Mother: 'Eric did not die in vain'

By Stan Finger
Wichita Eagle
June 16, 2002

The moment came for Janet Patterson on a steamy Wednesday afternoon nearly three years after her oldest son put a handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

"For the first time, I feel like Eric did not die in vain," she said quietly in front of the Adams Mark Hotel downtown.

She and her husband, Horace, had come to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual meeting to talk to whoever would listen about the life and death of their son, who committed suicide in 1999 at 29.

Months earlier, he had confessed that he had been molested by a priest while he was an altar boy in their hometown of Conway Springs, southwest of Wichita.

On the day they arrived in Dallas for the bishops' conference, the media swarmed around the Pattersons like bees.

Janet had been secretly dreading the onslaught since she accepted the invitation of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group, to attend.

"I was so terrified of the TV cameras," she said. "I just thought I'd freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights."

But that didn't happen.

"I was completely at peace," she said, almost in disbelief, after the last of dozens of interviews. "I wasn't nervous at all."

The Pattersons have been a focal point at the bishops' conference this past week.

They were part of a group that met with the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse and with four cardinals. And they have appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and a Spanish-language network.

"I don't even know how many TV channels we've been on," Janet said. "I can't even keep track of it."

When SNAP director David Clohessy addressed the general assembly of bishops Thursday, he unclipped a laminated photograph of Eric from the neck cord he was wearing and passed it around to the more than 200 bishops in attendance.

As they gazed at the tall, rail-thin young man in a suit, Clohessy told the bishops that four other men, all altar boys for the same priest that Eric said abused him, had also committed suicide.

"It has been very therapeutic for both of us," Horace admitted. "But I'd still give anything not to have to be here," because it would mean Eric would still be alive.

While the media attention has been invaluable, the Pattersons say, what crystallized their sense of mission was meeting Clohessy and other clergy sexual abuse victims that they had only talked to on the phone or via e-mail.

One woman flew to Dallas from Oregon just to meet Janet.

"She and her husband had literally saved my life. There's no doubt in my mind," said the woman, who did not want her name used because she still hasn't told family members of the 13 years of sexual abuse she endured at the hands of a now-dead priest.

"It's amazing... They're heroes," she said.

She'd had the sleeping pills on the bed all day and set out razor blades as well. But something made her go to the Internet and type in the words "clerical sexual abuse." There were two hits: SNAP's Web site and the "we are alert" Web site and hot line the Pattersons had set up after Eric's death.

She called the hot line and asked: "Who are you?"

She bonded with Janet immediately, she said, because they are both teachers and because they understood each other's pain.

"When Janet and I were talking, I could feel her son in the room," she said. "I just felt like he wasn't dead. His spirit is so much alive and impacting so many other lives."

The clergy abuse survivors she has met have inspired her, Janet said.

"The spirituality that emanates from the victims is palpable," she said. "You can feel it. They may not go to church anymore, many of them, but they are still very spiritual people."

The bishops' conference wrapped up Saturday with a special prayer session, but the Pattersons won't return to Conway Springs until today. They stayed for SNAP's leadership training sessions this weekend, and there's yet another network television appearance scheduled this morning.

Janet has agreed to serve for now as SNAP's representative for the state of Kansas.

"We'll keep telling our story to anyone who wants to listen," she said. "If, by getting the word out about what happened to our son helps keep even one Eric or Erica out there from committing suicide, then it'll be worth it."

Over and over, SNAP leaders and others have described the Dallas meeting as a beginning, not an ending, because the true test of meaningful changes in the Catholic Church will come in the days ahead.

For the Pattersons, however, Dallas marks the culmination of a journey from heartbreak and disillusionment to enlightenment and a clear sense of purpose.

"This," Janet said, "has really been a journey of faith."

Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or


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