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  Breaking the Silence

Monterey County Herald
June 23, 2002

She was a 15-year-old sophomore at Santa Catalina School. He was a 40-year-old Trappist monk from Massachusetts leading a spiritual retreat. Their on-again, off-again affair, which ended when she was 28, shattered her faith. He went on to national prominence.

The case of Sarah Wilgress and Vincent Dwyer was one of nine that the Diocese of Monterey turned over to the Monterey County District Attorney's Office this month. It's a tale of seduction that Wilgress has come forward to tell 33 years after it began.

She feels bolstered by others across the nation who in the last few months have told their stories about being molested by priests. She feels vindicated by a $75,000 financial settlement she made with Dwyer's abbey after she complained about the affair.

She also still feels haunted by the memory of dropping out of school during her senior year because of depression over the illicit relationship. It took 22 years and several letters to Santa Catalina's longtime head of school, Sister Carlotta O'Donnell, before she got her diploma in December 1993.

Her inability to bring herself to finish school "really hurt," Wilgress said. "I felt robbed. So much was lost. I loved the school."

Wilgress is now a 49-year-old editor at CTB-McGraw Hill in Monterey. She looks back on the complicated entanglement with regret about having been "susceptible" to the priest's charms and repeatedly turning to him over the years when she was vulnerable.

Dwyer, now 73, has gone on to national prominence culminating in a recent award by a national organization of priests. He left St. Joseph's Abbey about five years ago for medical reasons, officials there say, and now lives with his brother.

A relative at the family home in Massachusetts said Dwyer is touring Europe and unable to be reached for comment about Wilgress' allegations or the payment she received as part of a 1995 settlement.

Wilgress hopes what started that spring of 1969 never happens to another student. From interviews, correspondence and personal notes, here is her account:

She was a willowy 15-year-old when Dwyer came into her life in March 1969. She was a boarding student at Santa Catalina, the prestigious girl's high school in Monterey. Her father had died when she was a baby. Her mother was the librarian at a boy's boarding school near Santa Barbara.

A serious girl, she adapted well to the academic discipline of Santa Catalina. She had thoughts of studying theology at Seattle University.

She'd had a few sweethearts, but had barely been kissed.

Wilgress was recovering from the shock of learning that previous summer that her long-dead father had committed suicide. That discovery intensified her feeling of fatherlessness.

Dwyer arrived at Santa Catalina, having been invited by school officials to lead a three-day retreat. Wilgress recalls him as sort of a Jason Robards figure with thinning brown hair and pale skin.

At 15, she was drawn to his articulate, thoughtful views on relationships, "compelling" eyes and ability to make her feel special.

Wilgress confided in a nun about her feelings of fatherlessness. The sister suggested she talk with Father Dwyer.

They met in confession, which involved strolling the campus and talking. Afterward, they sat in the school dining room and talked.

"I felt special and listened to," she recalled.

Dwyer gave her his East Coast address and telephone number, telling her to call him collect at any time.

Wilgress began corresponding with her new confidant by sending him a thank-you note.

Though she no longer has those first letters, she said, "Dwyer was the first person ever to say to me, 'I love you,' both on the telephone and in letters. He often wrote, 'You are unique in all the world,' and 'The fellow who marries you will have to pass a stiff examination test given by me.'"

Dwyer wrote frequently about the importance of openness, lovingness and affirmation.

Wilgress says the relationship became physical that summer, shortly after her 16th birthday.

Dwyer traveled to the Santa Barbara area to visit Wilgress and her mother for a few days. The evening he arrived, they all had dinner outside on the porch.

Dwyer held hands with her under the table and ran his hands over her legs, Wilgress recalled.

"I wasn't sure this was right," she wrote in an account of the relationship, "but I was hungry for the contact."

The next day they went to a hill that overlooks the school. She says they sat and talked, and he ran his hands over her body, under her shirt and inside her shorts -- but without making sexual contact.

She liked the show of affection and thought she had "finally discovered a father."

But she wondered whether it was right that he was touching her.

"Dwyer said that there were people who would not understand our relationship, would not see it as platonic," she remembered. "He said there would be some people who would call him 'a scoundrel of a priest.'"

Dwyer said that he was sexually aroused and expressed surprise. "He asked if I were aroused, and I didn't know what to say. I felt odd because I really wasn't sexually aroused, despite the touching, and I wondered if I should be," Wilgress said.

Late one evening, while they were on the porch, the priest kissed her.

She pulled away immediately, because she felt "an unmistakable surge of sexual energy travel between us."

Wilgress recalls: "I felt frightened and confused. I knew that there in the summer dark, some incredible sexual intensity, however momentary, had passed between us and changed me irrevocably."

Dwyer soon left. A few days later, she received a letter on United Airlines stationery. She recalls that it read, "I couldn't love you more even if you were my own wife." He also sent her a check for $100.

When she began her junior year at Santa Catalina that fall, Wilgress savored the memories of Dwyer but felt emotionally confused.

"I was very worried as to whether I'd ever be able to love anyone else," she said. She felt isolated because "this wasn't a love I could talk about."

The love letters continued. She was his rose, he wrote. He sent 17 of them on her 17th birthday.

In the summer of 1970, before her senior year, they met in Charlotte, N.C., where he was working at a university. She was on her way to Europe for a summer academic program.

She spent several days with him. She says their nights were filled with intimacy in bed -- but no intercourse.

Wilgress and Dwyer met up in London three weeks later. Wilgress said there was more physical intimacy but no intercourse.

That fall, Wilgress returned to Monterey and her senior year "tired and depressed. I slept whenever I could."

