Breach of Faith
On Behalf of the Seattle Archdiocese, a Nun and a Priest Teamed up to Evaluate or Counsel Priests Accused of Sex Abuse. They Also Counseled Victims, One of Whom Is Suing over This Conflict of Interest

By Nina Shapiro
Seattle Weekly [United States]
February 15, 2006

In 1988, a woman showed up at the South Seattle office of a counseling center called Therapy and Renewal Associates, known as TARA, saying she had been abused by a Catholic priest while in high school. According to her later account, she was referred to TARA by the Seattle Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church. TARA was run by two extraordinary people—a nun and a priest who had formed a highly unusual professional and personal partnership. Sister Fran Ferder and the Rev. John Heagle practiced as internationally known therapists while advancing what for the church were subversive ideas about sexuality and church hierarchy. They were at the center of the Seattle Archdiocese's response to a nascent sexual-abuse crisis that was beginning to grip the Catholic Church nationwide.

Sister Fran Ferder and the Rev. John Heagle. Robin Laananen

The nature of the counseling the woman received at Therapy and Renewal Associates in 1988 is the subject of a recently filed lawsuit that questions in whose interest they were acting: that of the woman, who was ostensibly their client, or the church. It could be another example of the church's early tendency to minimize the consequences of sexual abuse by priests. And the charges suggest the need for scrutiny of one of the least-understood aspects of the Catholic abuse crisis—the role of the therapists used by the church to help both victims and perpetrators. But the story of therapists Ferder and Heagle is not a simple one. It is as complex as the conduct of the archdiocese itself during this pivotal period.

"Seeing the sex-abuse problem firsthand, Ferder and Heagle began to ask controversial questions about why it was happening. They took up an issue the church hierarchy considers nondebatable, celibacy, which they both argue should be optional." Ferder and Heagle helped draw up the Seattle Archdiocese's initial protocols for dealing with abuse allegations, protocols that were at the time far more progressive than those of virtually every other archdiocese in the country. The protocols included removing a priest immediately when allegations surfaced. The nun and the priest were also part of a response team the archdiocese deployed for "listening sessions" in shaken communities that had learned of abuse in their midst.

Even more crucially, the Seattle Archdiocese relied on their clinical services. It used TARA to evaluate abusive priests, including some of the state's most notorious predators. At the same time, the church sent victims of such abuse to Ferder and Heagle, often paying for the counseling they delivered.

The woman who came to TARA in 1988 says she didn't understand the relationship between TARA and the archdiocese. Now that she does, she has filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court. Filed in September, then withdrawn and refiled last month because of a procedural issue, the suit names the woman only by the initials K.M. It says that she saw both Ferder and a counselor who worked for TARA named Judy Knight. According to the suit, K.M. expressed an interest in suing the church, but both Ferder and Knight tried to talk her out of it, suggesting instead "pastoral counseling" and "healing through the church." The suit also alleges that Ferder told K.M. that the statute of limitations for pursuing a legal remedy had likely lapsed, when in fact it had not. Most potentially damning, the suit claims that Ferder and Knight insisted that K.M. meet with a third woman, who appeared to be part of the counseling team. In reality, that third woman was Jessie Dye, a lawyer who worked for the archdiocese and whose duties included helping to mediate settlements with abuse victims. All the while, according to the suit, K.M. racked up thousands of dollars in therapeutic fees that the archdiocese failed to cover. The defendants are Ferder, Heagle, Knight, Dye, the archdiocese, and the former priest accused of the abuse, Robert Renggli. The suit's charges include negligence, breach of trust, and legal and counseling malpractice.

Because the suit fell into procedural limbo for several months—the plaintiff's attorney, Eric Lindell, says he was unable to find the correct address of one defendant—Ferder and Heagle don't know about the litigation when we talk. Listening to the charges, Ferder expresses shock. "This makes me angry now," she says as details of the case come back to her. "I went so far out on a limb for her," she says of K.M. Far from trying to suppress K.M.'s claims, Ferder says, she agitated within the church on her behalf. Since the priest accused of abusing K.M. fell under the authority of St. Martin's Abbey in Lacey, Thurston County, Ferder says, she wrote a letter to the abbot and later met with him in an attempt to convince him to compensate K.M.—which Abbot Neal Roth confirms.

