After Decades of Quiet Suffering, Delaware Priest Abuse Victim Tells Her Story
By Xerxes Wilson
Delaware News Journal
August 16, 2018
He always paid special attention to her.
Mary was a young teen. Father John Sarro was a Catholic priest making “creepy” comments about marrying her. Then there were the handwritten letters he sent her throughout her teenage years.
“God gave me a treasure when he gave me you,” she recalled him writing.
But it was more than words.
She remembers Sarro as “overly affectionate;” a tall, unkempt man who crossed the line into personal space and made people feel uncomfortable.
In the early 1990s, at age 11, Mary got a job at the rectory of St. Helena's Catholic Church in Bellefonte, answering the few phone calls that came in at night as she finished her homework.
She would regularly interact with Sarro, who was a pastor at the church. She remembers him trying to be her friend, trying to make her feel “special.”
He would beckon her into the church kitchen to watch TV. He would cook her dinner –maybe eggs or spaghetti.
The first time he abused her was during one of those television dinners, she said.
“He pulled me on his lap and began to tickle me and touched my chest," she said.
"I jumped off."
She recoiled and for a while, Sarro would not talk to her.
"I thought I had done something wrong,” said Mary, who by then had not turned 15. “I thought I had made him mad. He was real nice before and then there was nothing for a while."
She told an adult something happened. It was written off as a misunderstanding.
Sarro's attention returned to her during a Holy Thursday celebration, in which priests ceremonially wash parishioners' feet as Christ washed the feet of his disciples.
He chose her. She remembers her feet were the only ones he kissed.
The second assault was worse, she said.
She remembers being called to his room late one night. She remembers medicine bottles and cigarettes on the table. And him forcing oral sex on her.
“I remember walking down the steps afterwards and I had no soul left," Mary said.
'His death robbed me'
It took some 25 years for Mary to walk into the State Police Troop directly across Philadelphia Pike from the church where she said she was abused and tell police her story in the summer of 2016.
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Police spoke to the 76-year-old former priest and Wilmington native, who years earlier was ushered out of official duties within the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. He was eventually charged with first-degree unlawful sexual intercourse and second-degree unlawful sexual contact — the precursor to the state's current rape statute.
In a brief interview with The News Journal in January, he denied wrongdoing, characterizing the charges as "something that happened by accident," and refused to answer specific questions. He pleaded not guilty and a trial was scheduled for January 2019.
|John Sarro (Photo: DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE/SUBMITTED)|
But there will be no justice on Earth for Sarro. He died in July, ending his pending criminal trial.
His death also denied Mary justice. The trial would have been her chance to face Sarro in New Castle County Superior Court and tell a judge, jury and her attacker the pain she says he caused.
"His death robbed me," Mary said. She agreed to use her first name for this story. The News Journal does not identify victims of sexual assault.
"I was ready to talk. I was ready to look at him. So long, I was in silence. That is what abuse does to you. It is the shame, the fear and the self hatred that keeps you silent and thinking nobody will believe you."
She wants her story told to reclaim her voice and so that others who may be fighting the same problems may find guidance toward healing.
It is a story that involves the loss of her childhood, crushing shame and the questioning of her own sanity. It is a story that remained bottled up for decades through self harm, suicide attempts and now, finally, some measure of healing.
While thousands have claimed to be victims of clergy abuse in the last two decades, there are likely many others, like Mary, who repressed their abuse while their abusers were protected by the church.
|John Sarro pictured in 1979 in The Dialog, a newspaper run by the Diocese of Wilmington. (Photo: DIOCESE OF WILMINGTON RECORDS)|
A grand jury report released Tuesday in Pennsylvania puts that into focus, finding that more than 300 priests abused some 1,000 children as church officials scurried to avoid accountability and prosecution.
"I've heard childhood sex abuse described as soul murder. That is what it does," Mary said. "You are not killing someone's body. You are killing their spirit. You are killing their soul."
'Too scared to say 'No, I'm not crazy,'
Mary spent her 16th birthday in Rockford Center psychiatric hospital in Stanton after trying to commit suicide.
For a young teen, the abuse was impossible for her to comprehend.
"Sex was something you didn't do before marriage. Priests do not have sex. If you did have sex before marriage, it was a very shameful, sinful thing," Mary said.
