Saturday.
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