Family's Faith Is Shattered
Sense of Betrayal

[Part 2 of a 3-part series. See also 1. Losing Eric 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 5, 2001

The story so far: Eric Patterson's idyllic childhood gives way to a haunted life wracked with depression, eating disorders and mental anguish his family struggles to understand. Today: Stung by tragedy, the Pattersons reel from more devastating news that changes the way they live. Tuesday: Searching for good to emerge from a series of crushing developments, the Pattersons seek meaning as they try to rebuild their lives.

CONWAY SPRINGS, Kan. - One by one, family members turned down the long gravel road linking Horace and Janet Patterson's farm with K-49 north of town, responding to a message from their Aunt Betty that could only mean bad news.

"Come home."

Catherine was baby-sitting for her sister, Becky Leddy, who was at a Halloween party at a friend's farmstead.

Becky didn't even bother to change out of her cavewoman costume or to take the bone out of her hair.

Luke had just arrived in town after a spontaneous trip to Los Angeles.

"I can just remember sitting here, waiting for the next pair of headlights to come down the driveway," Becky said, "and that was just so awful to think to have to tell each person . . . especially Mom."

Janet, their mother, was in Salina to cheer on Conway Springs in the 1999 Class 3A volleyball tournament. She would be the last to know.

She sensed something terrible the moment she called from Wichita to say she was nearly home. Becky's husband, Curtis, answered the phone and immediately said, "Janet, come home."

"What's wrong?"

"Come home."

"I knew," Janet said. "I knew I'd lost a child, and I knew it was either Eric or Luke. All the way home, I could just feel ice around my heart. It was just getting cold."

The drive lasted 30 agonizing minutes. The moment Janet pulled into the yard, she realized it was Eric.

A few hours earlier, her oldest son had placed a Colt .45 to his right temple and pulled the trigger. Eric was 29.

Almost everyone was in the front yard, as if they couldn't stand to be in the house. Horace was in the living room, but when Janet arrived they went outside to the chicken coop Eric had helped convert into a darkroom. There, they held each other and wept.

"Eric," Janet pleaded as she cried, "you've got to help us get through this."

'I'm sorry'

Word of Eric's death began spreading through Conway Springs, a town of 1,500 residents southwest of Wichita, and headlights began crawling down the driveway that evening as friends and strangers brought food and comfort.

Police had searched for a suicide note without success. Acting on a hunch the day after Eric died, Trent Eakle turned on the computer his roommate had purchased only a few weeks before. Within seconds, he found Eric's farewell.

It was in a file titled "Hope."

"To all who have loved me,

"I have tried to please god everyday but I have always come up so short that he makes me feel guilty about my life. I could go on disappointing those high expectations, and feel miserable. Or I could die, and finally get it over with. I'm sorry. I can't help myself any more feeling better without dying. I found out that love is hard and not willing to do what it takes. I hope that I won't be making a mistake.

Love Eric."

Horace still hasn't read Eric's suicide note.

He couldn't bring himself to see his son's body after he died - not at the mortuary, not at the rosary, not at the funeral.

"I wanted to remember him as he was when he was alive," Horace said.

Eric was buried in the same hunter-green blazer he'd worn to his college graduation party. Until a few minutes before his casket was closed, he held the same rosary he had used to pray with his grandma seven months before, when his grandpa was taken to the hospital.

'That's Eric'

After Eric's funeral, his family began researching clergy sexual abuse. They were stunned to discover how much information was available, including a Web site for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

As the Pattersons studied the effects of clergy sexual abuse on victims, the list of symptoms sounded all too familiar: Eating disorders. Control issues. Problems with relationships. Suicide attempts. Depression. Memory loss.

"We sat there reading and would go: 'That's Eric.' 'That's Eric,' " Horace said. "It was amazing."

Naoma Crisp-Lindgren, the psychiatrist who worked with Eric when he was admitted to Charter Hospital in 1996, said she is "99.9 percent certain" that Eric's struggles and eventual suicide resulted from the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of Larson.

The onset of his psychotic depression fell within the timetable for the post-traumatic stress that victims of childhood sexual abuse typically suffer, she said. Eric's episodes always seemed to have religious undertones to them, too.

Catholics are taught to turn to the church when faced with major challenges in life. But if the abuser is a priest, "one of your major coping mechanisms is gone totally - removed," said Wichita psychologist Rita Goss, whose client list has included many victims of sexual abuse.

The Pattersons spent hours asking themselves how they could not have recognized the signs of what Eric was grappling with. But they finally acknowledged there was only so much they could do.

"When the family's so involved with just getting Eric to eat his meal, helping with the day-to-day living, it's hard to be on the Internet doing research or reading books," Becky said. "You are just trying to make it to the weekend."

