Alleged Abuse Survivor Works to Promote Healing in the Church

By Rebecca Drake
Catholic Observer
May 13, 2005

SPRINGFIELD – The Hampden County District Attorney has decided not to file charges of sexual assault against former Catholic priest John R. Russell.

But Springfield native Janet M. (Bengle) Ruidl will not be deterred in her quest to publicize her alleged victimization as a youngster in Holy Cross Parish in the late 1960s. She believes other girls may have been victimized by Father Russell at that time.

Now a resident of the Milwaukee Diocese in Wisconsin, Ruidl said she was the subject of inappropriate sexual advances and an alleged sexual assault perpetuated by the then-Catholic priest between 1968 and the early 1970s when she was in high school and the first year of nursing school.

After more than three decades of internal struggle with the alleged events of her adolescence, and after the national clergy abuse scandal erupted, Ruidl decided to report her misconduct story to the Springfield Diocesan Review Board in April 2004. The review board deemed the story credible and forwarded the report to Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett. In a telephone interview with The Catholic Observer, Father Russell denied all charges made in Ruidl’s statement.

Since Father Russell left active ministry in the Catholic Church in September of 1970, moved to New Mexico, and later became an Episcopal priest, the Springfield Diocese has planned no further investigation of the case. Father Russell, 66, served the Episcopal diocese in the Albuquerque area; his active ministry as an Episcopal priest ended on July 1, 2001 and he is no longer licensed to function as a priest.

But that is not the end of the story for Ruidl, who feels she has been treated appropriately by the Springfield Diocese and views herself as an instrument for further healing in the wake of the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

“I am the voice of the victim who isn’t so pained and angry that I can’t be rational,” she told the Observer.

Ruidl, who married in 1980 and is the mother of four children ranging in age from teens to early 20s, has a master’s degree in pastoral studies and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in divinity. She has had her doubts about remaining in the Catholic Church, she said, but “if everybody walks away, then nothing changes.”

Her commitment to remaining in – and changing – her church reflects her transformation from “a young, mixed-up adolescent” to “a woman who is very clear about her life, her past and her truth,” as she detailed in her report to the diocese’s review board.

She hopes her story will “bring forward other victims and give them the assurance they will be treated well.” The story begins in the summer of 1968 when she joined a newly formed youth group in Springfield’s Holy Cross Parish.

Troubled teen

She was 16 years old and had one sister, five years younger. Her mother was suffering from a mental illness which was not being dealt with, or even spoken about, she said, by family members.

“I was having a tough time. I didn’t have a ton of friends because I didn’t want to bring anyone home. I didn’t do well in school,” Ruidl recalled. So when she joined the youth group, “it became an important social activity for me.”

Father Russell was the leader of the youth group and began paying special attention to her, she said. In what Ruidl termed a “slow grooming process,” he began by offering her a ride home and then pulling the car over in a secluded spot to talk to her. One night, in a sudden move, he kissed her.

Ruidl said that although she “would often say it wasn’t right,” the physical advances continued and the priest told her he loved her. And in spite of the inappropriate advances, she said that Father Russell “did a lot of good things... he was very social justice oriented.” She remembered delivering food baskets to the needy and conducting clothing drives, for example.

Acknowledging her immaturity at the time, Ruidl said that the positive aspects of Father Russell’s activity “fed into my inability to identify the activities that were inappropriate.” She said that Father Russell often “portrayed himself as the victim” and seemed emotionally erratic. By the time she graduated from high school in 1970, she wanted to “extricate myself from the situation.”

Final encounter

During the summer of 1970, Ruidl said, Father Russell went to Via Coeli, a New Mexico treatment center for Catholic priests with emotional and behavioral problems. She is not certain whether or not he completed the program there.

“When he came back, he told us (the youth group members) that he was being forced to leave Holy Cross,” Ruidl recalled. However, she said he maintained contact with some members, including Ruidl, who was then a student at the former Holyoke Hospital School of Nursing.

Ruidl said that Father Russell, who was then living with his mother in Springfield, insisted she call him at specific times of the day – and then wouldn’t be there to take the call. He would show up unannounced at her dormitory, she claimed, as he did on the last night she saw him in the late fall or early winter of the 1970-71 academic year.

After blowing his horn outside her dorm window, Ruidl said, Father Russell entered the lobby and insisted she go for a ride with him in his car. He parked in a secluded spot and ordered her to get into the back seat.

“It was very clear that his intent was to have intercourse,” Ruidl stated in the Observer interview. “He was a big guy and I was under 100 pounds,” she continued, saying that she was afraid to resist. The alleged assault, which, she said, ended as quickly as it began, did not include intercourse.

