The Long Road to Recovery
By Stan Finger
CONWAY SPRINGS, Kan. - Eric Patterson's grave is the only one on the east side of the gravel drive that horseshoes through St. Joseph's Cemetery. It's the only one that doesn't face the setting sun, the only one with an upright headstone.
In a sense, it is a billboard, erected by a grieving family desperately wanting others to know who Eric was, and what he went through before he committed suicide on Oct. 29, 1999, at the age of 29.
"It's not getting, really, any easier," Janet said, her eyes welling with tears, as she sat at the dining table of the Patterson home north of Conway Springs. "The finality of it all is really hitting us . . . there's always that ache - that terrible ache."
As they piece together a life without Eric, the Pattersons are striving for a happiness that can co-exist with the pain - and discovering their own pathway to healing.
For Horace and Janet, that pathway starts in the long, narrow room next to the dining room in their home, about a half-hour southwest of Wichita.
At one end of the room, where Eric Patterson slept during much of the last year of his life, there is now a computer that Horace uses to monitor their Web site, www.we-are-alert.com.
At the other end of the room, where Eric had tried to lift his depression by painting, a telephone hot line and a desk face a wall lined with shelves of information about clergy sexual abuse.
Only months before he died, Eric told his family he had been abused by a priest when he was 12. Naoma Crisp-Lindgren, his psychologist at Charter Hospital in 1996, said she is all but convinced that the alleged abuse led to the depression, eating disorders and anguish that tormented Eric.
Through their Web site and hot line, the Pattersons hope to reach out to victims of clergy sexual abuse and to force changes in how the Catholic Church deals with the issue.
More than anything else, Horace and Janet don't want their son's life - or his death - to have been a waste.
"If we had done nothing, I might as well go out to the cemetery and spit on Eric's grave," Janet said.
Their hot line has been busy since last August, when four men told The Eagle they had been sexually abused as altar boys by the Rev. Robert K. Larson - the same priest that Eric told his family had abused him in the year Larson was assigned to Conway Springs.
The Pattersons asked Sumner County authorities to investigate Larson, but no charges resulted from information the family provided.
"No case has been submitted to my office, but law enforcement officials have consulted with me about the case," said Sumner County Attorney William Mott. "The problem we're having is finding any witnesses who can present admissible evidence in court . . . we're at a dead end."
Sedgwick and Harvey counties launched criminal inquiries as a result of The Eagle's reports. Larson has been charged in Harvey County District Court with a half-dozen sex crimes stemming from allegations made by former altar boys.
A plea agreement has been reached in the case. Details will be announced at a hearing scheduled for today in Harvey County District Court in Newton.
The Sedgwick County investigation has not yielded charges, but authorities say the case is on-going.
The Rev. John Lanzrath, vice chancellor of the Wichita diocese, said he can't remember any other time in his 18 years in the seminary and the priestho od that a priest in the diocese has gone to court to answer to criminal charges such as Larson has.
"This is a very unusual circumstance and event," Lanzrath said. "It's a sad event in the history of our diocese. Our desire is to be extremely compassi onate and do whatever we can to assist victims and their families."
'A psychic wounding'
Many of the men who say they were victimized by Larson have called the Pattersons to talk. Janet's the one who listens - often for hours at a time.
"Almost to a person, there's such a psychic wounding there," she said. "It's as if their whole inner self is so wrought with pain."
One of the reasons she spends so much time talking to abuse victims, Janet said, is that it helps her understand what her son was living and wrestling with.
"In a strange sort of way, it's as if my son is still alive when I'm talking to them," she said.
Eric told the rest of his family about what the priest had done, but they talked little about it. Psychologists told family members that it was best for Eric to speak to one person about what happened because repeating the story several times to new people would victimize him anew.
Now Janet is left scouring documents to get a better sense of what her son went through.
A private conversation
For Becky Leddy, Eric's older sister, healing has come in another church. Along the way, she has gained a new appreciation for what she says happened on the morning of her brother's funeral.
