Tragedy Upon Tragedy
The Church scandals are a life-and-death issue for some

By Rod Dreher
National Review Online
May 15, 2002

The Church-scandal headline many dreaded has been written: "Man Is Held In Shooting of Priest He Accused of Abuse."

Police in Baltimore say that on Monday night, Dontee Stokes, 26, tried to approach the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, 56, to speak with him, but was rebuffed. Stokes approached Blackwell several times, attempting to talk to him, but was turned away, police say.

Then, say cops, Stokes pulled out a .357-magnum pistol and shot Blackwell several times, seriously injuring him. Stokes later turned himself in, and has been charged. It has since come out that Stokes went to police nine years ago complaining about this priest, but neither civil or religious authorities acted definitively, claiming the boy's story didn't hold up. But at the time, an independent lay board set up by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to review its handling of sex-abuse cases found Stokes's story "consistent and credible," and faulted the archdiocese for the way it dealt with the allegation.

"It's terribly sad. It's exactly the kind of thing we had feared, and continue to fear every day," says David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Obviously we don't in any way, shape or form condone violence. But it's just as obvious there's an enormous wellspring of pain that has gone unaddressed for years."

On Tuesday, Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler told reporters he was "appalled" by the act. "This is a new experience for all of us. What I sense is an exquisite quality of pain."

Shooting a priest, even one who may be guilty of sex abuse, is an appalling thing. But another reality, one that hasn't gotten too many headlines, is this: Many victims of abusive priests turn the gun not on their abuser, but on themselves.

No statistics exist documenting the number of clergy-abuse victims who have killed themselves, but stories like that of Horace and Janet Patterson of Conway Springs, Kansas give us a feel for the worst kind of pain priest sexual abuse can contribute to. In the fall of 1999, their son Eric, 29, shot himself in the head with a Colt .45, ending years of torment that seemed to begin when he was first molested at age 12.

He was an altar boy. His attacker was the Rev. Robert Larson, his parish priest.

Eric didn't tell his devoutly Catholic family what was being done to him, his father told NRO. They sensed something was wrong with him, but assumed his depression was just part of growing up. He drifted far from the faith as an older teenager, but returned to the Church with great enthusiasm as a junior in college. Daily mass, holy hours, teaching religion class to kids, visiting the elderly, writing to prisoners — these were all part of Eric's new commitment to faith.

In 1993, he spent three months in a Legionaries of Christ seminary before they sent him away, telling him he didn't have a vocation to that order. His depression returned and intensified. He began rubbing his skin raw in an obsessive attempt to get clean. He told his family that he loved God, but couldn't satisfy Him. There were other signs of serious mental disorder.

"Eric would fast severely," Horace says. "I guess he was atoning, but he would just stop eating. He would get so thin, and we just didn't know what to do."

The family compared his gaunt look to that of a concentration-camp victim. What they didn't realize at the time was that eating disorders can be a sign of sexual-abuse trauma. Eric's psychiatrist asked him if he had been sexually abused, and he denied it. She told Eric's parents she could find no cause for his depression, but said he was clearly suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder, with psychotic tendencies.

The second time Eric was hospitalized for depression, in February of 1999, his sister Becky visited him in the hospital. She told him, "Mom and I just hate your idea of God, some vengeful, vindictive God. We look upon God as a loving, merciful God."

He told her he didn't feel that way about God until he was 12, when "Father Larson practically raped me." Becky immediately told the nurse, who informed Eric's psychiatrist. When the nurse went to check on him, she found Eric bashing his head against the tile floor. He was placed in full-body restraints, and put on suicide watch.

"The next day, we went to the diocese, in Wichita," Horace recalls. "We were babes in the woods."

When Janet told a priest official there what Eric had confessed, the cleric acted surprised to hear it. The priest told her that Fr. Larson had been taken out of ministry in 1988 after similar allegations — six years after he left in Eric's parish — and sent away for treatment. She assumed that that was the first Church authorities knew of Larson's tendencies.

Eric left the hospital and moved back in with his family. When his health improved that summer, he rented a house nearby with a roommate. Eric went into another tailspin that fall, one that ended with his suicide.

"It's a day you can't take back, when a policeman and a minister come to your door to give you the news," Horace says. "I sat outside for two hours, crying and waiting for the family to come home to tell them."

In the suicide note, which his father still has not been able to read, Eric said he was tired of not being able to measure up to God's expectations. Says Janet today, "No one should blow their brains out because they think they can't please God enough. I keep talking to victims of priest sex abuse who say that they know intellectually it wasn't their fault, but that they just can't feel clean."

After the funeral, the Pattersons began telling friends that Larson had molested Eric. Word spread quickly, and they discovered that there had been rumors about Larson for years. In January 2000, the Pattersons learned that the diocese had been informed in 1981 — a year and a half before Larson came to the Pattersons' parish — that Larson had molested a Wichita altar boy in 1972.

The Church knew Larson was a pederast, but sent him into parish ministry anyway. And Eric Patterson was only one of his victims.

"After Eric's death, we were horrified to discover that [Larson] had begun molesting boys in the late '60s in Wichita, then molested many Vietnamese refugee boys when he was in charge of the Vietnamese relocation program for the diocese in the '70s, then was sent for treatment for alcoholism," Janet alleges. "There was a pattern of [diocesan] lying that went on."

In August 2000, then-Bishop Eugene Gerber of Wichita acknowledged to the Wichita Eagle that he sent Larson for evaluation in the mid-1980s, based not on allegations of sexual misconduct, but on rumors (he did not disclose then that the diocese knew at least as far back as 1981 that Larson had been formally accused of child molestation). The bishop claimed the Menninger Clinic told him that Larson was not a pedophile. When asked by the newspaper, the clinic would not discuss the patient's history.

The Pattersons went public with their story in a series of articles published in the Wichita Eagle. More Larson victims began to surface. Eventually the suicides of four young men were linked to Larson, and a fifth one may have been connected. Moreover, other Larson victims told the Pattersons that the priest would pick his victims out in the confessional by asking children leading questions about sex, and from that determine which ones were most vulnerable.

Four altar-boy survivors of Larson's abuse went to police with their stories. In 2001, Kansas authorities charged Larson with sex crimes, to which he pled guilty. Judge Theodore Ice angrily rejected a plea-bargain agreement that would have put the priest in prison for 90 days, and sentenced the 71-year-old molester to three to ten years behind bars.

"There's no question but what pain that's been caused to the victims is still going on. Frankly, I cannot overlook that," the judge said from the bench.

The Pattersons' anguish endures. They were once a devoutly Catholic family. Becky, the older sister to whom Eric first revealed his molestation, has recently become a Methodist, and her parents, who have not formally renounced Catholicism, remain deeply estranged from the Church.

"The Sunday we found out the diocese knew Larson was a molester and kept him here was the Sunday we stopped going to church," says Horace. "If people had asked me before all this if there was anything that would turn me from the Church, I would have said no, because the Church is what you turn to. It's very hard for us to be away from the Church."

The couple has channeled their grief and rage into activism. They have a hotline number (1-888-234-0680, ext. 7183) and a website offering advice on how to protect children and deal in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse.

The Pattersons intend to go to Dallas next month for the meeting of the American bishops on June 13 through the 15, though they have no hope that the bishops will carry out meaningful reform. One prays they are wrong. Regardless, they think it's important to bear witness.


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