The priest drove her back to her dormitory, Ruidl said, and she “was in shock at what had happened.” Still, “I wouldn’t have identified it at the time as criminal,” she added. She recalled that Father Russell had told her he loved her and that he wanted to leave the church and get married. She did not report the incident to church officials at that time.

The night of the alleged assault was the last time she saw the priest. Although she was confused and disturbed about her interactions with Father Russell, she said, “I went on and lived my life.”

‘It kept coming back’

In the early 1990s, when she heard about an alleged case of a priest abusing teenage girls in New Mexico, Ruidl, now married and a mother, said, “I thought, ‘That could have been me.’”

Even then, though, “It didn’t even dawn on me that it was me,” she told the Observer. But, over the years, as she reconsidered the relationship with Father Russell, she said, “It kept coming back… that it wasn’t something I had consented to.”

The case she heard about was most likely that of Archbishop Robert Sanchez of New Mexico, who in March of 1993 was accused by three women, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” of taking advantage of them sexually when they were teenagers. Archbishop Sanchez resigned in 1996, after admitting to ongoing relationships with women and to suppressing accusations of child sexual abuse made against priests in his diocese.

Ruidl’s realization of her own experience of abuse, she related, came in the wake of her mother’s death in 1995. “I really went through a period of very difficult emotion,” she said, “trying to sort out the events of my life.”

While grieving “the loss of the relationship that never was” with her mother, she recalled, “it all came together that that (the interaction with Father Russell) was abuse.”

Ruidl sought the aid of a counselor at that time and though she now recognized that her relationship with Father Russell “was an abusive one,” she said she still thought she was the only one who had this experience with the priest.

“Then, in 2002, when the church kind of exploded, I was thrown back into it,” she said.

She began attending public listening sessions in the Milwaukee Diocese in October 2002, where the stories told by alleged victims of sexual abuse had a powerful effect on her.

“I have never, ever experienced such pain. I have never seen people so devastated en masse as in that room,” Ruidl recalled. She compared it to the pain felt by burn victims when dead skin tissue is removed: “It’s excruciating. It was the emotional equivalent of that.”

Ruidl found the stories so painful to hear that she left the room. But she left, she said, with “the recognition on my part that I was so very lucky… I walked away grateful.”
In her case, she emphasized, “I don’t fault the church for what happened… I didn’t feel that I had been harmed by the church.”

But seeing the harm done to other alleged victims, she said, fueled her commitment to seek healing and change.

Hope for healing

Hearing that Father Russell had subsequently been accused of sexual abusing other women in New Mexico strengthened Ruidl’s determination to report her case to the Springfield Diocese last year. She met with Laura Failla Reilly, diocesan victim advocate; Reilly asked her to write down an account of her experiences and then presented the report to the Diocesan Review Board.

Ruidl also met with Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell last fall and found him to be “very warm, very compassionate and visibly upset” by the stories of alleged abuse committed by Father Russell.

Ruidl was also put in contact, through the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), with a woman in New Mexico who has accused Father Russell of sexual abuse. (According to police reports obtained by the Observer, Father Russell has not been charged with any crimes.)

The contact with other victims, and her appropriate treatment by diocesan and civil authorities, have led Ruidl to believe her role now is to work for healing and structural change in the Catholic Church.

“The church has to change; the clerical system has to change,” she stated. “We cannot have an old boys’ club that is blinded to the body that is the church.”

She cited the involvement of and respect for the laity as key to church reform, as well as greater accountability for clergy, both financial and in terms of openness in reporting alleged abuse. She noted the necessity of requiring clergy to be mandated reporters of abuse and of oversight by lay people that is not advisory.

“This is my church and my faith and I want it to be strong and healthy – and safe for all children forevermore,” she said in an e-mail communication with the Observer.

In the previous Observer interview, she also expressed her concern for those who have left the church due to clergy abuse. “It would be helpful for them to know that the average person in the pew even cares about them,” she said.

“Those people who have left us are part of the body of the church. They need to know that we miss them and grieve their loss of innocence… and that we would move mountains to heal them. They have a legitimate role to play in bringing the church to wholeness.”

Ruidl emphasized that the clergy abuse scandal cannot be forgotten and must never be allowed to happen again. “We can’t let it disappear,” she said.

She said she believes healing is possible and that expressing anger is part of the healing process for sexual abuse victims, but, “We have to express anger and get beyond it.”
“ What happened has already happened… We need to help them seek out ways in which they can heal.”

For Ruidl, the healing process includes insuring that the priest who allegedly abused her will not continue to harm other young women. “This is an issue worth going to the cross for,” she said.

And, she stressed, “I want his other victims – and all victims – to know that healing is possible and that the church, Laura Reilly, the bishop and law enforcement will all treat them with care and respect.”


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