She struggled with her classes.

She told no one about Dwyer -- no family, friends or nuns. She kept writing to him, but felt "distanced" from him.

Inside, she said, "I wanted to die."

Her conscience continued to stab her. Twice she left school. The second time for good, just three months before graduation.

That fall, Wilgress enrolled in an experimental college in Ireland where she had an affair with her tutor, a man 15 years older than she. She wrote Dwyer and told him not to contact her.

Wilgress became pregnant, and in 1972 she and the tutor moved to California. There they had a son and married a few months later.

Wilgress was depressed, though, and felt her husband was not being supportive. The marriage ended in 1975, when Wilgress was 22.

The next year she re-established contact with Dwyer and began writing him. She told him of her troubles, and in 1977 saw him in San Francisco.

"Obviously, no one put a gun to my head" to contact him again, she admits, and takes responsibility for her "susceptibility" to his charms. But the continuation of contact, she said, was "a continuation of my original vulnerability" and exploitation.

In October 1981, Wilgress, 28, met the 53-year-old Dwyer for a weekend in New York. It was to be their last meeting -- and their most intimate.

"On (an) unconscious level, I saw it as a way of finishing off the power play that had taken root years before," she said.

She said they had sex several times.

"I could feel myself having to be very strong emotionally, for I knew instinctively that there would be no continuing with Dwyer," she recalled.

As they prepared to depart at the airport, Dwyer told her as much.

"He spoke of 'cloaking' the love," Wilgress recalled. "I don't know whether he meant secrecy or disguise or denial or a peculiar mixture of all three."

Wilgress said she returned home "with feelings of love" for Dwyer, but became more depressed as the months passed. She wrote him of her confusion. He assured her that because of the love she had received, she would be able to love someone else.

Wilgress became increasingly disillusioned with him, and wrote him less and less. She felt spiritual emptiness, and to this day has no interest in going to church.

In October 1991, when Wilgress was 38, she wrote to the 63-year-old Dwyer in a letter she calls "the letter of confrontation."

"I don't think you've meant to be evasive and irresponsible," she wrote, "but you might do well to examine some of your actions."

Later that month, Dwyer replied: "We both came from 'dysfunctional families,' and for me it has been a struggle to find adulthood and maturity. For a long time, which I never knew, I operated out of unfulfilled needs, manipulated people and events in order to secure whatever need was there."

Dwyer said he was still dealing with his own "brokenness."

"I ask you to give me space and time to deal with my own past as best I can," he wrote. "I hope you can find your way to both forgive and to let go of our past and to allow me to finish my journey in solitude."

That month, Wilgress returned to Santa Catalina to finally explain to Sister Carlotta why she had left so abruptly years before.

She said she told her former principal she had been in a "psycho-sexual" relationship with a priest, but never said how they had met or who he was.

Wilgress said she asked Sister Carlotta to "please, please be sure that this sort of thing didn't happen again." She said she also asked Sister Carlotta to consider giving her the diploma she had never received, because she had earned enough credits to graduate. She was told the request would be considered.

Wilgress said Sister Carlotta did not respond to several letters that she and her therapists sent to request the diploma.

Two years later, one of the therapists pressed for a meeting at the school. At that meeting, Wilgress told Sister Carlotta that the priest was Dwyer. The diploma arrived in the mail the next month.

Wilgress says her therapists told her getting the diploma was critical to restoring her self-esteem. Still, she says she remains irritated that the nun didn't seem more upset by her story. She said she felt brushed off when her letters to the sister were not returned.

Sister Carlotta, who is now 77, said this month she recalls little of either Dwyer or Wilgress' accusations against him.

"I had no reason not to believe her," she said. She added, "There were some friendship there (between us) and warmth when she spoke."

Retreats at Santa Catalina have changed since the one that brought Wilgress and Dwyer together, said Sister Carlotta and her successor, Sister Claire Barone. The retreats are mostly group events now, but there aren't any rules prohibiting one-on-one consultation sessions.

Sister Claire said Santa Catalina today would immediately report such allegations to law enforcement.

"There's heightened sensitivity ... to these matters," she said.

In 1994, hoping to get help paying for her therapy bills, Wilgress took her complaints about Dwyer to the Diocese of Monterey. She also hired a lawyer. Bishop Sylvester Ryan referred her case to Father Damian Carr, prior of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass.

According to a copy of the resulting out-of-court settlement dated June 21, 1995, the abbey agreed to pay Wilgress $75,000 in exchange for her silence and a waiver of any future liability.

"The parties and Father Vincent Dwyer agree to retain in confidence the terms of this agreement and release," it reads in part. "Ms. Wilgress-Jones will not disclose to any person any information regarding this settlement and release except, as appropriate and to the minimal extent necessary, her therapists, religious counselors, attorneys and family members."

But Wilgress said she has chosen to come forward, in part because she has been buoyed by the courage of abuse victims who have spoken out nationwide. She flew to Dallas this month to watch the U.S. Conference of Bishops debate changes in policy toward sexually abusive priests.

She said she also was motivated by her resentment of accolades that Dwyer has received.

The priest has become well-known within the church for his teachings on spiritual development and discovery and his books and tapes offered for sale on the St. Joseph's Abbey Web site. His works include "Lift your Sails: The Challenge of Being a Christian," "Spiritual Renewal Today" and a human and spiritual development program called "Genesis 2."

In 1998, Dwyer was the recipient of the President's Award from the National Federation of Priests' Councils. According to the federation's Web site, it is given for "an outstanding career exemplifying the best of priesthood."

 
 

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