But the real irony of the lawsuit might be that Ferder and Heagle have frequently taken on the role of church critics, stirring controversy and expressing sentiments you don't normally hear from nuns and priests. Listen, for example, to how Ferder talks about clerical hierarchy, members of which she thinks are chosen more for orthodoxy than competence: "Many individual priests have been forced to take responsibility for their behaviors," she says in our interview, "but not a single bishop has gone to jail. Not a single bishop, other than Cardinal Law"—Bernard Law, who resigned in the wake of revelations about multiple Boston scandals—"has lost his position, and that only happened because the local priests rose up and demanded it. But the bishops themselves, as a group, have not made themselves and one another accountable for this tragedy. They still talk about it as though, and act as though, it's a problem of a few bad apples, not as a deeply sick, systemic problem."

Ferder and Heagle believe such stances ultimately cost them their close relationship with the archdiocese, which moved to the right when their liberal benefactor, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, retired in 1991. Two years ago, the Seattle Archdiocese effectively closed TARA's local office by failing to renew its lease on church-owned property. According to Ferder, she and Heagle have also been blacklisted from speaking at official archdiocese functions.

Archdiocese spokesperson Greg Magnoni does not acknowledge any rift with the pair. The archdiocese ended the lease because a growing Vietnamese church adjacent to TARA's office needed the space, and "that's all there is to it," he says. He will not, however, talk about the archdiocese's relationship with TARA in any detail, citing the pending litigation initiated by K.M.

The problem with a one-dimensional picture of Ferder and Heagle as church watchdogs is that the Seattle Archdiocese, even under Hunthausen, when they were in the middle of things, was not immune from this sickness Ferder identifies, this "institutional pathology," as she also called it. Despite the archdiocese's progressive protocols, Seattle, too, engaged in priest shuffling and secrecy. Were Ferder and Heagle part of the pathology they despise?

Curiously little is known about TARA's inner workings outside the church. But some observers have their suspicions. Timothy Kosnoff, an attorney who is handling a number of the abuse plaintiffs who won from the Spokane Diocese a historic settlement offer this month, says of Ferder, probably the best known of the pair: "She was an insider. She kept their secrets."

Author Jason Berry: Ferder and Heagle "are good people . . . in a very complex political environment."
David Richmond

Port Townsend attorney James Bendell deposed Ferder in 1995 for an abuse case because of her role at the time in screening seminarians. He gleaned little information but makes similar assumptions. "She ought to be doing sackcloth and ashes that she was part of the system," he says.

New Orleans author Jason Berry, who wrote the groundbreaking, widely cited book Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, takes a different view of Ferder and Heagle. "I think they are good people who have struggled in a very complex political environment," he says. "I think they very diligently tried to treat priests." He contrasts their work with that of some of the other facilities that handled offending priests, including the former House of Affirmation in Massachusetts, run by a priest who was himself accused of molestation and moved to Mexico. Amid such sexual dysfunction and hypocrisy, Berry believes, the TARA team tried to get the clerical hierarchy to focus not just on abuse but on the larger culture of sexuality inside the church. "The writing that Fran Ferder and John Heagle have done is certainly on the cutting edge of Catholic polemics," Berry says.

Their co-written book, Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality, makes the case for a new, healthier vision of Christian sexuality based on joy rather than sin. They have also issued support for homosexuality, a position that has earned them the title of "dissidents" among orthodox Catholics and put them at odds with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, whom Ferder once called "woefully ignorant of recent findings on human sexual development."

As they negotiated an environment that was fraught with contradictions, they almost certainly made mistakes, although not entirely of the order that skeptics suspect.

After TARA closed in Seattle, Ferder and Heagle repaired to a duplex in Lincoln City, Ore., owned by Ferder's family. They have what Heagle calls a "floating ministry" there, still under the name TARA, where they write and prepare for the many workshops they hold around the world on pastoral care and sexuality. They continue to maintain longtime positions as adjunct faculty with the Seattle University School of Theology, for whom they jointly teach classes. They also travel to Seattle for weeklong stays to see clients. While here, they occupy adjacent offices and living quarters at a West Seattle retirement home for nuns. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the downtown skyline, it is a modern, comfortable facility, in a dowdy, church-reception-room kind of way, whose cafeteria is enlivened by large pictures of an earlier generation of sisters in full habit.

