Mom tells bishops of her son's suicide

By Stan Finger
Wichita Eagle
June 13, 2002

Janet Patterson doesn't even remember what she said.

When it was her turn Wednesday to address the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, "I just spoke from my heart and let Eric tell me what to say," she said.

She told the eight bishops about her son's life, and how much anguish he suffered before killing himself in October 1999 at the age of 29, only months after telling his family that he had been molested by a priest when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at their parish in Conway Springs, south of Wichita.

She told them that the priest whom Eric identified as his abuser was removed from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton in 1988 and sent out of state for treatment, but no one ever explained why, and that "four young men are dead who could be alive, if they (the church) had spoken up then."

Eric Patterson is one of five men who once served as altar boys for Robert Larson who have committed suicide. Larson pleaded guilty last year to sex crimes involving four other former altar boys in Newton and is serving a three- to-10-year sentence in Lansing. He is eligible for parole later this year.

Janet Patterson read her son's suicide note to the committee, but not before sending her husband, Horace, out of the room.

"I've never read it," he said Wednesday, "and I still don't want to."

The Pattersons and others whose lives have been touched by clergy sexual abuse met with the ad hoc committee and then with four cardinals to try to put a face on the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past several months. Both meetings were closed to the public.

Combined, the meetings at the Fairmont in downtown Dallas lasted more than three hours as hundreds of bishops -- including Wichita Bishop Thomas Olmsted -- began gathering at the hotel for two days of meetings that begin today.

The bishops will consider a new policy on how to handle clergy sexual abuse cases. The committee is recommending that all priests who molest children in the future be defrocked, as well as all priests who have abused more than one child in the past.

The committee also suggested, however, that priests who only molested one child and have met certain requirements could be allowed to remain in the pulpit. That recommendation figures to trigger spirited debate during the conference.

"I told them that if they had children, they would never let priests molest children," Horace Patterson said.

Janet Patterson was the last of more than two dozen to address the committee -- and she couldn't keep her voice from rising as she spoke.

"She was very emotional," her husband said. "I was two rooms away" after he left, "and you could still hear her."

The Pattersons said they came away with some hope that the Catholic Church would emerge stronger from this scandal, if the bishops do what really needs to be done.

"I think there are some who are going to try with every ounce of their being to make a change," Janet Patterson said, "but it's going to be hard."

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have made the Pattersons a cornerstone of their presence in Dallas, including them in the meeting with the committee and featuring them in a press conference earlier in the day.

"If Eric could have been kept alive by love alone, he would still physically be here," Janet Patterson said outside the Adams Mark Hotel, encircled by more than a dozen television cameras and layers of other media.

The Pattersons and SNAP officials wore a laminated photograph of Eric around their necks. For too long, SNAP president Barbara Blaine said, bishops facing allegations of clergy sexual abuse have thought in terms of the accused -- someone they may well have gone to seminary with and have known for years -- and the accusers, who were likely strangers when they walked in the door.

But the tormented life Eric led after he was abused, and his family's efforts to help him deal with demons they didn't fully understand until after his death, could help reshape the discussions about clergy sexual abuse.

When bishops think about this issue from now on, Blaine said, "We want them to think about Eric."

Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or


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