A Family's Trial of Faith
Losing Eric

[Part 1of a 3-part series. See also 2. Family's Faith Is Shattered and 3. The Long Road to Recovery. For the background to this story, see Rick Thames, Ending the Hurtful Silence about Clergy Sexual Abuse]

By Stan Finger
Wichita Eagle
February 4, 2001

CONWAY SPRINGS, Kan. - Eric Patterson sat down on the long, patterned couch facing the fireplace and put one arm around his frightened grandmother.

The people in medical uniforms had come and taken away her ailing husband of more than 50 years, and Catherine Andra - her mind blurred by Alzheimer's - did not know why.

Using a set of beads that had been in the family for four generations, Eric began praying the rosary. As he thumbed the black beads, dulled by more than a century of use, Catherine joined in, her disease unable to erase her memory of the soothing, repetitive Catholic prayer.

Praying along as she sat nearby on that March day in 1999, Becky Leddy observed a side of her younger brother she had seen little of in recent years.

This was the Eric who liked to take the former owner of the house he grew up in out to eat so she could get a break from nursing-home food. Who created a game to entertain his bored kid sister, a game so popular that children around town still play it. Who read to shut-ins and taught religion classes to children.

This Eric, she said, "was something special."

For years now, however, she and her family had seen another side of Eric - a side that was painful and baffling.

That was an Eric who claimed that God told him his mother would die if he ate. Who could pick up and put down his toothbrush a dozen times or more and never get around to brushing his teeth.

Who could stare raptly at a picture of a stern-faced Jesus in the family dining room for minutes at a time, oblivious to anything around him.

"We're all standing here asking ourselves, 'What do we do?' " said Horace Patterson, Eric's father.

The answers to the riddle that was Eric Patterson would devastate his family and leave their deeply rooted faith in rubble.

The early years

Eric laughed and played through an idyllic childhood.

He was 3 years old when the family returned from California to his mother's hometown of Conway Springs, a community of 1,500 residents about 30 minutes southwest of Wichita.

Four years later, in 1977, his family moved to a house in the country. Eric, Becky, Luke and Catherine grew up together in that house next to Slate Creek north of town. Winters were filled with ice skating and snowball fights, summers splashed with swimming and fishing.

Sundays were for Mass and family gatherings. Meal times opened with prayers, and days closed with them. Religious paintings, angel figurines and statues of saints held prominent places in every room of the house - even the bathroom.

Eric was always tall and skinny for his age, and that made him shy and self-conscious. He was as tall as most adults by the time he was in third grade, and he didn't stop growing until he reached 6 feet 8 inches in college.

He loved to build things, whether crafting a snow fort or helping his father convert an old chicken coop into a photography darkroom.

"His snow forts wouldn't just be this wall you'd hide behind and throw snowballs from," Becky said. "They'd be these big rooms with tunnels connecti ng them. They were elaborate."

A new priest arrives

Three days before Eric celebrated his 12th birthday in September 1982, St. Joseph's Catholic Church was assigned a new priest: the Rev. Robert K. Larson. The new priest was a take-charge kind of guy who frowned at folks arriving late for Mass and parents who didn't quickly whisk bawling children to the cry room.

Eric was an experienced altar boy before Larson arrived, but the new priest demanded a precision from his altar boys that resembled choreography on stage. When Eric was asked to serve at the Jubilee Mass in the spring of 1983, celebrating Larson's 25 years as a priest, the Pattersons considered it an honor.

Weeks later, Larson was invited to the 45th wedding anniversary celebration for Eric's Grandpa and Grandma Andra and was given a place of honor at the head table.

Months after Larson arrived, Eric stopped smiling.

While browsing through some old family photos recently, Becky said, something struck her: "How weird it was to see him with a genuine smile."

By the time Eric reached high school, his eyes had lost their sparkle. His mouth had become a flat line.

The family saw so much of that expression they gave it a name: "The Look." But they weren't particularly worried.

"He didn't seem that different from other teenage kids," said Janet Patterson, his mother. "I knew at times that something just didn't seem right, but I couldn't put my finger on it. But a lot of parents feel that way about their teenage children."

The first real sign that Eric was struggling with something significant came on the night of the Conway Springs junior-senior prom in April 1988.

After the dance, he drove his blue Chevrolet Caprice to Oklahoma City before returning home shortly before dawn. He told his frantic parents he had meant to drive off the edge of the world.

"Eric, what's wrong?" Janet asked as she wept.

"I don't know," he said, between tears of his own. "I don't know."

Later that year, he announced he did not want to receive confirmation, the Catholic sacrament symbolizing a person's entry into spiritual adulthood.

In heavily Catholic Conway Springs, he was the only member of his high school class not to do so.

"I don't even know if I believe in God," he explained.

That should have been a warning, Janet says now. At the time, she saw it as another example of Eric standing up for his beliefs - something he had never been afraid to do.

'They don't want me'

After graduating from high school, Eric began attending Kansas State University. He parachuted from airplanes and played bass guitar in a rock band he formed and named "Chemical God." Childhood friends barely recognized Eric from his behavior and found themselves asking, "What next?"