The first noticeable thing about Ferder and Heagle is that they look nothing like the stereotypical clergy that such pictures depict. Even in their 60s—she is 62, he is 67—they convey a touch of glamour in that milieu. Ferder has a cherubic face and blond hair pulled into a bouncy ponytail with a pink band. She wears a vivid purple top and a gold chain bearing not a cross but a heart. The white-haired Heagle presents a genteel figure in a well-cut gray jacket and black mock turtleneck.

They complement each other in professional and personal ways. In the male-dominated clergy, he, as a priest with degrees in canon law and philosophy, takes precedence. In the clinical world, she's the one with a Ph.D. in psychology. Both speak with a candid, even at times mildly salty, irreverence, but she's a bit more the live wire, while he has a diffident air.

As they turn to walk toward their offices from the lobby, Heagle gently sends Ferder forward by putting his hand on the small of her back. It is an intimate gesture, born of a relationship that spans some 30 years. The twoare so obviously close that some have observed they seem like husband and wife. Ferder says the relationship is celibate but acknowledges their "deep, deep friendship." They live and work in the same house, teach together, and write books together. Together they belong to what they call a "support group" of friends who socialize and take trips, composed of three priests and three nuns. It seems as close to marriage as a nun and priest in good standing can get.

Settled into his office, they explain how Ferder's early career first put her into Heagle's orbit.

The young Ferder was not necessarily the girl you thought would end up being a nun. She was May Queen at her Catholic high school. She dreamed of being a mother (in the biological sense). But she was also a seriously religious child and kept a prayer altar in her bedroom. Religion won out over motherhood, and at 18, Ferder decided to become a nun. Taking her first plane ride, she traveled to the La Crosse, Wis., headquarters of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, to enter her new life. She found a community of sisters who believed in social justice and feminism. Ferder fit right in.

In those days, nuns didn't choose their vocation, the order chose for them. In the late 1960s, after Ferder had already received a B.A. in nursing, the sisters asked her to go into psychology. She duly obtained a Ph.D. from Loyola University. When she got back, her first assignment was to start a student counseling service at Viterbo University in La Crosse, a Catholic institution.

"I was, what, 20-some years old," Ferder says, "and I remember saying, 'How do you start a student counseling service?'" The university president had a suggestion: "There's a very nice young priest who's the campus minister and philosophy professor," the president said. "He'll help you." The priest, then adorned with black curly hair, was Heagle.

Shortly after they struck up a friendship, a Viterbo student died. Together, they dealt with the intense emotions on campus that followed, working without sleep for three days. "We learned we could really count on each other," Ferder says.

"I think we discovered that in shared ministry, there seemed to be more energy that came out of each of us," Heagle adds. "People noticed it."

They worked apart for a while when Heagle was reassigned to a parish ministry, but they came together to speak at workshops on communication, shared ministry, and what was emerging as a big issue for the church, gender equality. Both believed that women should play a full role in the church, including serving as priests.

In 1985, Seattle University invited them to replace a man-and-woman team that was teaching a communication course. When they got here, Ferder and Heagle came to the attention of then-Archbishop Hunthausen. The archbishop was known for his liberal views, which were so pronounced that the Vatican at one time chastised him. Making a connection with the team from Wisconsin, the archbishop asked them to start what he envisioned as a general counseling service for the professional and lay clergy.

That same year, Hunthausen attended a famous meeting of bishops in Collegeville, Minn., at which a priest and psychiatrist named Michael Peterson and another priest named Thomas Doyle delivered a withering indictment of clergy sexual abuse and the church's failure to either understand or attack the problem. Hunthausen came back from Collegeville fired up and asked Ferder and Heagle to use their newly formed TARA to help look at the archdiocese's cases and policies.

The two remember Hunthausen fondly. In Ferder's office, to which she and I move when a client of Heagle's arrives, sits a picture of the former archbishop. "Hunty," she says with a smile. One time, Ferder and Heagle's support group took a road trip to see Hunty in Montana, where he now lives. They believe he was genuinely committed to rooting out sexual abuse and helping communities heal from that which had already occurred.

