Catholic Church: Religious orders kept reports of child sex abuse secret for years
By Lindsay Schnell
December 16, 2018
|Bill Reidy says he was abused by a Jesuit priest.|
Photo by Tyler R. Mallory
|Bill Reidy says he was terrified by a priest's threats.|
Photo by Tyler R. Mallory
|People pray during a gathering convened by San Diego Catholic Bishop Robert McElroy at the St. Joseph Cathedral on Oct. 3.|
Photo by DAVID MAUNG
|Bill Reidy says he was sexually abused in the 1970s. |
Photo by Tyler R. Mallory
Bill Reidy says he remembers every detail about the office where he was repeatedly raped by the Jesuit priest who served as his academic adviser at Loyola Academy, a private Catholic school just outside Chicago.
A ficus tree in one corner, a desk chair in another. The credenza covered in photos. The door that opened inward and stayed locked.
While other students learned about literature or chemistry, Reidy says, he was called “every single day” into the private quarters of the Rev. Donald J. O’Shaughnessy, a bedroom that doubled as his office. Each meeting ended with the same nauseating ritual, Reidy says.
“He would always make sure he had a soda in his fridge, and he’d give it to me and say, ‘I want you to drink this and get the taste out of your mouth,’ ” says Reidy, 57, who lives in a Chicago suburb. “Then he’d send me back to class.”
Reidy was hurt and confused. Did other students know? Were other priests at Loyola Academy – a school his father insisted on sending him to because he believed a Catholic education was the best education – aware? Were they laughing at him?
On the weekends, when his parents forced him to go to church with his family, Reidy had to sit in an aisle seat, so he could make an immediate exit. When he walked into Mass, Reidy’s palms went sweaty, and his body shook. He says he flashed back to the time he was gang-raped by O’Shaughnessy and other men at Loyola’s school chapel.
He begged his parents to put him back in public school. When they asked why, Reidy always had the same tortured reply: “I can’t tell you.”
Beyond the horror and panic, Reidy was even more terrified at the consequences O’Shaughnessy allegedly threatened.
“He told me that if I ever told a living soul,” Reidy says, “that I’d go to hell.”
Jesuits release names of accused priests
It's well documented that the Catholic Church has a sex abuse problem. Since an explosive Boston Globe report in 2002 first detailed repeated abuse by 87 priests who worked in the archdiocese of Boston, 85 dioceses and archdioceses across the USA have released lists of priests who have credible or substantiated accusations against them. Many of those names have only recently been made public. After a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report in August listed more than 300 abusive priests, at least 14 other state attorneys general launched investigations into the church and its handling of sex abuse allegations.
Experts who have studied the Catholic abuse crisis say a glaring omission has come in the form of the Catholic religious orders – Jesuits, Capuchins, Benedictines, Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans, etc. – that operate mostly in the shadows.
As tension builds and authorities threaten legal action, religious orders could soon face an unprecedented wave of scrutiny in what might be the next chapter of the scandal that’s rocked the Catholic Church.
Religious order priests make up roughly one-third of all priests in the USA, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They’re often known best for achievements outside the church. The Jesuits, for example, run some of the most prestigious academic institutions at the collegiate level and some of the most dominant athletic programs in U.S. high schools.
Demand has grown across the country for church leaders to disclose which priests were accused of sexual abuse and how the church responded to each allegation, but religious orders – typically not beholden to a community in the way dioceses are – have been under no such pressure and have shied away from sharing their problems.
Monday, the Midwest and Maryland provinces of the Jesuits – the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church – are likely to release their lists of priests dating back to 1955 who were accused of sexually abusing minors. O’Shaughnessy, the priest who allegedly tormented Reidy, will be named.
These revelations follow releases from the Jesuits in the West province, based in Portland, Oregon, and the Central and Southern province, based in St. Louis, which were made public Dec. 7.
The Catholic Church – and the hierarchy that accompanies it – is a complicated, layered institution. Religious orders are run separate and independent from dioceses and archdioceses. Though order priests such as Jesuits may staff a parish, they do not answer to bishops or archbishops. That means that although bishops or archbishops can remove a religious order priest from his parish, they cannot discipline him.
