Victim Lost Her Childhood, but Not Faith

By Jill Callison
Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, SD)
June 22, 2003

With the touch of a priest's hand, Sue Merritt's childhood ended.

Instead of being placed on her head in a blessing, the hand pulled her into a pedophile's world.

As Merritt puts it, "My childhood was far too short, but it has seemed to last forever."

It's been 18 months since the latest round of reports of sexual abuse of minors and subsequent cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church first surfaced.

Victims have come forward after being silent for decades. Some dioceses are staggering under the weight of lawsuits.

More than 500 abuse claims are pending in the Archdiocese of Boston alone. In California, where state lawmakers have abolished the time limit on abuse lawsuits for this year only, hundreds of new claims are expected.

But the 51-year-old Merritt, who first told a bishop almost 20 years ago about her abuse at the hands of Bruce MacArthur, has chosen a different option than a lawsuit.

"I want to work with them to make this better," said Merritt of Sioux Falls. "I really think that in the end, more good is going to come from this. I want to be a part of that, so I would rather work with them than choose any other route."

So Merritt decided to tell her story publicly in an attempt to help other abuse victims deal with the trauma. And, she said, she wants to explain how a woman who was victimized by a Catholic priest as a child can remain faithful to the church.

When Bishop Robert Carlson, head of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, set up a lay board last year to review the diocese's sexual misconduct policy and examine old records, Merritt asked to be appointed.

Carlson agreed, recognizing the importance of a victim's perspective. To protect Merritt's privacy, he did not disclose her past, but she later told the other board members.

After months of consideration, Merritt decided to shed the secret that only a few have known.

"I don't want it to be a secret anymore. I would like it to help the whole world, but if it helps one, it's worth it," she said.

Lifetime effects

Forty years after she was molested by MacArthur, then her parish priest in Platte, Merritt still suffers from the aftereffects of the abuse.

"Part of the reason I'm such a control freak," she said, "(is) because I had no control when I was a kid."

Medication helps her deal with overwhelming anxiety, and after years of counseling, Merritt knows personal perfection is a goal she'll never reach.

But for her deepest comfort, Merritt turns to what some would see as the least likely place: her Catholic faith.

That's not something all victim-survivors can say, according to Mary Grant, the South Dakota contact for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (S.N.A.P.).

"A lot of trust is shattered; faith is lost," she said. "Of course, there are victims who hold onto their faith. Some still are practicing Catholics or still believe in God but no longer trust the Catholic institution."

Grant, who was abused by a priest for almost five years as a teenager and left the Catholic Church at 16, said S.N.A.P. membership is about evenly divided between men and women.

"Female victims for a long time have been many of the hidden victims of the church," she said.

MacArthur, Merritt's abuser, has admitted to sexually and emotionally abusing as many as 30 young girls.

Judy DeLonga of Pensacola, Fla., is another of his victims. She, too, has remained a Catholic.

"I still respect priests," she said. "But I don't trust anyone a lot because of Bruce MacArthur. He was cruel and evil."

Last month, DeLonga brought a lawsuit against MacArthur and the Sioux Falls diocese, among others.

Merritt doesn't condemn those who file lawsuits, but she wishes they'd try another route.

"I'd like to see other victims come forward and at least give the church a chance to make it right," Merritt said.

"That doesn't mean I'm judging the people who have chosen to go about it different ways, but it wouldn't have helped me heal to go at them."

Elementary student abused

For Merritt, healing has been a decades-long process.

Her life changed in elementary school. She was the oldest of three children in a family headed by a father with drinking problems and a mother struggling to keep everyone together.

St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church was a refuge for the girl until MacArthur's arrival.

"He had a sailboat and pets," Merritt recalled. "After catechism, he gave out Tootsie Pops to everybody."

Before long, he singled out Merritt. Although she was only a fifth-grader, it became her job to go to the rectory every Sunday night and count the money in the collection plate with MacArthur.

With her eyes fixed on the color television set turned to NBC - Merritt still remembers much of the Sunday-night lineup - the touching would begin. She was naive, she said, and didn't really understand what he was doing to her.

She does remember feeling controlled by him. She was chosen as one of two cheerleaders in her fifth-grade class. MacArthur refused to let her take part, saying it would take away from her time in a church club that helped others.

MacArthur has apologized to Merritt in writing, but in a telephone interview last week, he defended part of their relationship.

"There were a lot of times in our relationship which I actually separated my physical life from her and did things for her," he said. "I was happy for her. She did things I was never very good at. She swam. She did science projects that I helped her with. During those times, it was a temporary relationship but a different relationship."

Other girls in Platte apparently received physical attention from MacArthur as well. When a new girl moved to town and learned about the priest's actions, the girls were alerted that something was wrong.

Several of the girls told their parents, and the late Bishop Lambert Hoch sent MacArthur away for psychological treatment. Later, he reassigned the priest to Ramona.

"I remember going around the town, a group of us, I don't even remember who was there, and I remember telling my mom exactly what he'd done," Merritt said. "I remember where she was standing. She was ironing. I remember it like it was yesterday."

She said her family took no action, but someone contacted Hoch.