'They knew'

In the weeks after Eric's death, the Pattersons began confiding in friends and co-workers that Eric told them he had been molested by a priest when he was an altar boy.

They expected people to be surprised, but few seemed to be once they heard the name of the priest: Robert Larson.

Rumors about Larson had abounded for years, they were told.

Then, one Sunday late in January 2000, the phone rang in the Patterson home. The caller was Mary Ritchie, who told them the wife of a former altar boy had called the diocese and told officials that Larson had molested her husband when he was an altar boy at Wichita's Church of the Resurrection in 1972.

Joan Relph, the wife of the former altar boy, said she called both the diocese and her parish priest at Church of the Magdalen in east Wichita in 1981 after she learned of her husband's abuse. Her call came 18 months before Larson arrived in Conway Springs.

"Am I to believe," Janet asked, her voice cracking as she spoke, "that the church knew and yet did not warn us?"

"That's exactly what happened," Ritchie told her.

Shattered, Janet hung up the phone and sagged into Horace's arms.

"They knew," she sobbed. "They knew."

The diocese says it has no record of Relph's phone call in 1981. Diocesan officials said the priest to whom Relph said she spoke to at Magdalen could not comment.

Bishop Eugene Gerber, who became bishop of the Wichita diocese in 1983, said the two complaints on record against Larson from 1981 came from adult males who said Larson made what they considered to be inappropriate advances.

Larson took a leave of absence in 1981 and was sent to Michigan for three months of treatment by Bishop David Maloney, Gerber's predecessor. Upon his return, Larson was assigned to St. Mary's in Newton as an associate pastor.

In 1982, Larson was sent to Conway Springs on a short-term assignment that lasted one year.

Gerber said the diocese's first hint that Larson might be acting inapprop riately toward children did not surface until 1984, when Larson was back at St. Mary's in Newton. Rumors about Larson prompted Gerber to send the priest to Menninger Clinic in Topeka for evaluation and treatment. A Menninger employee said state law prohibits the clinic from releasing any patient information, including whether someone has been treated at the clinic.

The clinic said Larson could continue his duties, Gerber said, and he remained at St. Mary's until a fresh wave of abuse allegations led to his removal in April 1988.

Larson declined repeated interview requests from The Eagle.

Reeling from betrayal

The Pattersons have not been to Mass since that phone call from Ritchie.

Janet avoided routes that would take her past a Catholic church, and the mere sight of a priest was enough to make her ill.

Family members quit reciting prayers they had been saying since childhood.

It was bad enough to lose Eric, whom they had fought for years to save. Now, only a few months later, they lost the faith that had been an integral part of their lives.

"First our son, then our religion," Horace said. "It all just started caving in."

Gerber wrote to the Pattersons, expressing his willingness to meet with them, but they have not accepted his offer. Last fall, Gerber invited any victims of sexual abuse to contact the diocese. He also spearheaded a four-par t series in the Catholic Advance, the diocesan newspaper, exploring various aspects of child sexual abuse, including detection and prevention.

Such measures have done little to help the Pattersons heal.

For Janet, especially, leaving the church was a devastating step. She was born and raised in the church and spent three years in the convent as a teenager before deciding she was not meant for religious vocation.

Horace converted to Catholicism when he met Janet, and the church became the cornerstone of their lives after their marriage in 1966. Janet's grandmot her was part of the first set of twins baptized in the Diocese of Wichita's first church back in 1881. The building that was St. Aloysius is now on display at Old Cowtown Museum.

"A couple of years ago, I could not have imagined anything that would have taken Janet away from the Catholic faith," Horace said.

Tears and fears

The more Janet learned about clergy sexual abuse, the more she dug for information. She worked late into the night poring over Web sites, scouring books and scanning newspaper archives.

Family members said it was as if Janet were looking for some way to exonerate the church. But the deeper she dug, the deeper her sense of betrayal .

Nationally, the Catholic Church has had a history of responding to clergy abuse allegations by shuttling the priests from parish to parish - a practice that has prompted hundreds of lawsuits and settlements totaling more than $1 billion over the past 16 years, said Tom Economus, president of The Linkup, Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

A special committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops put together a series of recommendations in the mid-1990s on how dioceses can deal with the issue of sexual abuse, but conference spokesman Bill Ryan said local dioceses are not required to follow them.

The more the Pattersons learned, the worse they felt. Janet was so overwhelmed with grief, she left the farm only when she had to, fearful that she would burst into tears in public.

Horace saved his tears for his "crying spot," the back end of the chicken coop he and Eric had converted into a darkroom.

The Pattersons kept hoping time would begin to close the gaping wound left behind by Eric's death - and the events that led up to it. But the months seemed to bring little mending.

Sifting through research one day, Horace broke into tears and asked Janet a haunting question.

"Will we ever be happy again?"


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