Therapist Names St. Louis Priest She Says Abused Her — in 1939
By Nassim Benchaabane
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
October 17, 2019
KIRKWOOD — A longtime therapist who has counseled dozens of abusive Catholic priests on Wednesday named for the first time the priest who she says molested her as a child in 1939.
Sue Lauber-Fleming, 84, has long told stories of the suffering she endured, but decided Wednesday it was time to publicly identify Monsignor George Dreher, who died 57 years ago, as her abuser.
“I thought it only right in my heart to name him just in case someone else might be out there that had been abused by him,” Lauber-Fleming said.
She named Dreher on Wednesday in Kirkwood at the Tau Center, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, while promoting “Soul Light for the Dark Night,” the third in a series of books she and her husband, Patrick, a former St. Louis Catholic priest and now therapist, have authored on their years counseling hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse as well as perpetrators of abuse.
They were joined by their co-author Vicky Schmidt, of Springfield, Illinois, who in August named for the first time a priest there that had sexually abused her.
Dioceses and religious orders across the country have identified more than 5,100 clergy accused of sexual abuse, with more than three-quarters of the names released just in the last year. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, in July and August, released the names of 66 accused clergy, including 63 with credible allegations of sex abuse of a minor and three who had possessed child pornography. Of the 66, 26 men had never been publicly identified before by the church, in court records or in news reports, according to a Post-Dispatch review.
And Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Sept. 15 announced a yearlong review of church records found 163 cases of abuse involving clergy in all four Missouri dioceses, including 12 cases his office would refer to local prosecutors for possible criminal investigation.
A spokesman for Schmitt’s office said this week that attorney general’s staff is still in the process of referring those cases to local prosecutors and that he could not release more details.
‘What no child should have to see’
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said Wednesday that church officials have no record of a complaint against Dreher, who died June 19, 1962.
Sue Fleming never reported Dreher to church officials. The abuse happened in the late 1930s, she says, when she was four years old and Dreher was pastor of Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in south St. Louis.
The trauma caused the memories to lie repressed until the late 1980s, when she was a therapist counseling women who were survivors of sexual abuse. Their stories triggered her memories, she said.
“Something started quivering inside of me,” she said. She realized why her mother had long battled severe anxiety.
Dreher, drunk, snuck into the house one day after her father had left for work and her brothers had gone to school. Her mother was in the basement doing laundry. Her infant sister was asleep.
Her family lived in a three-bedroom home just behind the alley of Resurrection, and Dreher, their landlord, had a key to the home. He went into the basement, where he molested her mother, Sue Fleming said.
“Hearing my mother scream, I ran down the basement stairs, not knowing what was happening,” Fleming said. “What I saw no child should ever have to witness.
“My mother screamed for me to run back upstairs. As I ran for the steps, the pastor grabbed my little legs and molested me.”
They never discussed what happened, Lauber-Fleming said.
“This was 1939,” she said. “We’re talking about way back in another century. This was not talked about.”
‘To love unconditionally’
Before becoming a therapist, Lauber-Fleming was a hospital chaplain in St. Louis County, where she met her now husband, who was then a priest. Patrick Fleming left the priesthood in 1982 at age 33 after eight years of clerical work because he wanted to marry and start a family. The two married in 1992.
Most of the clergy they saw were at RECON, a Franciscan-run home in Franklin County for “clergy in need,” including priests who have been accused of sexual abuse from 2002 until November, when they retired. The clergy were from across the country as well as Canada and Ireland. The Flemings were the only therapists at the facility.
The decision to counsel the clergy was tough for Sue Fleming to make, but she believed one way she could help “stop the abuse” was “to bring health to the perpetrator.”
“I feared I would hate these men,” she said. “But Pat said, ‘Sue you always said you wished could counsel the priests. They need help.’ That turned me around. I was able to choose to go and to access deep in my soul my ability to love unconditionally.”
The men had often suffered trauma or abuse in their childhoods, struggled with post-adolescent psychological and sexual development, and in a handful of cases were themselves sexually abused as children by Catholic clergy. Their stories are common in that they did not receive treatment for their traumas and then, having unchallenged power over others, acted out their pain by abusing others, Patrick Fleming said.
“Part or the healing process is coming to understand the sickness of these men,” he said before the event Wednesday. “It doesn’t excuse what they did but it helps to understand it better so we can prevent it better.”
Those experiences have led Sue Fleming to forgive Dreher, which she did publicly in 2009 while speaking to a conference in San Francisco of diocesan officials who arrange assistance for victims of abuse she said.
The Flemings understand that their approach is their own and that others may be critical of the idea that perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be treated, Patrick Fleming said.
“I have a lot of anger at how the church handled this,” he said. “I really don’t have anger at the individual priests because we understand their sickness. It’s been harder for me to understand the cover-up.”
The couple suggested Wednesday reforming church hierarchy so that priests, seen as untouchable religious authorities, have less power over people and that higher ranking officials are not left to police themselves.
“Abuse happens wherever power and vulnerability, sickness and secrecy meet,” Patrick Fleming said.
But most important is that secrecy no longer reigns, Lauber-Fleming said.
“The more it keeps bubbling up,” she said, “the more opportunity there is for healing.”