Merritt said she didn't fully realize what had happened to her until two years later, when, in religious-education class, a teacher presented her students with an explicit list of mortal sins.

In that list, Merritt recognized the activities that MacArthur had introduced to her life.

"I went from thinking ... I am a good person and that God loved me to thinking that, oh my God, I really screwed up," she said. "I know I felt dirty and bad, and that was really hard for me."

Over and over again, Merritt would walk around the block where St. Peter's stands until she had screwed up enough courage to enter the confessional. But within minutes of reciting her "sins" to an understanding priest, she wanted to confess again in a desperate search for solace.

Haunted adult

Merritt next saw MacArthur in the early 1970s, when she was a college student.

She thought his unexpected visit hadn't bothered her, but in the next few years, as she married and started a family, the obsessive-compulsive habits that had surfaced in her teens began to dominate her life.

She experienced panic attacks and sought counseling. That, along with the busy nature of her life as a wife, mother of three and teacher, provided solace during the years.

In the mid-1980s, MacArthur visited her again, this time at the Rapid City school where she taught music.

"I think he wanted to find out if I was OK," Merritt said. "Well, I wasn't OK."

She began to wonder whether church officials even knew MacArthur was a sexual predator. She told her story to the Rev. Charles Chaput, then bishop of Rapid City and now archbishop of Denver. Chaput called Bishop Paul Dudley, then head of the Sioux Falls diocese, listened to a recitation of MacArthur's past and turned to Merritt.

"The first thing he said to me was, a man like that has no business being a priest," Merritt said. "He told me (MacArthur) had gone to prison."

The prison term was for the attempted rape of a disabled nursing home patient in Texas. Merritt also learned MacArthur had abused other girls. Despite the experience in Platte, Merritt always had hoped it hadn't gone as far with them, that maybe she was MacArthur's sole victim.

Merritt turned down Chaput's offer of counseling, but a serious car accident that occurred after the Merritts moved to Sioux Falls in 1992 sent her into a downward spiral.

Help from the diocese

Since then, first Dudley and now Carlson pledged the diocese's resources to help Merritt. They have paid for her counseling and for medication to ease her anxieties.

She also sees a spiritual adviser and has gone on a retreat.

Merritt estimates the cost to the diocese is in the thousands of dollars.

But it wasn't done to buy her off, she said; it was to help her find a measure of peace.

The diocese bears a responsibility to each victim of sexual abuse, Carlson said.

That responsibility involves a closer screening of candidates for the priesthood, he said. It includes educating the diocese's teachers and clergy on how to recognize child molestation.

"The church is a church of sinners," he said. "We all make mistakes."

As a mother, former teacher and survivor, Merritt knows sexual abuse of children takes place at all levels of society.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1.6 million investigations of alleged abuse or neglect of children were reported in 1996.

Abuse by a member of the clergy falls into a unique category, Merritt said. She has heard it called "soul murder."

She describes it variously as leaving a hole in her soul, or stunting it, or freezing it.

Still, Merritt thinks approaching the Catholic Church for help is the best thing victims like her could do.

"Somebody needed to sue 20 years ago just because money talks, and money gets attention," she said. "I know they've got our attention in this diocese. I'm just worried (victims) aren't going to find healing by suing."

But S.N.A.P.'s Grant cautions victims about approaching church officials for help.

"Some who have gone to church officials have only been retraumatized a second time by cover-up of the priests who abused them," she said.

Merritt doesn't excuse the church leaders across the country who made mistakes. Some of those decisions were self-serving and calculated, she thinks, but she wants the "blame game" to end. It's time to start fixing, she said.

At least one organization is working within the Catholic Church for change. Voice of the Faithful was established to support survivors and priests of integrity and to shape change in the church, said media liaison Luise Dittrich. It now has 30,000 individual members and 131 parish affiliates.

"We've moved from the shock and awe of last year to action now," Dittrich said. "We're organizing ourselves, learning about our rights and responsibilities in the church, realizing that we can't tolerate the secrecy and authoritarianism that let this happen."

What needs to be done in all cases is to break the cycle of child sexual abuse, Merritt said. At the same time, she doesn't want people to shy away from showing affection to children.

"I really think it's important for kids to be hugged, and I don't want to see people afraid to love them and hug them and comfort them and stuff," she said.

She also worries about the majority of priests who have suffered because of the actions of a few.

One priest told her about the time he was standing in line at a grocery story when a stranger walked up and said, "Why don't you turn that (Roman) collar around?"

"That's such a cruel thing," Merritt said. "It hurts them so much."

She has no tolerance for those who blame the victims. One of the few times she shared her secret came in a faculty lounge, after she heard several men blame a student who'd been molested by a teacher.

"On that particular occasion, I couldn't keep my mouth shut," Merritt said. "I just think people are really ignorant about it."

Merritt sometimes worries about MacArthur.

She thinks he doesn't know how his actions devastated her and his other victims.

"I always think, gee, how much better of a teacher or of a mother could I have been if I hadn't been so anxious and gone through the stuff I had," she said.

In the next breath, she displays a deep-seated wariness.

"He's very, very sick, and I just feel really, really sorry for him, but at the same time I wouldn't trust him any farther than you can throw a stick," she said "And I never would."


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