But Hunthausen's record is far from pristine. "Some of the worst abuses took place under Hunthausen," says Kosnoff, the attorney. The most glaring: the Rev. James McGreal, who served as a priest in the Seattle Archdiocese for some 30 years, the last 13 of which Hunthausen was in charge. "McGreal was the archdiocese's most prolific abuser," says attorney Michael Pfau, who has represented 30 men who have accused the priest of abuse, reaching settlements with the church so far totaling $10 million. The full details of the McGreal saga have yet to come out because many of the documents in those cases are under court seal. What is known is that, at least in part under Hunthausen, the archdiocese shuffled McGreal between ministries as repeated allegations arose that he was molesting boys.

Twice, according to Ferder, Heagle, and Pfau, the archdiocese sent McGreal to a New Mexico treatment facility run by a religious order called the Servants of the Paraclete, one of the primary places to which abusing priests were remanded. Both times, after he got out, the archdiocese placed him back into ministry, with the stipulation that he not work with children and be supervised by a lead pastor. It did not tell parishioners about his past. The secret came out in 1988, though, when a woman who said her brother had been abused by McGreal related the story on a KING-TV program called Good Company. The woman says the priest could still be found serving at a church in Federal Way. Although no new cases of abuse were known, the parish was next to a school. There was an explosion of anger.

Ferder and Heagle did not need to hear on TV about McGreal's past. They already knew. One of the times that McGreal came back from the Paraclete facility—they can't remember which time—he was sent by the archdiocese to TARA, which was to help determine his aftercare plan. A Paraclete psychiatrist flew to Seattle to discuss the case in TARA's offices. As Ferder remembers, the psychiatrist said: "We really believe that his problem is a maturity problem and that if he's got a healthy community of adults around him that are supervising him, he'll be able to make good contributions to ministry."

"In those days, we were kind of like, gosh, I don't know," Ferder says. "But they're the experts."

Jim Biteman, Seattle leader of a national victims group called Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says he can partly understand TARA's rationale. The so-called experts, the product of an era in which pedophilia was considered curable, gave their recommendation. TARA wasn't in a position to overrule it. And yet, he says, "I also think that TARA was very much part of the Catholic web, and they were going to do just about anything the archdiocese wanted them to do."

Independence in counseling is crucial, asserts Richard Sipe, a former priest who became a therapist. Based in California, he has consulted on numerous abuse cases and written widely on the problem. Sipe is adamant that therapists should not take money directly from the church, whether their patients are victims or perpetrators. "I saw many priests," he says. "I gave them the bill, and they took it to the church. Things have to be very clear. You cannot be beholden to the institution."

"In an environment fraught with contradictions, Sister Fran Ferder and the Rev. John Heagle almost certainly made mistakes, although not entirely of the order skeptics suspect." The failure to abide by that standard of independence tended to compromise treatment centers that worked with abusing priests, according to Minneapolis psychologist Gary Schoener. He made a study of the facilities in the late 1980s at the request of his local archdiocese, which wanted to understand why the priests it sent for treatment were reoffending.

Schoener believes that there was a lot of good, professional work done at these treatment centers. The therapists working there were by no means all yes-men and -women. Aside from the TARA team, there was Peterson, who founded the renowned St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, fought with the church over how to treat pedophile priests, delivered the landmark Collegeville report on the scope of the problem, and later scandalized his brethren by dying of AIDS. Even so, Schoener believes that the business side of these facilities led to a certain deference to the church. "It's a cozy arrangement," Schoener says. "Nobody was pushing anybody to the wall." The treatment centers didn't demand complete information either about what these priests had done or about exactly how they would be monitored once they returned home.

TARA, which Ferder says received from the archdiocese not only counseling fees but a monthly retainer of $1,000 ($8,000 according to reportage of Ferder's 1995 deposition in the Catholic newspaper The Wanderer), didn't push anybody to the wall in the McGreal case.

Looking back now, Ferder and Heagle recognize that they participated in a bad decision, albeit one that they say was made in good faith.

