Bishop Accountability

Devout and defiled
While male victims of predatory priests dominate the headlines, abused girls and women suffer in silence

By Mary Papenfuss
January 9, 2003

It wasn't until Terrie Light had children of her own that she revealed her darkest secret: She had been raped, at the age of 8, by a priest in the rectory of a church in the Oakland Diocese.

"It was a violent, sadistic attack. I kept it inside of me for years," says the 51-year-old mother of six. "When my oldest son turned 7, I couldn't ignore it any longer. I was a good Catholic girl -- obedient, respectful. I always felt guilty because I was pretty. I tried not to be attractive because I thought that being attractive was somehow sinful. I think a lot of sex abuse victims were good Catholic girls."

Light, the Northern California representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with the church, hopes a new California law suspending the statute of limitations on sex abuse will give others like her the courage to finally come forward and begin to shift national attention in the burgeoning clerical abuse scandal to include a hidden but major population of victims -- women.
Abuse survivors, along with their attorneys and psychologists, say that sexism and social conditioning, magnified many times over within the Catholic Church, have led to the trivialization of harm suffered by women who have come forward to finally report abuse by priests. At the same time, these same factors have caused women to be ashamed -- and keep silent -- about their experiences.

"There's no question that abuse of women [by priests] has been vastly underreported," says A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist who has studied priests' sex lives for more than 30 years. "There's a tremendous bias against women in the U.S. -- and the world -- and a tremendous callousness about sexual abuse against women."

No secular organization has statistics on the total number of people abused by priests; the most complete numbers are held by church officials, who aren't sharing. But attorneys and survivor networks estimate that from one-third to over a half of all victims of sexually abusive priests are women. And criminal cases filed in the last year in Los Angeles County involve approximately the same number of male and female victims.

Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist whose Minneapolis Walk-in Counseling Center has worked on more than 2,000 cases of clerical sex abuse, says the majority of clerical abusers that he and his staff deal with (from several denominations) victimize girls and women. Yet, he says, public perception is that far more males are abused, and that the harm they suffer is more serious than what females experience.

"Women and girls are every bit as much at risk as boys and men," says Schoener. "But the sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more seriously, and is considered a far worse offense. Men are regarded as too strong to be victims; their victimization is somehow more shocking to the public. Women are expected to put up with more.

"The press also tends to cover -- and the big damage awards go to -- the boy cases," he adds. "The altar boy cases tend to make better copy -- they're more salacious."

Schoener says notorious, headline-grabbing cases of "gross mismanagement" in places like Boston, where predatory priests were moved from one parish to another and given easy access to large numbers of altar boys, tend to distort the real picture of sex abuse in the church.

To begin with, women appear less likely to report abuse, says Schoener. The shame of sexual abuse is similar for both genders, but women tend to be "trashed" by church officials and supporters as being seductresses, he says. "We have seen girls as young as 10 portrayed as sirens." Reporting sex abuse also tends to have more serious ramifications for a woman's marriage.

"A lot of men blame their wives for abuse and are shocked by the sexual history," says Schoener. "Societal preoccupation with virginity at the time of marriage cuts across many cultures. It's mind-bending."

An important factor in the underreporting by women, and their greater emphasis on shame, says Schoener and others, comes from the idea that women in the Catholic Church toil in the shadow of Eve. Just as Eve is portrayed by the church as being responsible for original sin and leading Adam astray, so too are tantalizing teenage girls characterized as responsible for some priests' downfall.

"The church is so dominated by men that there's a tendency to portray girls as provoking the crimes against themselves. The depositions read like rape cases used to: Did you enjoy it? What were you wearing?" reports Susan Gallagher, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Gallagher won a $250,000 settlement after being sexually abused at the age of 14 by the Rev. Frank Nugent, a priest who ran a youth camp in Ellenville, N.Y., for the Salesian Catholic order. Nugent also worked at the Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey, N.J. He was later transferred to Massachusetts. "There's also a homophobic view that sex with girls is somehow more natural, that some of these priests were just being red-blooded American men."

This attitude was epitomized by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago when he spoke out last spring against a zero-tolerance policy for sexually abusive priests. Indicating that sex between priests and teenage girls is somehow more forgivable, he said: "There is a difference between a moral monster like [Boston priest] John Geoghan and a priest who, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, is involved with a 17-year-old girl who returns his affections. Both are crimes, but in terms of the possibility of reform, they are very different sets of circumstances."

Adult women who have been abused face the toughest fight of any, Schoener believes. Their abuse by priests -- often during spiritual or marital counseling sessions -- wins little public attention compared to abuse of children. In addition, they are often held responsible for the relationship.

The pattern of lawsuit filings also shows that suits tend to be filed primarily on behalf of men, according to several attorneys. Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who is considered the nation's predominant litigator in Catholic clergy sex-abuse cases, says that of the 700 cases he has filed, about two-thirds of the victims are male and one-third are female. That's the opposite ratio of sex-abuse cases in the general population, where two-thirds of the victims are female and one-third male.