A ninth-grade teacher at Mary's Catholic high school in Wilmington remembered her as a "bright student, innocent and kind."
By the time she taught Mary again years later, she said her favorite student had changed. Something was wrong.
"It was like nobody was at home. Her eyes were vacant," the former teacher said. "Her affect was sad, very sad, like we were not making contact."
Mary said her teenage years were filled with hospitalizations. She cut herself, she burned herself but she couldn't bring herself to talk about her abuse.
"I was messed up when I was a teenager. I was in and out of mental hospitals. I tried to commit suicide," Mary said. "They would ask me if I was abused, I would say 'no' because in my mind it was just so horrible."
|St. Helena Roman Catholic Church in Bellefonte. (Photo: Suchat Pederson, The News Journal-USA TODAY NETWORK)|
Lisa Carter is a licensed psychotherapist with a practice in Newport who has been working with Mary for about four years. She said repression is a defense mechanism for many abuse victims.
Children can't understand what has happened to them, and bringing it up hurts in multiple ways, she said.
"You are making yourself open to new victimization by anyone that does not believe you," Carter said. "You are also remembering and reactivating a traumatic memory. There is no way to talk about it without being retraumatized and revictimized."
The trauma creeps into different facets of life and the fear and anxiety associated with it can re-emerge without warning, Carter said.
Mary said she was diagnosed with different mood disorders, which led to treatments that didn't do much for her.
"I was too scared to say 'no, I'm not crazy,' " she said.
Her family remained involved in the church. And through her teenage years, Sarro was still there, performing Mass with her as an altar server, presiding over the funerals of loved ones and drinking coffee at the family table.
Even when she was institutionalized, he wrote to her.
"It was basically torture. I learned to shut it off," Mary said. "He knew the reasons I was in the hospital."
Sarro was moved from St. Helena into retirement in 1998. In public statements and newspaper articles, the local diocese said his sudden departure was for "health reasons."
In reality, then-Wilmington Diocese Bishop Robert Mulvee had received a letter in July 1997 from a couple who had lived in Papau, New Guinea. Sarro was a missionary there in the 1970s and early 1980s. The letter stated that their son and daughter, who were then in their 20s, had recently disclosed being abused by Sarro.
"In our view, this man should never be allowed near young people or children," the letter stated. "It is too late for us but others should be protected."
In the January interview, Sarro denied the accusations in Papau New Guinea.
But diocese records show that officials quickly confronted Sarro after receiving the letter and he admitted the abuse to church officials. In correspondence with the diocese after he was removed from the ministry, he described the abuse as an "accident" but said he had been "irresponsible" and "abusive."
Records state that he admitted to molesting a girl who had not turned 10, "kissing, fondling her breasts and genitalia" and once inserting his finger inside her vagina. He denied ever molesting the boy, who was also younger than 10.
Mary considers the diocese explanation of Sarro's retirement as a "betrayal." She wonders if she would have confronted her abuser sooner had church officials not lied about Sarro's previous actions.
"In retrospect, the diocese should have been more upfront about it," Robert Krebs, a diocese spokesman, said in a recent interview.
It was a tactic the Wilmington diocese, like many across the world, had employed dozens of times.
In 2006, an abusive Delaware priest who had been ushered off to Syracuse, New York, was arrested for molesting a teen boy. This prompted the Wilmington diocese to out 19 other local priests with "substantiated" claims of sex abuse who had been reassigned or retired through the decades.
Again in Rockford after suffering a nervous breakdown, Mary saw Sarro's face printed among outed priests on the front page of The News Journal.
"I knew it," she recalled after reading the accusations against Sarro from Papau New Guinea.
For the local diocese, the abuse sprawled into a sweeping civil settlement with some 150 survivors totaling more than $70 million in payouts and pushing the diocese into bankruptcy. Sarro was never sued in civil court.
For Mary, seeing his face in the paper was a first step to toward her own healing.
"There he was," Mary said. "And for years, I had been told I was the crazy one."
'I give that back to you'
She struggled to put her abuse into words.
"So there were still debilitating depression, debilitating anxiety, pretty severe anxiety attacks, things that were affecting her ability to live," Carter, her therapist, said.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse, said Mary's story is similar to many survivors who suffer from depression and other dissociative disorders.