"There was still, I think, some uncertainty about the difference between confidentiality and secrecy," Ferder reflects. "I remember being in discussions with people, and we would all talk about it. Here's this guy. He's been through treatment. He's trying to improve. He looks like he's got a good effort going. Do 600 people have a need to know?"

The answer they ultimately came to, after the whole McGreal thing blew up, was yes. They say they also came to the realization that a priest who has abused should never be put back in ministry, a point they debated with other professionals. "That was the turning point," Heagle says of the McGreal case.

As a psychologist, Ferder says she was trained to "trust what patients said as their convictions and their truth." Scrambling to understand this new area of practice, however, she and Heagle discovered that a more confrontational approach was necessary with potential abusers. They did not offer long-term treatment to such priests. Instead, Ferder, the one with the Ph.D., would evaluate them when allegations arose, with Heagle sometimes consulting. Ferder likens these sessions to "investigative detective work, trying to find out what's gone on, how bad is it, how many victims have they had." She learned that abusers often lie. "You have to always be thinking to yourself, 'bullshit,'" she says. When their responses raised more questions, she would refer them for a polygraph and a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure arousal while men are shown certain sexual images. Priests who were found to be abusers went on to treatment with other therapists.

Seeing the sex-abuse problem firsthand, Ferder and Heagle began to ask controversial questions about why it was happening. They took up an issue the church hierarchy considers nondebatable, celibacy, which they both argue should be optional. Ferder advances the notion that celibacy can lead to a repression of sexuality that may bubble up in dangerous ways. "The person may be 30, but his psychosexual knowledge and awareness will be 15," as may be the target of his sexual advances.

Heagle makes a different point. "I don't believe that celibacy is the direct cause of pedophilia or child molesting among the clergy, not the direct cause," he ventures, "because the vast majority of child molesters in the United States are married men and the victims are young girls. I do think that celibacy is an issue."

The danger of celibacy, Heagle maintains, is to place the priesthood "above the human condition. If you're not taking into account the humanity of priests, then what emerges is a clerical caste system. It's a kind of, uh, I don't want to use the word 'good-old-boys club . . . '"

"But it is that," Ferder murmurs quietly.

"It has some of the qualities of that," Heagle agrees. "It's a patronage system in which secrets are kept, the brothers look after their own and don't call in for accountability."

The two of them immersed themselves even more deeply in the abuse problem by devoting a growing portion of their practice to victims. TARA offered victims, unlike priests, long-term therapy. In fact, they began to think of themselves not just as therapists but as victim advocates. This way of thinking is evident in Ferder's response to the questions raised by K.M.'s lawsuit. It is a role, however, that raises a whole new set of questions.

Ferder maintains that it was TARA that suggested that the offensive party owed K.M. a settlement and K.M. who resisted. Eventually, Ferder says, K.M. did write St. Martin's Abbey requesting compensation. "The abbot responded poorly," Ferder says. Roth, who had just been named to the position when the issue arose, says that the abbey's insurance company told him it had already issued a settlement to K.M. The man accused of abuse, Robert Renggli, has left the priesthood, as sanctioned by the Catholic Church, and now works as a so-called "married priest" in Oregon with a national organization called Rent a Priest. He did not return calls or an e-mail seeking comment, but Rent a Priest President Louise Haggett says that he told her that he had entered into a settlement not because he had committed abuse but because he didn't have the resources to fight it. K.M., through her attorney, declined to be interviewed.

Ferder says she wrote a letter to the abbot herself. "I said I was appalled at his lack of empathy." She says she then drove to Olympia, meeting first with the abbot alone, and then with the abbot and K.M. together.

Ferder says she does not remember weighing in on the statute of limitations, nor does she remember introducing K.M. to archdiocese lawyer/mediator Dye. Yet Ferder says she did sometimes find legal information for clients and, when she could not answer questions, referred clients to Dye. She says she would not have called Dye part of the therapeutic team but, rather, part of the "sexual-abuse response team." Dye, who is now retired from the archdiocese but was then officially designated "outreach coordinator for sexual abuse victims," says she does not remember the case.