"Women have been discouraged culturally, and especially by the Catholic Church, from reporting abuse," says Anderson. "Often, when they go to a church leader to talk about an assault, they are rebuked rather than helped." Anderson's own daughter was assaulted at age 8 by a former priest -- during therapy. "I had no idea until I had been doing this work for 10 years," he said. "She suffered for years in silence and shame." His daughter's perpetrator was successfully prosecuted, he said, but "she still wears the scars very painfully."

Many of those who are convinced that abuse of women by priests is vastly underreported still suspect that, overall, more males than females have been abused by priests, primarily because priests have more access to boys after Mass and in sports programs. "It's easier for priests to spend time -- and time alone -- with boys," says Gallagher.

In fact, many abusive priests are alleged to have attacked children of both sexes, which is evidence that opportunity is a key factor when it comes to which children are victimized. "Of thousands of cases across the country that I'm familiar with, a significant number of priests abuse both boys and girls," says Sipe. "It's a question of who they can get their hands on."

Gallagher said her older brother, Patrick, was repeatedly abused by her abuser. Patrick, who Susan said had become suicidal because of the abuse, died at 25 in an accident driving a car owned by Nugent's order, the Salesians.

The public impression that abusive priests preyed only on boys hasn't just caused abused women to feel pushed aside. It has provided fuel for a drive on the part of conservative Catholics to rid the priesthood of gay men, who, Sipe estimates, make up about a third of the priesthood. The focus on boys is encouraged by the Vatican, says Sipe, and is seen to provide convenient scapegoats -- gay priests -- for a problem that has nothing to do with the issue.

In the Vatican's first comments about the developing American scandal last spring, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, said gay men should be barred from the priesthood. "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," he said.

The public perception that sex-abuse victims in the church are almost exclusively men is so distorted, says Gallagher, that men who attend SNAP meetings are surprised to find women there -- and women are astonished that they are not alone in a sea of men. This sense of isolation only serves to keep women silent about their abuse, says Gallagher.

Gallagher says that even when women have the courage to come forward and publicize their abuse, they are often shunned. She says she has protested repeatedly about the lack of coverage of female victims of priest sex abuse. She took her complaints to the Boston Globe, which spearheaded coverage of the Boston priest abuse scandals, but the paper, she said, failed to cover her story despite several interviews. Gallagher then turned to the New York Times, which did run a story about her abuse.

Meanwhile, a Globe ombudsman responded to Gallagher's complaints, saying that a story about female victims of priest sex abuse was on its "to-do list" and that "a four-person reporting team can only do so much." The Globe finally did a story on Dec. 27 about female victims in the Boston Archdiocese -- almost nine months after the Times.

"If by [the Globe's] own admission as many as a third of the victims are female, I don't think a single story does it," says Gallagher. "The press has to keep up coverage of female victims so that more people come forward. I told my story because I thought it would do some good -- that others would see Father Nugent's name and come forward. He was working for years with children."

Gallagher says she knows victims so mortified by their experiences that they're "waiting for their parents to die" before they'll come forward. Light says she was relieved when her attacker died. She remained frightened of him even into adulthood. "These priests seemed almost supernatural to us when we were children," she said.

The amount of fear, shame and self-loathing experienced by victims of abusive priests has tended to be the same regardless of the victims' genders, says Schoener. And the patterns of abuse also are similar. Attorney Michael Meadows of Walnut Creek, Calif., says he consistently finds eerie parallels in the cases of male and female clients.

"It's uncanny how similar these cases are," he says. "These kids were abused at 12 or 13. They're singled out by priests as being from broken or troubled homes. They're least likely to have someone to turn to. Then it gets buried for years and years. Their lives deteriorate. At some point in their late 20s or mid- to late 30s they hit rock bottom. That's when they confront what happened to them, but under the statute of limitations it's usually too late."

The statute of limitations often means that cases are lost before they're even filed because of a "technicality," says Meadows. "These people have lives with a deep, dark secret for years. It doesn't mean these people suffered any less because time has passed. These are some of the most psychologically damaged people you can imagine."

But the new California law, the first of its kind in the nation, has suspended the statute of limitations on all sex-abuse cases in the state for one year as of Jan. 1, 2003. The law came before the California Legislature last summer at the height of the Boston scandal and passed without opposition. Last month, church officials in California issued a letter to priests and parishioners warning them of an expected flood of lawsuits.

"Some of these lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead," said the letter. "Under those circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth." Church officials have indicated they're willing to settle many cases without a court fight.

Jeffrey Anderson is joining with attorneys Dave and Larry Divron in Stockton, Joe George in Sacramento, and Ray Boucher in Southern California, to file some 250 suits in California during the coming year. "We expect more as victims see their abusers' names in the press and continue to come forward," says Divron. The chances are good that many women will be among the plaintiffs.

Meadows, who plans to file seven cases representing clients ranging in age from 30 to 52, welcomes the California law and says financial compensation does help, but doesn't go far enough. "It's one small step on the road to recovery," he says. "But there'd be nothing better than to see some of these guys behind bars.

"You read the documents and it's the same over and over," he says. "Abusive priests were moved from one church to another with no word of warning to anyone. You wonder, where was the one man of conscience looking out for the kids?"

About the writer: Mary Papenfuss is deputy senior editor of the Life section of Salon.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.