Hospitalization 'Sparked My Shame and Guilt'
Therapists forced priest to confront impact of his pedophilia
By Fred Tasker
April 14, 2002
Feeling excruciatingly ill at ease, Neil Conway sat in a room with five other errant priests and watched a movie in which a middle-age couple had a romantic dinner with wine, then took off their clothes and, with tender care, made love.
In retrospect, he believes he knows what his therapists at the Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland were doing.
"They were measuring my comfort level when I would see appropriate sex. To see if I was so sexually conflicted that I would see it as inappropriate."
It helped bring about a catharsis for Conway: "It sparked my shame and guilt over how I had used my sexuality."
Conway was sent for treatment in 1985 after a nun found a teenage boy in his bed in a church in Akron. To this day, he says nothing was going on that night. But he took treatment anyway, in the secret knowledge that he had molested eight boys, from 14 to 17, in 22 years in three churches in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
In an era in which the Roman Catholic Church's treatment of pedophile priests is under fire, Conway's candid recollections of his six months at St. Luke's Institute, then in Suitland, Md., and another six months in a halfway house, are particularly illuminating.
St. Luke's was no country club. It was a Spartan facility in an old nun's convent, with institutional food and restrictions on leaving except for weekend trips to Cleveland.
Conway's first days were shattering. Intense physical exams, batteries of psychological tests that he believes were designed to break through his denial and confront him with the hideousness of his actions.
He was diagnosed as alcoholic and depressed, but he believes his therapists withheld anti-depressant drugs for a time to increase the pressure and hasten his breakthrough.
"Now I praise them, although I was mad as hell at the time. They were really good at stopping anything they perceived as denial of the impact of what I did."
Psychologists sought the root of Conway's pedophilia in his childhood. Born the 12th of 13 children to a wealthy Irish family in Shaker Heights, he remembers both parents as loving but distant -- his father because of business and lay duties in the church, his mother because of depression and the strain of caring for so many children. "I don't ever remember my mother ever hugging me," he recalls.
From ages 6 through 14, he says he was molested three times by men -- a camp counselor, a coach, a visiting distant relative. (Psychologists say 70 to 80 percent of sexual child abusers were abused as children.) Joining the priesthood in his 20s, he says he didn't come to grips with being gay until he was nearly 35.
LURED TEEN BOYS
During his priesthood, Conway lured teenage boys for weekends on his family's country farm, riding horses with them, then coming in after they were asleep to run his hands over their bodies.
Later, in his treatment, Conway says he was put on anti-psychotic medicine and Depro-Provera, a hormonal medicine developed as birth control for women, which cuts the male sex drive by reducing testosterone. "I don't know if that helped me or not," he says. "When there's that much guilt, your sexuality quiets down to almost inertia anyway."
During therapy, Conway says he was counseled -- individually and in group sessions -- on recognizing his urges and controlling them. But he's still angry about the way it was done.
"They seemed to have this good cop, bad cop idea. The group counselor was my buddy. He gave me confidence and used my confidence in him to push me closer to honesty.
"But there was this counselor who felt it was her job to be my adversary. She would constantly throw in my face whatever defects the counselors found in me. She suspected me of being dishonest. I was so angry at her I'd like to beat her with a bullwhip."
When Conway left treatment, he feels he was given a realistic assessment. "They do not ever say you're cured. In any 12-step movement you're trained to know you're not cured, you're simply arrested. They were very clear on that."
BECAME A PARALEGAL
After leaving St. Luke's, Conway voluntarily resigned the priesthood, returned to college and found a job as a paralegal in Cuyahoga County government, attending Alcoholics Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, sometimes seven days a week.
Today, at 65, he is retired to the family farm, living alone with a cat and a Dalmatian.
He's careful to stay away from teenage boys. "If they're less than 22, I'm never alone with them. I'm not being admirable, just practical. That way you don't have to put up with all these temptations."
Looking back, Conway has mixed feelings both about the church and St. Luke's, now in Silver Spring, Md., where it sits on 43 acres amid garden courtyards, lush woods, and tennis, basketball and handball courts.
He appreciates the church's willingness to get him treatment. "They spent a lot of money on me."
But he feels the church abandoned him after he resigned: "The church concentrates on its own power, wealth and prestige."
Church officials have denied that. The Rev. John Murphy, secretary and vicar for clergy of the Cleveland diocese, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the diocese has paid for counseling for Conway and is willing to pay more. Calls by The Herald to the diocese were not returned.
At St. Luke's today, the director, the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, while noting that he wasn't there in 1985 and confidentiality prevents him from confirming that Conway was there, denies that anti-depressant medication would be withheld from patients: "It would be malpractice."
He calls Conway's "good cop, bad cop" characterization "an exaggeration," but adds: "This is not a summer camp. This is a therapeutic program. We do challenge them."
Conway holds no grudge.
"St. Luke's did me a lot of good," he says. "I haven't molested since. But they would have done better if they didn't need that good cop, bad cop idea. You come in there with zero self-image, and they beat you down. But maybe I needed to be beat down. You can start thinking about the victim instead of about yourself. The clinic helped me with that."
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