Dye has become a figure of controversy in recent years. Like Ferder and Heagle, she comported herself as someone who helped victims. She says that she was not a practicing lawyer, despite her active status with the Washington State Bar Association. As revealed in a 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, however, some victims and church critics have claimed that Dye was working under false pretense by failing to disclose that she was a lawyer on the church's payroll while she was getting all the facts of victims' cases.

Asked how she viewed Dye's role, Ferder hesitates as she thinks. "I do think the system was kind of fuzzy," she allows. Still, she says, "Gosh, it made wonderful sense to me, to have someone with a legal background who would help people know what their rights were." She says Dye would also find information for victims about perpetrators who had moved to another state.

Ferder bristles at the notion that, like Dye, she and Heagle might have been trying to contain victims rather than merely help them. She points out that they and the people they worked with spent hours poring over case files and interviewing perpetrators to elicit names of other victims who might need therapeutic services. At meetings, one would say to the other, "Somebody's got to talk to this guy again and see if there's anybody else out there who needs help." And then they would track victims down, sometimes arriving at their doorstep to offer assistance.

Unlike investigative detectives or social-service workers, psychologists generally do not take it upon themselves to intervene like this. For one thing, notes Thomas Plante, chair of psychology at Santa Clara University, a Catholic institution, and author of the book Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church, "A lot of victims don't want to be identified. They want to be left alone. I've had desperate calls from victims who have said, 'I'm so fearful that a reporter is going to show up on my doorstep, or the police.'" These people may be married now and have no interest in digging up old wounds and exposing their families to secrets they may not have shared.

Ferder encountered just such a situation when she showed up one day at the house of a man McGreal had named as one of his victims. Standing on the front steps, Ferder explained to the man that she worked with the archdiocese and, as he had probably heard, McGreal had been found to have abused a number of children.

"And what does that have to do with me?" the man asked, according to Ferder's recollection.

"Jim has named you as someone he touched in inappropriate ways," she replied.

"I've dealt with that," he said.

Ferder plowed on. "The only thing I want to say to you is that if you want to get any kind of counseling, the archdiocese will pay for it, with a counselor of your choice."

"Don't ever call me again," he said, telling Ferder that he didn't want his wife to know. Then he slammed the door.

Shaking, Ferder realized, "This isn't how to do it." She and her colleagues stopped contacting victims.

other things TARA did—suggesting compensation might be warranted, actively participating in settlement talks, attempting to resolve legal questions—constitute a type of advocacy that also crossed normal psychologists' boundaries. "A therapist is a therapist," says Thomas Nagy, a Stanford University psychologist and author of a book on ethics in his profession. "A therapist is not an advocate." Trying to be both sets up what's known in the field as a "dual relationship," something that Nagy says can be confusing for patients, mar objectivity in clinical assessments, and put therapists beyond their area of expertise.

Many therapists also steer away from being patient advocates because they see their job as getting patients to be advocates for themselves.

Then there's the question of TARA's work with priests. If Ferder and Heagle were victim advocates, were they giving alleged perpetrators a fair shake? Nagy maintains that when a priest is sent for an evaluation, what you want is "the best state-of-the-art science to understand this person's functioning. I think it's problematic to ask someone to do an evaluation when they have a particular ax to grind."

Throw in the possibility not only of a dual relationship but of a dual allegiance—to TARA's patients and to the church that's paying the bills—and "it gets very complicated," says Sipe, the former priest turned therapist. Ferder and Heagle may not have colluded with anyone against any particular set of patients, but they left themselves open to the charge by participating in a poorly defined system that Hunthausen set up, a system through which the church, as it tends to do in its fatherly self-image, tried be all things to all people, even a voice for those who had claims against the institution. The murkiness inherent in such an attempt has now come back to haunt Ferder and Heagle in the form of the lawsuit by K.M.

It is worth noting, however, that Ferder and Heagle participated in the system not just as therapists but as a priest and a nun, which brought along a more expansive notion of their duties. "I thought of this more as a pastoral issue," Ferder says, "trying to help a person who's been injured or wronged get whatever resources they need to get a little bit better."

She and Heagle concede that their image of their work changed over time. They realized some of the lines that needed to be drawn with abusing priests and with their own place in the crisis. "More and more, we certainly separated roles over time," Ferder says.

"There's the early days, and there's the later days," she says. "We learned things as we went."


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