Suffering in Silence No More
On Faith

By Ken Garfield
The Charlotte Observer [Charlotte NC]
Downloaed July 6, 2003

We look at the photo of David Fortwengler when he was a 10-year-old altar boy in Maryland and see an innocent child.

Fortwengler looks at the photo 36 years after it was taken and sees something else:

"I just think of what a good, innocent, naive kid I was who didn't deserve to have happen to him what happened to him. Nor does any child."

Fortwengler, 46, returned to Charlotte last week from a Maryland courtroom, exhausted from reliving the past yet energized by his new role as a victim-turned-activist.

Over a four-month period in 1968, Fortwengler was molested by his priest at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill, Md. Even before the last of the half-dozen incidents had taken place, he no longer wondered why the Rev. Robert J. Petrella was always helping him tuck his shirt into his pants before Mass.

He knew why.

The Observer does not, as a policy, reveal the names of sexual abuse victims. Fortwengler wants to share his identity and story -- part of his determination to keep children safe.

Scared, angry and confused, Fortwengler kept silent about the fondling. He tried to put it behind him as he grew up, married, had two daughters and moved to Charlotte in 1992. He owns a construction company. His family belongs to Christ Lutheran. He never returned to the Catholic church.

His long silence ended earlier this year. Moved by accounts of others victimized by priests nationwide, and concerned that Petrella had not been brought to justice, he shared his story with Maryland authorities.

On June 26, he addressed the Maryland court -- and the now-defrocked priest who molested him. Petrella was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices involving three altar boys.

Petrella, now 65, sobbed in court. Fortwengler put his emotions into words:

"Whatever sentence you impose will not be enough," Fortwengler told the court and the priest. "It won't make up for the pain that I and thousands of other victims of priest sexual abuse endure."

Then Fortwengler expressed the sentiment of a man whose days of silence are over:

"The most important thing is that when I leave here today, I will never again suffer the regret of not having told. I will be able to go home and tell my kids, `Even though it took your dad a long time, I finally did the right thing and you can be proud of me.' "

Fortwengler is starting a Charlotte chapter of SNAP -- Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests. The first meeting is Tuesday, the location and time available by calling (704) 847-9496 or e-mailing

Anyone victimized by any religious figure at any time is welcome to come and find strength in numbers. And strength from a man no longer keeping quiet. Ken Garfield


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