|Memo: Inside Story
Ending the Hurtful Silence about Clergy Sexual Abuse
By Rick Thames
On Tuesday, Robert K. Larson is set to appear in a Harvey County courtroom to answer to charges related to his alleged sexual abuse of four altar boys when he was a Catholic priest in the 1980s.
There is a fifth former altar boy whose story will not be heard in that courtroom. The story involves no criminal charges against Larson but has much to do with why he will stand before a judge.
It is the story of Eric Patterson, whose death compelled his family to draw attention to Larson in the first place. The story begins today on Page 1A and continues through Tuesday. [See 1. Losing Eric, 2. Family's Faith Is Shattered, and 3. The Long Road to Recovery.]
This is a painful and tragic story. I can't imagine anyone not finding it difficult to read. Yet we believe it holds potentially vital insights into the uniquely destructive nature of sexual abuse by a person in a position of religious authority. Those insights may yet help others.
That, in fact, is what motivated Eric's family to tell his story.
"My only thoughts are for the people who have been sexually abused, including victims of clergy sexual abuse," said Eric's sister, Becky Leddy. "I hope this will help them realize that there are other people out there going through this. You are not alone. Reach out to others. This is not your fault or something to be ashamed of."
It was one year ago this month that we first heard about Eric. A family member came to our offices looking for 20-year-old news clippings on Larson. Eagle librarian Deb Bagby struck up a conversation as she helped. That's when she learned that Eric had committed suicide three months earlier and that the family believed Larson had sexually abused him as a child.
A short time later, the phone rang at reporter Stan Finger's desk, two floors up in our building. It was Deb.
"Stan," she said. "I think I have a story for you."
The family member had given Deb a telephone number and agreed to take a call. Stan talked to family members off and on for more than a month thereafter before they decided to speak publicly about Eric's life.
"They were worried that people would think they were just going after the church," Stan said, "that they were just feeling sorry for themselves."
A devout Catholic, Stan well understood their fears.
"People have asked me that, as a Catholic, how could I write about this?" Stan said. He quoted Jesus from the Gospel of John (14:6). "'I am the way, the truth and the life.' I go to Mass with a clean conscience because I know we were seeking the truth."
Not that Stan didn't lose sleep. Eric's ordeal led him and photographer Randy Tobias to numerous other alleged victims. Listening to these men pour out years of pain proved to be the toughest part of the story - their loss of innocence, sense of betrayal, shaken faith.
"We'd spend five, six hours in interviews and come home drained by their stories of suffering," he said. "Once you'd heard it, it was hard to get out of your mind."
Last August, Stan and Randy published a story and photos based on the accounts of four of those men. [See Stan Finger, Ex-Area Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse.] That prompted more to come forward, including the men whose allegations now are the basis of the charges Larson faces in Harvey County. In all, Stan has talked to more than a dozen alleged victims from Harvey, Sedgwick and Sumner counties, where Larson was assigned to parishes over a period of more than 20 years.
In response to the story, Bishop Eugene Gerber of the Wichita Diocese issued an apology to all victims of clergy abuse and urged victims to come forward for help. The diocese also revised its policies to begin notifying parishes after substantiated reports of abuse.
In October, Bishop Gerber wrote a four-part series in the diocese newspaper explaining the church's policies on sex abuse and suggesting ways parents can protect their children. Other dioceses have contacted Wichita for permission to reprint the series in their own newspapers.
"It's an opportune time for people to learn and to heal, and I'd like to be part of that in any way I can," the bishop told The Eagle.
Thankfully, healing has begun for many victims. Some have sought counseli ng. Others have told us that their lives changed for the better simply because they finally realized that what happened was neither acceptable nor their fault. Perhaps the sister of one put it best when she told Stan:
"I've got my brother back. He's the guy I knew when I was a kid. He'd been gone for 30 years."
Reach Rick Thames at 268-6694 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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