Terry McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a website that maintains a database on accused priests and the crisis overall, says this process creates “a mixed chain of command.”
McKiernan points out that most dioceses that released lists of accused priests were in major media markets, where reporters and the public pressured Catholic leaders to account for their clergy. That’s harder when it comes to religious orders, which cover wide geographical swaths and sometimes cross international borders. The Capuchin religious order's footprint is mostly in the upper Midwest – Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin – but extends all the way to the Middle East.
Public attention is largely focused on dioceses and archdioceses, and “religious orders take advantage of that fact,” McKiernan says. “They’re not gonna raise their hand and say, ‘Wait a minute, pay attention to us!’ ”
In a letter that accompanied the Jesuits West release, Father Scott Santarosa said the “Church has been reeling” since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
“While the vast majority of these offenses occurred in the past, the People of God rightly demand and deserve transparency on the part of Church leadership,” Santarosa wrote. “Such transparency is important to support victims in their healing and to rebuild trust in the church.”
Advocates agree that religious orders releasing lists is a crucial step in a victim’s healing process. But there’s concern that orders might not tell the public the full truth.
Shortly after the Jesuits West and Jesuits Central and Southern shared their lists, which went back to 1950 and totaled a combined 151 names – including nearly 40 names not previously known – McKiernan and BishopAccountability pushed back. In an email, McKiernan shared his own list, which included 34 Jesuits accused of abuse who weren’t accounted for in the Jesuits’ official releases.
“If these known accused priests have been left off the list,” McKiernan asks, “how many as yet unknown credibly accused Jesuits have also been left off?”
More victims likely to come forward
Reidy, who works for a marketing company, wonders how his life could have been different if not for the sexual abuse he suffered.
After graduating from Loyola Academy in 1979, Reidy attended four different colleges, struggling academically. He had always wanted to be a paramedic, but that dream died as he bounced from school to school. (He eventually graduated from Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, with a degree in marketing.) He dealt with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts. He couldn’t keep a job, wilting anytime he had to stand up to an authority figure.
Helped by a therapist, Reidy was able to “connect my subconscious and conscious” and come to terms with the abuse he suffered daily for three consecutive years. He says that from 1976 to 2013, he suppressed his memories – common among abuse victims, especially children – never able to pinpoint why his life unraveled as a high school sophomore.
After coming forward in spring 2013 and accusing O’Shaughnessy of sexual abuse, Reidy settled with the Jesuits’ Chicago-Detroit province, now known as the Midwest province, for $750,000 in August 2013. The trial came one month after O’Shaughnessy died at age 89. According to BishopAccountability, there have been two other settlements with former Loyola Academy students since O’Shaughnessy’s death.
David Finkelhor, an expert on child sexual abuse who teaches at the University of New Hampshire, says that although sex crimes committed by strangers against children occur – he estimates that it happens in roughly 15 percent of cases – it’s more common that an abuser is someone who is “very much part of your social network.”
Finkelhor says sexual abuse is sometimes accompanied by “emotional abuse, various attempts to control, denigrate or blame the victim,” which can make suffering more severe. Finkelhor says the era in which the abuse took place can be a factor in explaining why so many victims keep quiet, both when the abuse is happening and often for years after the fact.
In the late 1970s, when Reidy was abused, “there wasn’t a whole lot of information about abuse,” Finkelhor says. “So not really knowing what’s going on and not knowing what other people’s reactions would be, that can be very disorienting (for victims).”
Eugene Hollander, a Chicago attorney who represented Reidy, is preparing for more calls from survivors as the Jesuits – and other dioceses and potentially other religious orders – release names of accused priests.
Hollander has represented dozens of sex abuse survivors, from private Catholic institutions and public schools. He frequently gets calls from survivors who say they want to file a civil suit, but taking the next step is sometimes too gutting.
“Just the other day, I was supposed to see a client who was abused in the 1950s, he’s now in his early 60s, but he just couldn’t bring himself to come into the office,” Hollander says. “I’ve had that happen several times. It’s a 50-year gap, and it’s still so hard to come forward.”
