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  Forgiveness Begins Healing: Women Absolve Priest: Marists Reach out to Molestation Victims after 40 Years

By Gayle White
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
October 25, 2003

They are women in their 50s, but they cried for the little girls within who were abused by a priest they trusted.

At a home in Norcross on Friday, eight women forgave the priest from the Marist order who molested them and absolved the Catholic Church that failed to protect them 40 years ago.

The Rev. Dennis Steik, head of the Atlanta province of the Marist order, presented each woman with a $25,000 check along with a tiny gold cross decorated with a red rose --- a symbol, he said, of sacrifice, pain and resurrection. He also gave each woman a ceramic statue of Jesus with children at his knee. "They're little things," he told them, "but a lot of love comes with them."

As settlements go, theirs was small. But they are convinced their spiritual healing dwarfs most others.

Some of the women hugged or kissed Steik as they received their gifts. Some wept into the shoulder of his black clerical shirt.

Steik himself choked with tears during the ceremony as he apologized to the women --- some there with family.

"That was one of our own that abused you as little girls," he said.

The women and two others covered by the agreement were molested by the Rev. Clarence Biggers, who was a Marist priest when they were students at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Marietta. As a nationwide scandal of sex abuse rocked the Catholic Church last year, some of the women acknowledged to their families and one another for the first time that they had been victims of Biggers. He now lives at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where he is in ill health and has not been available for interviews.

The Marists never disputed the allegations. Steik had found a letter in the files of the order from some of the women's parents complaining about Biggers in the early 1960s.

One of the abused women, Ellie Harold, is now a minister in the Unity Church. The settlement came 18 months after she initiated conversations with Steik. When she learned the Marists had set aside money for therapy for Biggers' victims, she suggested dividing the amount among all the women to use as they wish. The Marists consented.

Other Catholic institutions have recently agreed to huge financial settlements: $25.7 million to settle nearly 250 lawsuits in Louisville, Ky.; $4 million to four men in Chicago; and $85 million to 552 plaintiffs in Boston, the center of the crisis. Other religious orders have also paid: $2.1 million from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to two brothers in California, matching $2.1 million they were paid by the Diocese of San Bernardino in July.

The Marists are a religious order of priests not under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, but St. Joseph's Church and School were. As part of their agreement with the Marists, the women promised not to file lawsuits against the order or the archdiocese.

But both Steik and Harold wanted something more meaningful than a monetary exchange and planned the service at Harold's home.

The $25,000 "is not a huge amount, I know," Steik told the women. "It's only a token. I know no amount of money could make up for the injury that was done to you as a little girl."

"It's not the amount of money," said Harold. "It's the spirit in which it's been given that allows us to open our hearts and receive it in good will."

Steik's remarks moved Pattie Hunter Bagley of Marietta. "To have him stand up in front of a whole group and say he knew we were all telling the truth, that each of us had been harmed in some way, was very healing," she said.

Bagley's mother, Jeannette Hunter, wept. "Almost all these girls came to my home," she said. "They were like my own children. I just feel blessed that I was here to see this."

The childhood friends have now renewed their friendships.

"I treasure the community of other survivors and thrivers," said Cat Sherlock of Norcross. "We've all taken turns sustaining each other."

The women read a liturgy releasing Biggers, the Marists, the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Monastery and St. Joseph's Church and School "to their divine destiny."

They also promised to "forgive and free" themselves.

For Kate Swiatek, a nurse from Decatur, that notion was the most meaningful.

"I feel forgiven," she said, from "a general sense that there's something wrong with me, that I've done something."

"All my life I've thought I didn't deserve to be happy," said flight attendant Pat Hajduk Gerth. "It all went back to this. Now the little girl in me says, 'I'm good enough to be happy.' "

 
 

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