Women Abused As Youths by Priests Deserve Equity

By Pat Kinney
December 9, 2007

WATERLOO --- A victim of child sex abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church says women in her position deserve as much attention as their male counterparts.

Rosalyn Zieser believes society tends to focus on male victims of clergy sex abuse --- possibly because such reports have been more prevalent. She also thinks some may consider the thought of male priests abusing boys more aberrant than priests abusing girls.

Zieser was born in Iowa but lives in Unity, Wis. She said she is glad she went through the claim and settlement process in her own case.

"I gained through it. I wouldn't have otherwise. It helped me think things through. I remembered a lot more things."

Zieser, an author in her early 70s with six grown children, has lived in Wisconsin since 1976. She said she was abused at age 10 by the Rev. Patrick McElliott in the late 1940s when he was at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Monti in Buchanan County.

After leaving that congregation, McElliott served as pastor of St. John's Catholic Church in Waterloo from 1954 to 1963. More recently, he has been the subject of suits alleging abuse during his tenure there, many of which were settled over the past two years. McElliott died in Waterloo in 1987.

"I know I did all I could to fix this for myself," Zieser said following her settlement last spring.

"I hope it'll give some courage to others. It opened up all the old wounds. But now, they'll heal better."

Having gone through therapy provided by the Archdiocese of Dubuque as part of her settlement, and looking back, Zieser believes women may be able to take additional steps to make the process less difficult.

"I would not go through the litigation process again without having been in therapy already and remaining in therapy during the process," she said.

Some women also may feel more comfortable having a female therapist, attorney or other professional help.

"Maybe not all women would feel they need that," Zieser said.


Two Waterloo attorneys who worked for many people making claims within the Dubuque archdiocese said they helped draw attention to the suffering of female as well as male abuse victims.

Tom Staack and Chad Swanson represented a comparatively high proportion of female clients in two sizable settlements. By comparison, in other regions of the country an overwhelming portion of cases reportedly involved male victims.

"I think we did a lot to change the perception, in this area, that the problem was just one that dealt with boys. From that perspective, I thought we were doing a good thing," Staack said.

Swanson said 12 of the 29 victims involved in the two settlements were women.

"In our first settlement we had eight females and in the second group we had four," he said.

Swanson said he and Staack are pursuing additional abuse claims with male and female clients.

"We do recognize the individual needs that can be specific to a person's sex," Swanson said.

The portion of abuse cases reported by women in the Dubuque archdiocese is significantly higher that even an adjoining diocese.

Attorney Craig Levien in the Quad Cities has represented victims in a number of abuse cases in the Davenport diocese and was involved in a major settlement recently. He said the overwhelming majority of the nearly 100 individuals he worked with are men.

In the area of clergy sex abuse in general, Levien said, the victimization of women has been "even more underreported" than abuse of men.

"And it's been significantly underreported by men," he said.

Other views

Others say women deserve attention.

"Every other female victim I've spoken to indicated there is a definite difference in the way female victims are treated in comparison to male victims," said Heather Smith of Waterloo, co-founder of the Northeast Iowa chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Her conversations have been with victims involved in other settlements in other states. Her own abuse occurred in another state.

"I think society as a whole, whether it's clergy abuse, whether it's by incest, or whether it's by rape, it's perceived as more horrific if it's a male victim," Smith said.

Despite that perception on a wider scale, officials within the Archdiocese of Dubuque say they have not heard other clergy sex abuse survivors here complain of disparate treatment based on gender. Those officials also note Dubuque Archbishop Jerome Hanus has had a policy of appointing women to leadership positions on the issue. The archdiocese has male and female victim assistance coordinators; the two directors of archdiocesan Office for the Protection of Children have been women; and six of the 12 members of the Archdiocesan Review Board on clergy child sex abuse are women, including its chair.

Archdiocesan officials point out victims pursuing claims always have the option of choosing their own attorney, male or female. They also noted psychologists used for testing and evaluating victims as part of the claims process are cleared with victims' attorneys.

Three nationally recognized figures on clergy sex abuse can't pinpoint whether clergy sex abuse victims of one gender are systematically treated better than the other. But they acknowledge differences exist in the circumstances and handling of cases with male and female victims.

"I'm not sure about disparate treatment in the judicial system, but there's certainly the feeling that female clergy sex abuse victims tend to get considerably less attention than males," said Dave Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

"I think male-on-male sex crimes are viewed as inherently more salacious, titillating, outrageous. I'm not saying they are. I'm saying they're viewed that way."

Tahira Khan Merritt, an attorney in Dallas, says the majority of cases involve male victims. She has represented a number of clergy sex abuse victims and also served as a special prosecutor in a major criminal proceeding against a priest.

"I would say 90 percent of them are male victims," she said, though she doesn't think they are handled particularly differently.

Merritt, though, notes "jury bias in every case," which may reflect society as a whole.

For example, Merritt said she is representing one of several teenage victims impregnated by a priest and must overcome biases in that case.

"It's kind of like, did they seduce him? All those kinds of things you don't have to deal with if it's male-on-male," she said.

Meanwhile, Merritt said homosexual abuse may be considered more of a taboo and more terrible, especially in the view of different ethnic cultures.

Gender issues

Dave Lewcon, a clergy sex abuse survivor from Massachusetts, provides counseling and support as a victim advocate with Merritt's clients. He says support group meeting attendance indicates the number of actual abuse incidents may be more evenly divided by gender than actual suits indicate.

"I would say the overwhelming majority of those attending were women, definitely," Lewcon said.

Clohessy reports in his group a 50-50 split between male and female victims.

"The bishops claim it's 80 percent boys, but I think those figures are highly suspect," Clohessy said.

"I think, among some older Catholic parents, if Sally has been assaulted by a priest as a girl, dad puts his arm around her and says, 'I'm sorry,'" Clohessy said.

"If Johnny is sexually assaulted, there's a slightly higher chance that the dad puts his arm around Johnny and says, 'We're going to do something about this.'"

Some pastors receiving abuse reports may have acted similarly, Clohessy suggests. He also notes that, nationally, male victims have received some of the larger settlements.

The settlements are "all fundamentally far from perfect" and can be judged with a variety of standards, Clohessy said.

Smith, with the Survivors Network in Northeast Iowa, said how damages are determined in group settlements can raise difficult questions.

"How can they walk a mile in my shoes? How can they live with devastation, and the changes in personality, and the effect it has on my daily life?" she asks.

"No one else can know that. And how can they say what happens to me is less damaging than what happens to whomever?"

Similarly, Smith suggests a perception exists that women in general can be victims, but not abusers --- despite the fact many boys were abused by nuns.

"Whether the victim is male or female, the effects on males and females are just as devastating," Smith said.

Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 291-1484 or


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