Despite Settlement, Victims Struggle to Ease the Pain

By Kevin Cullen
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
November 15, 2004

Last week, Gary Bergeron was wondering if it had all been worth it.

Worth it to go public with charges against the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a Roman Catholic priest who molested him and dozens of other boys in Lowell some 30 years ago.

Worth it to take on a church that failed, for so long, to stop Birmingham and so many others from abusing kids.

Worth it, in the end, to join with more than 500 others in forgoing their day in court to split the $85 million settlement paid by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston a year ago.

The answer has not come easy because the year has been so hard.

Bergeron said he has seen an average of one victim die each month, by their own hand, a hand holding a bottle or some pills. And he has struggled to assist victims with substance-abuse problems who want to get help but can't find a treatment bed.

Then he picked up the newspaper last Sunday and read that 69-year-old man had been arrested in Winchester when he refused his pastor's orders to leave a church the archdiocese is closing.

At that moment, Gary Bergeron said, he decided it had been more than worth it.

"That wouldn't have happened a few years ago," he said.

"People would not challenge their bishops. But we changed that. The survivors of sexual abuse stood up to the church, and it has empowered and emboldened others. That blind deference is over," he said.

A year after the legalities ended, and the settlement checks were cut, Bergeron and many other victims continue to seek a more elusive commodity: closure. Like Vietnam veterans and others who have suffered post-traumatic stress, some have struggled, others have moved on. A few have committed suicide. Some are killing themselves slowly, through substance abuse. Some have gone back to college. One got pregnant and had a baby. Bergeron wrote a book.

According to the attorneys who represented them, and who got a third of the settlement money, most victims are engaged in therapy, paid for by the archdiocese.

"There was a huge increase in the number of people who sought out treatment after the settlement," said Robert Sherman, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, which represented 256 people in the settlement.

"My sense is that some are doing well, some are doing very poorly, and there is a big group in the middle struggling to find their way," Sherman said. "Money was never going to be a solution. The money was acknowledgment from the church that it did wrong. But if you ask these people do you want the money or your innocence back, not one of them would take the money."

The money, however, has helped some find stability. One of Sherman's clients who had been homeless, living in a horse barn, used the money to buy an apartment and get on his feet.

But while the money was paid, some say the church has failed to fully live up to the settlement's terms. Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who represented many victims, said the archdiocese has yet to fulfill its other obligations under the settlement such as appointing victims to its oversight boards and creating spiritual programs for victims.

"The non-monetary issues are very important to these people," he said.

Ann Carter, archdiocesan spokeswoman, said the archdiocese has organized retreats and liturgies for victims and is developing more programs for victims under the non-monetary portion of the settlement.

Carter said Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has met privately with more than 100 victims and family members.

She said the archdiocese is paying for therapy for 335 people, the projected cost for which in 2004 will be almost $2 million. The archdiocese spent $717,413 on therapy in 2003, she said.

Bergeron, now 42, has founded a nonprofit foundation called TRUST to aid victims. He and others are also serving as consultants on a Showtime film about the scandal, tentatively scheduled for release in March. The title of Bergeron's new book, "Don't Call Me a Victim," is a slogan for some like him.

"People look at me and say I'm doing well, and I guess I am. But I'm not the norm," said Bergeron. "There is still an 80 to 85 percent substance-abuse rate among survivors in the Boston case."

Bergeron said his ability to meet face-to-face with former cardinal Bernard F. Law, who presided over the scandal, and Bishop John McCormack, who reassigned abusive priests as a top aide to Law, "allowed me to get out some of that anger."

In his book, Bergeron recalls meeting with Law five months before Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston. Bergeron recalls asking Law what he should call him, given that he was not comfortable calling him by the title that Law preferred: Your Eminence.

"Well, what would you be comfortable calling me?" Law asked him. "Would 'Father' be OK?"

Bergeron thought about it for a moment, then told the cardinal, "How about you just call me Gary and I just call you Bernie."

It rankles many victims that Law, in their view, was rewarded by the Vatican, despite his central role in the scandal. In May, the pope appointed Law to a ceremonial job overseeing one of the four major basilicas of Rome.

Bergeron said he worries about victims coping as the months and years go by.

"The regular programs for those suffering with typical addictive behaviors won't work for those abused by priests," he said. "You can't tell someone abused by a priest to go into a 12-step program and turn themselves over to God."

Sleepless in Holbrook Bill Oberle isn't asking for much. Just a good night's sleep.

The 48-year-old building contractor from Holbrook thought he'd have a few by now. But the peace of mind he'd hoped for after the settlement has been fleeting.

His payout, less than $80,000, made little material difference to him. "Less than a year's pay for 35 years of suffering," he said, remembering the abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of the Rev. Paul Mahan.

Still, he was happy to put aside the money for his 23-year-old daughter, Angeline, so she could go to nursing school and become a registered nurse. He decided to move to Texas, to make a fresh start and to care for his elderly father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In February, two weeks before he left for Texas, Oberle learned his daughter had a brain tumor.

"It kind of killed me to go there and see my dad, a brilliant guy reduced to a 2-year-old," Oberle said. "I was there with him, 24-seven, for six months. But I had to get back here, for my daughter and my grandson."

Mahan stole Oberle's innocence, but not his faith.

"My faith is still there. God didn't do that to me," Oberle said. "A priest did that to me."