"Those kinds of problems make it even harder to come forward," Hamilton said. "It is not enough that they don't understand what happened, that there is this huge power differential but then they have developed these resulting trauma disorders and getting around that is very difficult."
Hamilton said the most comprehensive study of how long it takes child abuse victims to report looked at German survivors. It found the average age of disclosure was 52 years old.
"Victims typically need decades to come forward," Hamilton said.
Slowly, Mary began working with survivor groups like the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"It was huge for her just to be there, to show up, it took a tremendous amount of courage," said Judy Miller, the local SNAP organizer.
Mary went to the diocese in 2011 and told her story to church officials for the first time. Afterward, she panicked and denied officials permission to take the information to police.
"It was the first time I had personalized my abuse and reconciled it with my whole life and that is when I realized there was no turning back," Mary said.
She reported the abuse to Delaware State Police in summer 2016.
"For a while, I was afraid of what happened. I felt so much shame and that it was my fault and guilt and just dirty, like a piece of garbage," Mary said. "It is about saying, 'I give that back to you. This is what I lost. I'm not going to let you leave this Earth without being held accountable for what you did to my childhood.' "
|The Rectory building on the grounds of St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte where former priest John A. Sarro, was accused of fondling and raping a young teen girl between 1991 and 1994. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal)|
As far as she knows, the case consisted of no physical evidence, just her testimony. Attorneys were arguing in court over whether the jury should be allowed to hear of Sarro's admitted abuse in Papau New Guinea when he died.
Delaware State Police rejected a request to interview the detective that investigated the case or provide input as to what Sarro told investigators. In a written statement, spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz said the length of time it takes for a victim to report does not "hurt the credibility of the investigation."
Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn's office declined to make the case prosecutor available for an interview.
In a written statement, DOJ spokesman Carl Kanefsky said investigators were able to corroborate basic facts in Mary's report and prosecutors were "confident" in the work investigators did.
"The length of time that transpired between the abuse and the report of abuse to police was not considered as a factor in assessing the victim’s credibility," Kanefsky wrote. "As we often see, victims of abuse may not be ready to publicly disclose the abuse close in time to when it occurs."
Sarro is the only Delaware priest charged in the state for child sex abuse, a fact that mystifies survivors.
|Former Wilmington Diocese Bishop Robert Mulvee (Photo: THE NEWS JOURNAL/FILE)|
In 2003, church officials said they had disclosed the allegations of abuse to the Delaware Department of Justice. Then-Attorney General Jane Brady told The News Journal at the time that the statute of limitations had expired on all of the cases.
Current law allows victims of sex abuse to seek criminal charges within two years of reporting the abuse to authorities, no matter when the abuse occurred.
Miller, who counseled dozens of local survivors, said she is unclear how many sought to have their cases pursued by police.
"I guess we will never know," Miller said.
'My abuse is why I do what I do'
Mary said she is still in the process of healing. She has flashbacks, remembers certain details at odd times and has trouble sleeping. She and her therapist now attribute her anxiety to post-traumatic stress. She has stopped taking medication for previous diagnoses.
"I own it. I have to own it in order to survive it," Mary said. "I've always avoided grief but there seems (to be) no other place to go now but grief, loss of my childhood, the change that this abuse has done."
As a social worker, she's taken her pain and channeled it into something positive for others.
|Judy Miller, Martha Conaty, and Joelle Casteix, all with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest), Sister Maureen Turlish, with Voice of the Faithful protest outside of Catholic Diocese of Wilmington in 2011. (Photo: The News Journal/JENNIFER CORBET)|
"My abuse is why I do what I do," Mary said.
Experts say her story is common through a wave of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the #MeToo movement that has given voice to those who say they were victimized by powerful men.
While Mary has found her voice, sex abuse experts say there are likely many like her still coming to grips with their own trauma.
She wants others to find courage in her story.
"Maybe by coming forward, someone can use this to come forward and get their own healing, even to go to therapy and say 'this happened to me' and begin to heal,' " Mary said.
HOW TO GET HELP
New Castle County Crisis Helpline & Rape Crisis Program: 1-302-761-9100
Survivors of Abuse in Recovery: 302-655-3953
\Delaware State Police encourages contacting the Victim Services Unit/Delaware Victim Center for support and resources 24 hours a day at 1800 VICTIM-1. (1800 842-8461). You may also email the unit Director at firstname.lastname@example.org.