As part of the Spanish degree he was earning at K-State, Eric went to Monterrey, Mexico, during his sophomore year. He fell in love with a local girl. While he was home in Kansas on Christmas break, she died while undergoi ng surgery.

His family never saw him cry.

"He felt very, very distraught - you knew he was - but he was emotionally numb in a way," Janet said.

A year later, after another relationship ended, Eric crashed his car in Emporia. Doctors at the Hertzler Clinic in Halstead treated him for depressi on.

Returning to Manhattan, Eric began studying religion and going to Mass every day. That spring, he asked his parents to come to the campus for an announcement: He wanted to become a priest.

He applied to the Legionnaires of Christ in Connecticut and was accepted into the 10-week candidacy program for potential seminarians. With his mother's help, Eric bought a hunter-green blazer for the graduation and sendoff party his family threw for him before he left K-State for the seminary in the summer of 1993.

In a letter home not long after his arrival, Eric wrote, "Everything is going well, and it's starting to become clearer each day that this is my life."

Absorbed in prayer and contemplation on the secluded campus, Eric seemed at peace for the first time in years, his mother said. In his last letter home from the seminary, he confidently predicted he would be accepted.

On the final day of his candidacy in August, Eric was called to the director's office and told he had not been accepted into the seminary.

He was devastated.

Unaware of the school's decision, Eric's parents, Luke and Catherine picked him up at the airport the next day. As they headed home, the family happily filled Eric in on what he had missed during the two months he had been gone. The conversation hit a lull as the car crossed over the Ninnescah River near the Sedgwick County line.

"So, Eric," Janet asked, "where are they sending you to study?"

Eric paused for a moment in the back seat.

"They don't want me," he said flatly.

Janet did a double-take in the front seat.

"What do you mean, they don't want you?"

"I don't know. They just don't want me."

Janet called the seminary in search of answers. She said a representative of the school told her Eric was rejected because when he was asked whether he wanted to become a priest, he hesitated before he answered "yes."

"I told them, 'You've got to be kidding,' " Janet said. "That's the lamest excuse I've ever heard."

Jay Dunlap, communications director for the seminary, would not discuss Eric's case but said, "There aren't very many in the world that have the Legionnaire vocation. We seek to find those who have been truly given this gift by God."

'We hate your God'

Seeking a new path for his life, Eric remembered how much he had enjoyed teaching religion to children while at K-State.

He spent the fall substitute-teaching at public schools in Conway Springs, Argonia and Clearwater. He then accepted a job at Maur Hill Prep School in Atchison that winter. He taught English to students from Colombia and earned his teaching certificate.

But his bouts with depression returned - and reached new depths.

Every morning, according to his therapist's notes, he scrubbed his skin red in cold showers that lasted for hours, bracing himself for a classroom he was terrified he could not control.

Eric lasted only a few weeks into his second full year at Maur Hill before Horace and Janet went to Atchison to bring him home in September 1996. Relatives had found him in the front yard of his rental house, staring up at the sky as if he were conversing with someone.

He had stopped taking his antidepressants. He had lost so much weight from fasting that Becky said he looked like the survivor of a concentration camp.

He refused to eat even after he returned home to Conway Springs. God, he explained, had told him Mom would die if he ate. The family told him not to listen to those voices.

"We told him, 'We hate your God,' " said Becky, his sister.

The God they knew was loving and compassionate, she told him, not vengeful and demanding.

Days later, Eric was admitted to Charter Hospital in Wichita for nearly a month of treatment. Doctors told the family that severe fasting changes brain chemistry so much that people can come to believe they're hearing voices.

Eric's illness was diagnosed as severe depression with psychotic tendenci es, but doctors told the family they weren't really sure what was wrong.

Eric resumed taking his medication, started eating regularly, began working at an electronics store and rented an apartment in Wichita. A local woman he met on the Internet came to see him at the store and bought a computer.

Their first date was in May 1998 at the Wichita River Festival, and they were engaged within three weeks.

But it all came apart the following January. He broke up with his fiancee, was struggling with his supervisor at work and felt himself spiraling into the depths of a depression so deep that he told Becky he was afraid he would be confined to a mental hospital for the rest of his life.

Only days later, in early February, Eric was sobbing uncontrollably as he sat in a chair in his parents' living room. Janet held one hand and Becky the other. A close friend sat at his feet, desperately trying to console him. Nothing helped.

"I'd never seen anyone in so much pain," Janet said.

'Oh, my gosh'

Later that night, Eric was admitted to the psychiatric unit of Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Joseph Campus. Days passed with no hint why Eric was in such agony. Family members were desperate.

Becky groped for answers as Eric meandered around the stark hospital room. She wondered aloud about Eric's perception of a demanding God who was never satisfied.

"I asked him if he had always had this relationship with God," she said. "And he said, 'No, it all changed when I was 12.' "

That struck Becky as a strange answer, and she told him so. Eric drifted to a corner of the room, turned his back on her and jammed his hands in his pockets.

