'I Can't Even Pray. I Need to Be Able to Find That Again'

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
June 5, 2005

'Church has some owning up to do'

When Patricia Butkowski was a first-grader at St. Patrick's School in Lewiston, the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino was a friendly 34-year-old priest with dark, curly hair and dark eyes.

The only thing Butkowski remembers about his appearance, however, is the large nose that used to appear in her nightmares and make her scream.

Gregory Harkins, Trish's brother, remembers more of what happened than she does. He was two years older, and he witnessed one of the incidents.

Harkins was playing with a couple of fellow altar boys after school when Sabatino came up, handed out chocolates and other candies, and asked Harkins to go get his sister so they could go for a ride. Harkins remembers feeling special.

"I thought it was just because he liked me and I was going to be chief altar boy or something," he said.

He remembers Sabatino driving down a wooded road into a clearing in the Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary and then parking his big black car. The priest told Harkins to go pick strawberries but kept Trish with him.

Harkins went back to the car when he heard his sister struggling and found Sabatino holding her against the hood. After Harkins asked what he was doing and refused to go away, Sabatino lifted Trish off the hood of his car and drove them home, he said.

The children - 6 and 8 years old - said nothing about what happened until Greg Harkins learned that the priest had taken Trish for another ride, this time without him. He ran home and, through his tears, told his mother. She was waiting when Sabatino arrived with Trish crouching on the floor in the front of the car.

"I can still see her coming and her hand reaching into the car," Butkowski said. "The man said to me, 'Don't be a crybaby.' I remember being very defiant, saying, 'I'm not a crybaby!' "

Inside their home, Trish's mother gave her a bath, put her to bed and tried to get her to tell what happened. Trish said, "Don't you know that bone hurts?' " Her mother called the doctor.

The family's doctor said Trish had vaginal bruises and swelling. Butkowski has never remembered exactly what happened. Many of the other women would later describe how Sabatino would have an erection and press and rub himself against them, or use his hands and touch them.

Butkowski's mother repeated what the doctor said to a Lewiston police officer, who told her she would have to report it to the bishop's office in Portland, according to Butkowski and Harkins. The police took no further action as far as Butkowski's parents were aware.

Her parents went to the bishop's office the next day and were told that Sabatino would be kept away from other children, according to the family members. He was transferred away without any public acknowledgment of the incidents.

Butkowski spent most of the next 46 years not wanting to remember the cause of her nightmares, despite her mother's efforts to talk to her about it.

"She wanted me to go into counseling," she said. "She wanted me to remember what happened. I just said, 'No, they took him out of the priesthood. They won't let him deal with children.' I chose not to deal with it because I don't think I could."

Butkowski, who now lives outside Philadelphia, was never really able to ignore it, however.

"It affected me in relationships with men and even in working situations," she said. "I just block it out. I just don't deal with it as a result. I don't deal with a lot of things because of that."

Butkowski, now 52, started therapy last winter and says she wants to face what happened. The diocese is paying for the counseling.

She lives a normal, busy life. She is married with a 15-year-old son, works as an administrator for a county park and cares for her aging mother. But, she said, "I feel really shaky inside."

She is scared to be home alone. If her husband is not home with her, she keeps all the lights on in the house and never sleeps until he gets there. Sometimes she wakes him by thrashing and screaming because her childhood nightmares are back.

"(The dreams) are always the same," she said. "I'm struggling to get away, and it's dark and I can't get away and I'm suffocating, and I'm pushing. . . . The last three months they have been really bad."

Butkowski wants Sabatino defrocked and the title of reverend removed from his gravestone. And she wants the church held accountable.

"It could have been stopped," she said. "The church gave him the perfect place to be able to do this."

Her faith has never recovered. "I'm angry with God. I know he's probably not the one to be angry with, but I'm working through that. . . . I can't even pray, and I need to be able to find that again."

What happened to Butkowski - and the girls who followed - also has haunted her brother.

Greg Harkins may not have been physically molested, but he also is a victim of the betrayal and has spent his life struggling with the anger and guilt of witnessing the abuse and not stopping Sabatino. Harkins, who lives in Toronto, has gone through counseling for depression and post-traumatic stress.

"It's been affecting our lives since 1958," he said.