Accuser to Trautman: Consider victims

By Scott Westcott
Times News
June 14, 2002

Sandy Fickenworth MacHutta knows nothing can be done about the now-dead priest

she claims sexually abused her in the late 1950s when she was a teenager living in Erie.

But MacHutta, 56, hopes her story of the lingering pain of sexual abuse by a priest will influence Erie Catholic Bishop Donald Trautman as he meets with other bishops in Dallas this week to establish policies to address the scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

Trautman heard MacHutta's story firsthand Wednesday during a private meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has gathered.

During the 90-minute meeting that also was attended by her therapist, MacHutta told Trautman that as a 13-year-old girl she had been repeatedly fondled and had witnessed other girls being fondled by the Erie priest.

She told him the priest raped her at the priest's mother's home. She told him of years of personal angst, family turmoil and intense therapy that resulted from the abuse.

The Erie Times-News has decided not to publish the accused priest's name because he is deceased.

"I said to (Trautman), 'When you sit in these meeting over the next three days, think about me and think about the pain victims of abuse have been through. Maybe that will make a difference in your decisions,''' said MacHutta, a married mother of two grown children who now lives in Dallas. She remains a practicing Catholic.

Trautman was attending meetings all day Thursday and could not be reached for comment, said Erie diocese spokesman Gary Loncki. Trautman is one of 300 bishops expected to vote today on adopting their first binding national policy on priests who abuse children.

Trautman said he supports a zero-tolerance policy that would prohibit any priest proven guilty of sexual abuse from serving in any form of ministry.

MacHutta was surprised the private meeting with Trautman ever took place. Prompted by stories of sexual abuse around the country, MacHutta earlier this year wrote to Trautman, detailing her experiences and inviting him to meet with her in Dallas.

In an e-mail response, Trautman offered condolences on behalf of the church and apologized for the church's failure to comfort MacHutta. At the time, he did not respond to MacHutta's request for a face-to-face meeting.

Then, in an April 10 interview with the Erie Times-News, Trautman appeared to backtrack from his e-mailed comments, saying he believed MacHutta's accusations might be false and that he had an obligation to defend the accused priest's "good name.'' Trautman said a review of the priest's file indicated no problems or complaints relating to sexual abuse.

Because 43 years had passed since the alleged abuse, Trautman said MacHutta should "cease and desist'' in regard to voicing the allegations.

A week before the Dallas meetings, Trautman called MacHutta and said he would meet with her.

"He was truly gracious for meeting with me, I'll give him that,'' MacHutta said. "He made the attempt, and I have to give him credit for that. This was an opportunity I never expected to have. What the fruits of it will be, I don't know.''

During the meeting, Trautman indicated he now believes her story, MacHutta said. He also confirmed to her another credible victim of the same priest had contacted him as well. MacHutta said Trautman apologized on behalf of the church and offered his prayers to victims of abuse.

"He acknowledged this priest was a bad apple,'' she said.

MacHutta said she is not seeking a financial settlement or counseling services. She said Trautman told her if other victims of the same priest come forward, the diocese might consider offering counseling.

Although encouraged by the meeting, MacHutta said she still wonders if Trautman and other bishops truly "get it'' when it comes to the long-term impact of abuse on victims.

"Even though they, themselves may not be responsible, there is still a responsibility the church has for victims of past abuse and for the cover-up and the silence,'' said MacHutta. "They just don't know what to do with us. The policies they are working on are going to protect the children of the future, which is a good thing, but they just don't have a plan for what to do about the problems of the past. They can't just pretend these problems didn't exist.''

MacHutta on Thursday took part in a march and candlelight vigil involving the sex-abuse victims who have gathered in downtown Dallas. This morning, she will attend a meeting that focuses on female victims of clergy sex abuse.

"I hope what I'm doing opens the doors for healing for other women who have been victimized so that they may experience the freedom from the shame of this,'' MacHutta said. "I hope God was using me to represent these same women to let the bishops know we existed, that women were abused, and that there was someone in Erie, Pa., who did do this.''


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