She lay in bed, her soul crying out to God, wondering why Eric had been allowed to die. She immediately heard an answer in her mind.
"Eric would have hung in there a few more years, but he would have been tormented the entire time and everything would have ended the same - with Eric taking his life."
Surprised, Becky thought: "You are God. You have the power to do all things. You could have easily healed Eric."
Again came a reply: "I allowed this to happen for healing to take place."
"I didn't know what that meant," Becky said, "but it comforted me."
Now she is seeing the fruit of that promise: Victims and their families are healing.
Letter to Larson
None of the Pattersons have been back to Mass since learning that complain ts had been made to the diocese about Larson before he arrived in Conway Springs. They don't have anything against the people in their parish or their hometown, they say, but the thought of going to Mass and accepting sacraments from a priest is more than they could handle.
Becky and her family joined the Methodist church in Conway Springs last fall, and she has leaned heavily on scripture and prayer to see her through the dark days.
As part of her journey toward healing, Becky wrote Larson a letter. A portion of it reads:
"I have not, and will not, pass judgment on you. Only God truly knows what is in someone's heart, and I must leave matters of spiritual judgment to God.
"I ask that you search your heart and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling you. You have been a big part of events up to this point. I believe you hold one of the important keys to healing the wounded boys you left behind."
Larson, who declined repeated interview requests from The Eagle, has not responded to Becky's letter. Becky has also spoken by phone with Bishop Eugene Gerber, who told her about changes in the diocesan policy on handling sexual abuse cases. Those changes have been implemented and include notifying parishes when abuse allegations appear to have merit.
Horace and Janet said they have no desire to talk to Gerber.
Returning to the Catholic Church would feel like betraying their son, Janet said, yet she knows Eric would not want them to stay away because of him. In the months before his death, Eric had even talked to Gerber about the possibil ity of going into the seminary again.
Gerber confirmed his conversations with Eric but declined to discuss specifics.
It's a tough situation to reconcile, Janet admits. For months last year, the mere thought of being near the church was enough to make her ill.
Yet she considers the Catholic Church the one true church in the world because it is founded on Christ and its popes are considered his earthly successors. And to leave the church forever would mean she and Horace could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery next to Eric.
One Saturday afternoon
Janet felt yearnings she could not ignore as summer passed. They grew stronger in the weeks after Eric's birthday came and went last September.
Janet could feel something reaching out to her.
Calling her to the place where she married her husband. Where her two youngest children were baptized. Where she watched her oldest daughter exchange wedding vows and her grandchildren get baptized.
One Saturday last fall, she quietly walked through a side door of St. Joseph's and slipped into the second pew on the right-hand side of the church.
Kneeling in prayer, feeling the cool wood on the top of the pew, she looked up at the crucifix behind the altar and saw a man who - like her son - had endured tremendous suffering before he died.
She gazed at the statue of Mary, Jesus' mother, almost directly in front of her. If anyone would know what it was like to mourn the death of an innocent son, she told herself, Mary would.
She was there for only a few minutes, and - while she attended the funeral rosary for a friend - she still isn't ready to return to Mass.
But, for a moment, Janet Patterson was home again.
"I was filled with such a sense of peace and love," she said. "It was good to be back."
Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or email@example.com.
Resources for Victims
SNAP: Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
The Linkup, Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse
Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center
We Are Alert
Catholic Diocese of Wichita
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child
Leaping Upon the Mountains: Men Proclaiming Victory over Sexual Child
Broken Boys, Mending Men: Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse
Healing the Wounded Heart
Robert K. Larson, the priest who Eric Patterson said molested him when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at Conway Springs, has been charged with a half-dozen sex crimes in Harvey County District Court. The charges are related to alleged incidents involving four altar boys who served Mass for Larson at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton in the mid-1980s.
None of the charges are connected to Eric Patterson.
A plea agreement has been reached, and details of the agreement will
be released at a hearing scheduled for today in Newton.
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