'I was depressed, I felt like an outcast'
For most of his childhood, Peter Isely dreamed of being a priest.
The youngest of eight children raised by a single mother, Isely describes his family as “extraordinarily Catholic.”
“My mom’s parents are from Croatia, my father’s parents are from Irish,” he said. “We went to Mass every day.”
After his father died when Isely and his twin brother were just 9 months old, the priests in their lives became father figures. In Isely’s eyes, priests were heroes, on par with police officers and firefighters.
That image shattered, Isely says, when he was a high school freshman at a boarding school in rural Wisconsin run by Capuchins, where he was sexually assaulted by two priests.
Being abused by James Buser, a counselor for the freshmen class at St. Lawrence Seminary, and Gale Leifeld, the dean of students, created two separate realities, Isely says: There was the daytime world, where he hung out with friends, and the nighttime world, where he dreaded visits from men he’d idolized.
“At this school, which they called ‘The Hill of Happiness,’ there were probably 50 priests and 200 students. It’s so isolated,” recalls Isely, a founding member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “The whole social power arrangement was centered around (the priests). You knew not only would no one believe you, but who were you going to tell anyway? … There was nowhere we could go and no one we could talk to.”
Many victims of sexual abuse use disassociation to get through the worst of it. In other words, they mentally check out when the abuse happens. It’s a necessary survival skill. Isely said he did that, yet “the daytime world did fall apart for me.”
“In my yearbook pictures, I’m so thin,” Isely says. “My grades plummeted, I was depressed, I felt like an outcast. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew I hated it and didn’t want it.”
Catholicism, Isely says, was his “spiritual homeland.” The exile from that brought indescribable pain.
“It’s only when you’re older that you understand authority is faulty,” he says. “But to have that faith ripped away when you’re a child, that is a place of utter destitution.”
In June 2013, the Capuchins released an audit that included a list of friars with confirmed reports of sexual abuse of minors. Buser and Leifeld, the men who allegedly assaulted Isely, were on the list. The Capuchins acknowledged that their handling of sex abuse cases was “inconsistent and generally inadequate,” according to the report.
John Celichowski, then the Capuchins provincial minister, said his attendance at a Restorative Justice Conference in 2011 served as a catalyst for the audit and decision to release names. Though Celichowski acknowledged that the Catholic Church was slow to show all its warts – “nobody likes to expose embarrassing things about themselves or the group they care about” – he wrote in the audit’s epilogue that “bringing sin into the light is the best hope we have to overcome it.”
Isely credits the Capuchins for the thorough, self-critical examination.
“I think they’ve gone further than any other religious order or diocese or archdiocese, I will give them that,” Isely says. “I think they realized that survivors and victims are not the enemy. We need to work together to solve this.”
Progress, but not enough
To Isely, Reidy and other advocates for transparency, releasing names of every accused clergy member is an obvious move.
First and foremost, it provides a necessary layer of public safety. It also “frees you from being bound to that secret,” Isely says. Seeing the name of an abuser in print, even if he’s dead, helps validate a survivor’s story and provides some sense of closure.
Isely suspects that for the survivors who never come forward, paralyzed by the fear of reliving their most agonizing moments, seeing names lifts a burden. For decades, many survivors worry, “I’m the only one.” Seeing their abuser’s name in black and white reinforces that they’re not alone and that their story matters – even if they keep that story to themselves.
Some suspect that the document dumps from various dioceses and religious orders are not coming from a place of compassion but are an effort to get in front of what could be another wave of crippling public relations problems, depending on what happens in the state investigations.
“Does (the Church) have more enlightenment and understanding? I don’t know, but it definitely is progress,” Isely says.
Reidy hopes “that it all explodes,” and every single institution tied to Catholics – churches, prep schools, colleges, hospitals – gets exposed. The Church, he says, has to clean house completely.
Even if it does, Reidy doesn’t imagine he’ll be able to return. He doesn’t believe his faith is coming back, nor his ability to separate what happened to him from the place or people involved.
A few years ago, Reidy’s cousin got engaged, and a wedding invite showed up in the mail. Reidy called to tell her how happy he was for her.
But he couldn’t attend, he said, because he can’t walk through the doors of a church.