"Well," he replied flatly, talking to the wall, "when I was 12, Father Larson practically raped me.' "

He looked to Becky like a little boy who believed he had done something wrong and expected to be punished.

After he had been molested, Eric told her, he had spent years running from God - until he'd turned around in college and begun making his way back.

When they were finished talking, Becky found Eric's nurse and told her what she had learned.

She then headed home to Conway Springs in a trance. It was after 11 p.m. when she reached her parents' home, but she knew they'd still be up.

Horace and Janet were both reading in bed when Becky burst into their room and shared what Eric had told her.

"Oh, my gosh," Janet said, her eyes filling with tears. "Oh, my gosh."

The next day, Janet drove to diocesan headquarters near Central and Broadway and asked to see the Rev. Robert Hemberger, whom she had grown up with in Conway Springs.

She leafed through magazines in the waiting room for an hour and a half, mulling over what she wanted to say. When he emerged from a meeting, Hemberger took her around the corner to a small conference room lined with bookshelves and dominated by a long table.

When Janet told him what her son claimed Larson had done, Hemberger said, "I had no idea he had touched anyone at Conway Springs."

Larson had been removed from the pulpit in April 1988. Hemberger told her that he had been sent out of state for treatment and stripped of his priestly duties, and that he was no longer considered a threat.

Janet says Hemberger also told her that Larson had been the subject of abuse reports elsewhere in the diocese. She says she was so shocked, she did not press for details.

Hemberger denies mentioning other abuse reports to Janet. Any such statemen ts, he said, would have been a violation of diocesan policy.

Last August, four men told The Eagle that Larson had molested them while they were under his supervision or served as altar boys at parishes where he worked. The claims prompted criminal investigations in Sedgwick and Harvey counties.

Larson has been charged in Harvey County with a half-dozen crimes related to incidents that allegedly happened between 1984 and 1986 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton. A plea agreement has been reached in the case. Details will be announced at a plea hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Harvey County District Court in Newton, court officials said.

Larson declined repeated interview requests from The Eagle.

'Are you sick?'

The night after Eric told her in February 1999 that Larson had molested him, Becky met Janet at Via Christi-St. Joseph to visit Eric.

They discovered he had been placed on suicide watch in the acute-care center. Only minutes after Becky had left the night before, Eric had been found lying on the floor of his room, pounding his head against the tile.

More than a month passed before Eric went home. His parents set up a bed in the long, narrow room on the west side of their house. Nicknamed "the baby's room" when Catherine was born in 1983, it became a nursery again - this time for Eric, who needed almost constant care and supervision.

Meal times became a source of conflict as the family struggled to get Eric to eat.

"There were times I would just want to grab him and shake him and say, 'Eric, what in the hell are you doing?' " Horace said.

Over time, Eric's health and state of mind improved, and he returned to work at the electronics store. That summer, as a reward for Eric's recovery, much of the family took a trip to England and Scotland.

When they returned, Eric moved into a small brick house near Wichita State University with Trent Eakle, a buddy from work.

Eric's family hoped it was a sign that he was getting better, but Trent could tell immediately that Eric was struggling. He halted conversations in midsentence. His mind seemed miles away much of the time. His moods swung dramatically, especially near the end of October.

When Trent came home for lunch on Oct. 28, Eric "had one of those looks on his face like he'd been caught doing something he wasn't supposed to, like he was digging through my stuff or something."

Trent kept a Colt .45 under his bed, but he never suspected Eric would use it. Eric had remained a staunch Catholic even after he was rejected for the seminary, and for years the church taught that anyone who committed suicide went to hell. The church has since softened its stance.

Eric left the house, drove out to his parents' farm and was lying down when Horace got home from work. They talked briefly, then Eric left, driving slowly out the driveway.

As Horace watched from the back door of the house, Eric stopped and backed up. He got out and petted Buddy, the family dog, for a few minutes before slowly driving away.

When Eric returned to Wichita, he stayed in his room almost the entire evening. Knocking on his bedroom door, Trent asked, "Are you sick?"

"Nah," Eric replied. "I just want to be in my room."

The next day, Eric came home from work for lunch. A neighbor noticed him sitting on the porch steps, smoking a cigarette.

On his way home from work hours later, Trent stopped at a convenience store to gas up his truck. He bought some beer, too, hoping a few brews and laughs would lift his roommate's spirits.

He noticed Eric's car in front of the dark house. The door to Eric's bedroom was shut, but Trent didn't think anything of it as he checked the answering machine in his bedroom.

There was one message: Eric's manager had called and wanted to know why he wasn't at work.

"I knocked on the door, asked if he was OK," Trent said. "I didn't hear anything, so I cracked the door open."

At first, Trent thought Eric had suffered a nosebleed and passed out.

Then he turned on the light.

Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or

-- Eric Patterson was the only member of his high school CCD class at St. Joseph's Catholic Church who chose not to receive confirmation, the Catholic sacrament symbolizing passage into spiritual adulthood. A story in Sunday's paper was incorrect.


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