He remains a Catholic, though estranged from the institutional church. "I say my prayers daily, without any intervention from the church," Oberle said.

But his prayers for a good night's sleep have gone unanswered.

"I have some closure," he said, his voice trailing off. He struggled to compose himself, then said, almost in a whisper, "I sort of have to be inebriated every day, because I don't want to see the dreams."

No longer an alleged victim John King said he's always tired.

"I've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress," said King, 38, an engineering aide from Methuen.

King was unusual among victims in that his abuser, the Rev. Ronald Paquin, was sent to prison for raping an altar boy. Nearly all of the priests who abused minors were not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired before the victims went public. But King said Paquin's 12-to-15-year sentence offers him little solace.

"It's comforting that he's not on the street. He's a sick person. He needs some help, but there's no help for him there. Jail won't rehabilitate him," King said. "But I don't feel different. I've been drained. I don't sleep right. I survive on four or five hours a night."

The settlement, he said, gave him some money to put aside for his two daughters, 12 and 10, but it also robbed him of something.

"When I thought I was going to have my day in court, I had all this energy. Now I don't have any energy," he said. "I was never there for the money. I was there for justice."

He draws strength and comfort from other abuse victims.

"I meet with a few victims every week," he said. "We play cards."

His co-workers have been supportive, but he said some acquaintances, not friends, have blamed him and other victims for the recent wave of closings of churches in the archdiocese. "And I say, 'Hey, don't lay that on me. This has been coming for years. The number of priests has been going down for years. We're the scapegoats.' "

He still admires Catholic teachings on compassion for the poor and the vulnerable. But he thinks the scandal and the way the church handled it have tarnished its moral leadership.

For all the apologies, from Lake Street to Vatican City, he suspects church leaders still don't understand.

"I'd feel better if I thought they really got it, but I don't think they do," he said ruefully. "Money doesn't make you feel better. But there's a perverted sense of worth there. Some people felt raped again, by the process. I look at it this way: I'm no longer an alleged victim. They took alleged away from my name."

Little Piece of Heavenne Asked how the last year has been, 29-year-old Alexa MacPherson sighed heavily and said, "Rather busy."

Two months ago, she gave birth to a baby girl, Heavenne Abigail.

"I got pregnant right before the settlement went through, but I didn't find out until after," she said.

Compounding the situation, she and the baby's father are estranged. Her mother helps out, spending time in the house that MacPherson bought in a town south of Boston. She used the settlement money as a down payment.

"The money doesn't mean anything. I would gladly give it back in exchange for a heartfelt apology and see the priest who abused me go to jail," she said.

MacPherson was close to Patrick McSorley, one of those involved in last year's settlement who have since died. McSorley, who was abused by John Geoghan, died of a drug overdose in February.

"Patrick's death was hard," MacPherson said. "I've maintained a good relationship with the mother of Patrick's son. She came to my baby shower. She has two children. I think we've helped each other. We've talked about Patrick and cried about Patrick."

She said she remains angry at the men who run the Catholic Church, but she won't abandon her faith. She is going to have Heavenne baptized in a Catholic church, and she's pretty sure she'll send Heavenne to parochial school.

From the age of 3 to 9, MacPherson was abused by a priest in Dorchester. MacPherson sees a therapist once a week. Also therapeutic, she said, is her continued advocacy for other victims.

"The archdiocese is doing some things, but it feels like they are doing the minimal," she said. "I have to push and push and push until I get what I need."

Being a single mother is hard enough, but MacPherson said she is busy studying and hopes to finish her degree at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

She said she wants to write a book but said her daughter is her first priority.

She can wait, she said, but Heavenne can't.

'It's who I am' Peter Pollard's work was his revenge.

After the Rev. George Rosenkranz molested him when he was a boy, Pollard grew up and became a social worker, tending to neglected and abused children across Massachusetts.

Last year, when what little justice he could find was handed to him in the form of a check, Pollard felt dirty holding it.

Then Pollard had an idea: He would take the money, enroll at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and get a master's degree that would allow him to help, through new public policies, protect children.

"It's something I've wanted to do for 10 years," he said, relaxing on a couch at the Kennedy School. "I've spent the last 35 years, especially the last 15 years, trying to figure this all out, trying to figure out my relationship with power. . . .I feel committed to protecting children from people who misuse authority."

He has an apartment near Harvard and spends weekends with his wife and their 8-year-old daughter at their home in Western Massachusetts.

The money got him into Harvard, but he wrestled with it.

"I seriously considered turning down the money. It was like taking 30 pieces of silver. I was so angry at the lack of accountability -- that the church was basically saying, 'Here, take this money and go away.' Then, at some point, I figured I'd be a fool not to take it. It was an incredibly hollow victory.

"Looking back, it seems that the church has dodged the bullet. It's enraging. On some level, it feels like they bought their way out of it. It looks like they're getting away with it. We expended all this energy, all this pain, and what did we accomplish?"

But academia has given him the luxury of reflection, and upon reflection Pollard said he thinks much was accomplished.

"It's unleashed some pent-up forces," he said. "No one will ever accept the party line from the bishops again. Look at the way ordinary people are responding to them closing their parishes."

Pollard said he hopes to find a way to help those whose road has been even harder than his. "My life got derailed when I was young," he said. "I lost my voice. I'm trying to figure out how to engage with the world again. To find my voice. How to use power in a positive way without causing harm. I want to protect kids. It's who I am."


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