|In 5 suicides, families
blame Father Larson
Robert Larson, convicted of sex crimes he committed as a priest in Kansas, will soon be up for parole. These men's families want to ensure that he stays behind bars.
By Stan Finger
Family members say they are convinced their sons killed themselves because they were abused by Robert Larson, who served in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita for 30 years before being removed from the pulpit in 1988 in the wake of molestation allegations.
Not expecting to prove their suspicions in court, the families will instead go before the Kansas Parole Board on Thursday and plead to keep Larson behind bars for as long as possible.
"They need to throw away the key.... He needs to die there," said Melinda Thompson, whose brother Bobby is one of the five who killed themselves.
Larson pleaded guilty last year to one count of indecent liberties with a child, a felony, and three counts of sexual battery, a misdemeanor. The crimes involved four other former altar boys at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton.
He is serving 3 to 10 years at Lansing Correctional Facility and is eligible for parole in September. Several people plan to go to a public comment session to speak in support of his early release, said Monsignor Charles Reagan. If Larson is not paroled, he would be released no later than March 2006.
Larson declined an interview request through his lawyer, Dan Monnat, who says Larson did not molest any of the five who committed suicide.
"But, rather than engage in cross fire about what sad event caused them to take their own lives many years after he knew them, Robert Larson simply hopes and prays that the families of these men are able to find some peace and comfort," Monnat said.
Daniel Romey. Bobby Thompson. Gilbert Rodriguez. Eric Patterson. Paul Tafolla.
All were devout Catholics, their families say. All but Tafolla, in fact, dreamed of being priests one day.
All are now gone, their devastated families trying to make sense of their losses.
An expert on clergy abuse cases said he knows of no other priest who has had as many alleged victims commit suicide.
"If anything, that case should scream to the bishops just how horrific this problem is," said the Rev. Tom Doyle, who co-authored one of the earliest studies on the problem while working for the Vatican in the 1980s. He has since testified as an expert witness in many lawsuits against priests.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by priests around the world. In America alone this year, dozens of priests have been removed and several bishops have resigned after such allegations.
While other cases have received more national attention, none has touched so many abuse survivors as deeply as Larson's, said David Clohessy, national director of the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The survivors that have heard about these five people have just been so incredibly moved like I have never seen," Clohessy said.
"It's like, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
When Daniel Romey's clashes with his father showed no signs of abating, his mother thought counseling from a priest might help. She approached Larson, who in the 1960s was the diocesan director of the Catholic Youth Organization.
The counseling sessions were held almost every week. Soon, Larson asked if Daniel, then in his early teens, could serve Mass and spend the weekend at the Church of the Resurrection rectory, his sister said -- even though the rectory was in far northwest Wichita and the Romeys lived in the southwest part of town and attended St. Anne's.
"He said Resurrection was short of altar boys," said RoxAnne Romey, Daniel's sister.
Daniel had wanted to be a priest since first grade. His trips to Resurrection went on for years. But as time passed, his mood darkened, and he turned away from the church.
He was hospitalized at St. Francis Regional Medical Center for acute depression when he was 17. He would be hospitalized several more times over the next five years, and would attempt suicide three times.
His family finally moved to Topeka to be near him while he was in treatment at the state hospital there.
"He'd be there for months on end and get out, do all right, hold a job and something would happen and he'd go back," RoxAnne Romey said.
During his treatment, he told his mother that Larson had sodomized him, his sister said.
RoxAnne Romey said her mother went down to diocesan headquarters in the 1970s and made a complaint against Larson but never heard back from the diocese.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted said the diocese has no record of any complaint involving Daniel Romey.
When no one saw or heard from Daniel on Nov. 2, 1978, RoxAnne Romey went to his Topeka duplex with his girlfriend.
They found him in the basement.
"I started walking around in it, and that's when his girlfriend flicked the light on ¾ and there he was, right at my feet," she said.
He had shot himself in the head. He was 23.
Romey still has flashbacks whenever she enters a darkened room. Co-workers in El Dorado make a point of leaving the lights on in a room they know she'll be using.
