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  Stolen Memories

By Lona O'Connor
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
December 12, 2004

Fourteen years after his wife Pat's death, Bob Hittel still lives under her spell.

Their home is infused with her presence. There she is in a black and white picture, the pretty teenager he fell in love with in 1942. In a photograph from middle age, with her thick brown wavy hair turned snow white, she was even more luminous.

Days after her death in 1990, Bob Hittel wrote to Pat's mother, calling their marriage "a fairy tale of love enduring all obstacles."

He soon discovered that his fairy tale had a dark underbelly of secrets, loathing and disgust.

Two months after Pat Hittel died, her husband discovered a diary she had secretly kept for years, hundreds of handwritten pages detailing her passionate love for another man. Although she carefully never mentioned his name, Hittel is sure his wife was writing about Frank Flynn, the family priest.

In the diary, she wrote about her husband of 47 years - and the man who displaced him in her heart:

"He loved me in a quiet way, not real exciting, but I knew I would be taken care of. But as I grew older I realized my inner life was not loved and never had been. Then I met him, oh so loving and exciting. I loved him oh so purely at first. I knew he loved me. He saw a piece of my heart and took it as his own. Oh Lord, how we loved in those first years. My love, my priest. I treasured our intimate talks, our love words to each other."

Pat Hittel was in remission from lymphoma when she met Flynn, a charming, warm-hearted priest, at St. John the Baptist parish in Fort Lauderdale.

Two years later, Flynn was transferred to St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral in Palm Beach Gardens. Pat Hittel followed Flynn, regularly traveling more than 50 miles north to attend Mass and to study with Flynn for her college courses in religion.

Frank Flynn's name hit the headlines in 2002, after Palm Beach Diocese officials revealed they settled two sexual abuse lawsuits involving him.

Over a period of 20 years in Palm Beach County, several women accused him of sexual misbehavior. Flynn was moved out of his position at St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral in 1989 after a woman he counseled said he had seduced her and initiated an affair.

After church-ordered psychological treatment, he returned as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lake Worth from 1990 until 1997, when the diocese settled a complaint made by a female parishioner there. As a result, he was permanently removed from the diocese.

In an interview for this story, Flynn denied he seduced Pat Hittel. He said he was prohibited from discussing the two cases that the diocese settled.

Lays blame at church's door

Some might say justice was done, but Bob Hittel is not satisfied.

He is convinced his wife died of a broken heart, as chewed up by guilt and ugly secrets as by the cancer that officially killed her. He faults the Catholic Church for tolerating priests who are unscrupulous or poorly trained and take advantage of lonely and isolated parishioners.

Hittel's house, which he built in 1954 in Fort Lauderdale for his new bride, is now frozen in time.

A widower's house, it longs for the touch of a woman. Christmas candlesticks, coated with melted red wax from last year, still sit on the dining room table. They are barely visible, though, among the stacks of photos, diary pages and letters Hittel has kept.

These are the scattered pieces of Hittel's life. He keeps shuffling and rearranging them in an attempt to make sense of what happened to him.

"How can I keep track of all of this?" he asks in dismay, surveying piles of photos from 47 years of marriage, the handsome couple on the beach in California or sharply dressed for a festive dinner.

Dozens of love letters that Pat Hittel wrote Bob when he was stationed in Europe in World War II.

Family portraits. A few snapshots of Flynn.

And hundreds of diary pages, torn out of Pat's notebooks, which Hittel reassembled in rough chronological order, carefully re-read and annotated. On page after page, he wrote "FLYNN" in the margin by every entry that seemed to refer to the defrocked priest.

After he found his wife's diaries, and against the advice of family and friends, Hittel tried to expose what he thinks happened to his wife.

He confronted Flynn.

"He jumped up like a wild man, swearing on a Bible that it was nothing physical. That gave him away. It meant to me that he had a sexual relationship with my wife. At our second talk, he claimed the same thing. He also said when she got too attentive, he pushed her away, but it was too late. Now he denies knowing anything about her love for him."

Hittel later wrote to Flynn: "I knew of her devotion to you but I trusted both you and her completely. Physically she remained at home but her heart was not with her family or me."

Dismissed by the bishop

Hittel visited Palm Beach Bishop Keith Symons, who dismissed him, saying that anything that happened between a priest and a woman was a matter between "consenting adults," Hittel says.

Shortly afterward, Symons left his post in disgrace, after admitting that he had molested boys.

Hittel wrote to his wife's doctor, in whom she had confided. The doctor advised him to walk away from the diary.

"I recall being vaguely aware of her feelings about a certain priest and decided that it was all woven into her fantasy life," the doctor wrote to Hittel. "I would strongly recommend that you accept the priest's version, as it coincides with my own."

Hittel wanted to sue the diocese but never found a lawyer willing to take his case.

"I still think a case could be made. This is like hypnotizing somebody and telling them what to do," he said.

He was unable to interest an author in writing his wife's story.

In his quest to explain to himself what happened to his wife, Hittel delved into the murky realm of the unconscious. A scholar by avocation, he educated himself on transference, the process by which people can become deeply emotionally involved with a counselor or priest. They are then vulnerable to be misled, manipulated or even seduced.

"This is a case of transference that destroyed," he said. "How do you help somebody - you get them to spill their guts and say things they don't even know. It's the same thing that happens with the boys and the priests. It's a dangerous thing that takes place. (Church officials) claim no responsibility for the personal feelings of the parishioner or the priest," he said. "They cover up this problem as they do many others."

Despite being rebuffed at every turn, he still believes that Flynn used the power of his position as priest and confessor to seduce his emotionally vulnerable wife.

Hopes to save others

With his health failing and his options narrowing, Hittel turned over his wife's notebooks and his own papers to The Palm Beach Post, hoping to draw attention to what he believes is the unethical use of transference by some priests to exploit their parishioners sexually. He says his only hope now is to prevent others from similar entanglements.

"I feel that my wife would have died in vain if I do not try to expose this," says Hittel.

He is an 82-year-old man robbed of his happy memories.

"There are things that are worse than death. What I'm going through, I would trade it for death at the snap of finger," he says.

He sits alone in his quiet house, the walls covered by decades of smiling photos of his beautiful wife. On the dining room table are the two ring binders containing her diaries.

He still lies awake nights, revisiting all the occasions when his wife and Flynn were together behind closed doors while he waited outside in his car. He calls himself stupid for not realizing what was going on right in front of him.

"He praised her and told her she was beautiful. She became addicted to this as if she was on dope. She considered her life with me and her family as a wasted time. She had to believe this to continue her love affair, her addiction. Listen, he was finally sent to a remote little parish by Daytona Beach. When I would drive her back and forth to Jacksonville for her (cancer) treatments, we would stop at this little parish and she would get out and go and close the door in a room with him."

Flynn locked the door to Pat Hittel's bedroom when he read her the last rites, Hittel says.

Flynn denies that the door was locked.

Hittel still wears his simple gold wedding band.

"I was with Pat 47 years. We had one beautiful life together. Now that she is gone, I find I existed only for her."

 
 

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