Now a mental health professional who works with sex offenders, Romey said she will plead with the parole board to keep Larson in prison as long as possible.
She is convinced he will be a threat to children the rest of his life.
Linda Thompson was thrilled when the new priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Conway Springs took her youngest son under his wing.
She was a single mom, working seven days a week and raising four children. She had moved them to the parochial school in the small town southwest of Wichita to give them more structure in a faith-filled environment.
Thompson said she felt proud when Larson asked her son to become an altar boy at 8 ¾ years earlier than boys at the parish normally were asked to serve at Mass.
"My brother was pretty --blonde hair and blue eyes. ¾ He almost looked like a girl," Melinda Thompson said.
Larson would pull Bobby out of class, claiming he needed help cleaning the rectory, Bobby's older brother said. The priest would bring groceries to the struggling family.
"Bobby was wanting to be a priest all the time," Melinda said. "He'd get the little bottles of holy water, have his crosses and his rosaries, and he'd go pray."
When Larson was assigned to another parish in September 1983 after a year at Conway Springs, "I was practically in tears, I was so upset," said Bobby's mother, who has remarried and now uses the last name Munson.
At the farewell reception, "Bobby just sort of stood there," she recalls. "He stood back and looked at the floor and looked at the ceiling. He wouldn't look at him."
She thought that was strange but didn't reflect on it further.
Later, Bobby began developing tics: He'd run his tongue over his lips so often they'd get red and chapped. He'd flip his eyelids up repeatedly. He developed an extreme phobia about bare feet ¾ his or anyone else's. And he would often go more than a week between bowel movements.
His grades and attitude plummeted. He shot out windows at a church and a home.
In an interview with The Eagle in 2000, then-Bishop Eugene Gerber said he responded to several allegations of sexual abuse against Larson in 1988 by removing him from St. Mary's in Newton and sending him to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, which diagnoses and treats priests with sexual disorders. Gerber said Larson was stripped of his title and duties as a priest and told he could never return to Kansas. Parishioners were told in the parish bulletin that he had been removed because of extreme exhaustion.
When Linda Munson heard rumors that year that Larson had been removed from St. Mary's for molesting children, she asked her sons if Larson had molested them.
They both said no.
Bobby's downward spiral continued after the family moved to Colorado Springs later that year.
Finally, in 1990, Munson said, she wrote a letter to Gerber, saying her son was behaving in a way that therapists said indicated he was a victim of sexual abuse. He was even talking of killing himself.
She wanted to know if the rumors about Larson were true so she and Bobby's therapist could figure out how to help him.
Munson said the reply from the diocese expressed sorrow over the family's problems, said priests were encouraged to interact with children, and wished them luck. It did not mention Larson.
Munson was so upset with the response that she left the church.
Olmsted said the diocese has no record of Munson's letter.
Without confirmation of Larson's abuse history, Munson said she wasn't sure how to help her son.
Bobby continued to seesaw into and out of deep depressions.
"He'd say things like, 'There is no God,' " Melinda said. "One time he asked me, 'Lindy, when you talk to God, does he talk back?"'
"That proves it right there. There is no God."
He was sarcastic about anything religious, she said. His best friend told her Bobby would jokingly say that the parish priest used to take him in the back room and molest him.
But the closest he ever came to acknowledging abuse, his mother said, was saying that even if he was abused, it had nothing to do with what he was like now. That's a common misconception of abuse victims, therapists say.
On Oct. 4, 1996, Bobby ran a hose from the exhaust pipe to the window of his car in the garage and killed himself. He was 21.
In his suicide note, he tried to reassure his mother and stepfather.
"I was just hysterical," Melinda said. "Even the first two years, I kept dreaming that I was going to wake up and it wasn't real.
"I don't know how else to prove it to people," she said. "I just know there's cause and effect....
"Larson was in a place next to God. When somebody like that destroys that, that's got to make a person not function properly."
After Bobby died, Munson found the diocese's reply to her 1990 plea for help. It was so upsetting, she said, she threw it away.
Now, she says, she's not sure an admission from the diocese that Larson abused children would have saved her son; he never acknowledged that abuse was the root of his problems.
"But I'll always wonder," she said.
When Rachel Rodriguez opened her Wichita Eagle on a Sunday in August two years ago, her heart sank.
Several men said Larson had abused them when they were altar boys. The story laid out a pattern of abuse that stretched over several years and several locations.
Rodriguez's son, Gilbert, and nephew, Paul Tafolla, had committed suicide about 17 months apart.
Since then, she had searched desperately for an explanation, a connection.
"I thought, 'There it is,' " she said.
Both Gilbert and Paul had spent a lot of time with Larson as altar boys at St. Mary's in Newton in the mid-1980s.
Both were chronically depressed as adolescents. At the time, Rodriguez blamed it on the fact that Paul's father had died and that Gilbert's asthma often landed him in the hospital.
Both struggled with depression as adults and never seemed happy with the jobs they had.
Gilbert went into the seminary and graduated from Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri in 1994.
But he went no further. When his mother asked why, he said he had been disappointed with life in the seminary.
"I think he was hoping I'd ask him about it, but I didn't," she said. "I just never picked up on any of that.
"Never in a million years would I have thought a priest would do something like that."
Gilbert was found shot to death at the end of a grain sorghum field five blocks from his mother's house in September 1998. He was 31.
Authorities ruled it a suicide.
Rodriguez refused to accept it, believing someone had murdered him and put the gun there to mimic a suicide.
"This was a boy that was afraid to shoot a gun," she said. "He hated guns."
But Rodriguez now believes her son's use of a gun reflected the depth of his emotional pain.
Paul framed the memorial folder from Gilbert's funeral in his bedroom in Topeka. Seventeen months later, after being passed over for a job he wanted, he wrote an angry, rambling suicide note. Then he washed down two bottles of 500 mg Tylenol with alcohol and some Benadryl.
He was 31, the same age as Gilbert.
"It was like he waited," Rodriguez said.
After reading the newspaper story about Larson, Rodriguez called her son Robert and asked if Gilbert had ever mentioned being molested by the priest.
Robert broke down and, between sobs, admitted that Gilbert had, then sworn Robert to secrecy.
Rodriguez learned that Robert and Paul had also been molested.
Robert is one of the four youths Larson pleaded guilty to molesting.
Eric Patterson was 12 when Larson arrived at Conway Springs. He was 29 when he put a gun to his temple on Oct. 29, 1999, and fired.
In between, he endured hospitalization for recurring bouts of profound depression, was rejected for the seminary, and searched futilely for meaning and happiness in life.
Eric had reported being abused to the diocese as part of his therapy but told his family only months before he died.
The Pattersons never fully understood what he was going through until he died, and then they began researching how abuse by a priest can affect a person.
Horace and Janet Patterson have made it their mission in life to warn others of the dangers of sexual abuse by clergy. Through a Web site and hot line they have set up, Janet talks regularly to men and women who were molested by clergy members.
At a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month, Janet and Horace Patterson were allowed to address the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. They also met with four cardinals and gave countless interviews.
After it was over, Janet said she finally could believe that Eric had not died in vain.
Doyle and other abuse experts aren't sure why some abuse victims kill themselves while others don't.
Generally, psychologists say, the more invasive, frequent and long-lasting the abuse, the more likely suicide becomes.
Asked to respond to the claims of the five families, Bishop Olmsted offered no comment. He said no general statement would do justice to the pain they are feeling.
Instead, he offered to meet personally with family members of the suicide victims.
Reactions to the offer were mixed. Rodriguez, for one, said she would welcome such a meeting. Romey said she would not because she distrusts church officials.
Harvey County Attorney Matt Treaster, who brought the charges that led to Larson's conviction, said it would be theoretically possible to charge Larson in connection with the suicides.
But it would be extremely difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, he said, because of the amount of time that passed between the abuse the victims described and their deaths.
Therefore, the families have set their sights on the parole board.
Rodriguez, for one, wants the board members to see the pain in her eyes, hear the agony in her voice.
"I'm still angry at him," Rodriguez said of Larson. "I can't even begin to forgive him.... It's almost like he's reached in and taken my soul, too."
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