Seven decades after a priest assaulted her, a Plainfield woman is still grappling with the trauma
By Anna Merriman
January 30, 2021
|An avid reader, Patty Rondeau, 82, of Plainfield, N.H., watches birds outside her window at her home on Wednesday, Jan.27, 2021. Rondeau was organizing books for her local library's book sale. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.|
|Patty Rondeau, 82, of Plainfield, N.H., holds a photograph taken of herself at her home on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. She was 10 years old when she was assaulted by a priest. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.|
|In her farmhouse kitchen on Friday, Jan., 22, 2021, Patty Rondeau, 82, of Plainfield, N.H., talks about how being assaulted by her family's priest when she was a girl has affected her throughout her life. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.|
|St. Anthony's Church in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.|
|Rev. Daniel Roberts in an undated photograph.|
When trauma resurfaced in Patty Rondeau’s life 50 years ago, it came in a sleek black car rolling up to her sister’s Hartford home.
The day had been beautiful; sunny and bright, just before a christening party one of her sisters was throwing. Rondeau, then in her 30s, was sitting among the lilacs and grass outside, turning the sandy dirt into small castles with her children.
The arrival of the Rev. Daniel Roberts dashed the idyllic moment.
“I lost it. I started shaking and crying,” Rondeau said. It was the first time in years that she’d seen the priest who she says sexually assaulted her as a young girl in White River Junction. “It was like it happened all over again.”
She told her older sister that she refused to go inside as long as Roberts was there. But, in the 1970s, decades before news about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church would make headlines across the country, and long before the #MeToo movement would draw attention to the prevalence and lasting trauma of sexual violence, Rondeau’s sister only sighed.
“Come on, Patty,” she said. “That was so long ago.”
Rondeau, now 82, still recoils when she thinks of Roberts. Sitting at a large wood table in her Plainfield home this month, Rondeau pulled at her fingers and sank back into her chair.
“My heart was broken,” she said, her voice catching as she spoke. “He was held in esteem.”
For decades, Rondeau had separated the memory of her assault in the basement of her family’s church in the late 1940s from the rest of her childhood growing up on a tight-knit road in White River Junction.
She hid the bad memory away, keeping it from many close friends as she grew up — until, in 2019, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington released a report naming 40 priests who had “credible and substantiated allegations” of sexual abuse made against them since 1950.
Among the names, near the bottom of the list, Rondeau saw “Daniel F. Roberts,” and his record as a priest, including that he died in Windsor at age 72 in 1981 and that an “allegation of abuse (was) first received in 2002.”
“All of a sudden, I just burst out crying. There it was,” Rondeau said. “It was kind of a validation. It wasn’t just you.”
A tragic memory
Though the assault happened more than 70 years ago, Rondeau can still recall the incident with clarity.
Based on Rondeau’s recollection and the Diocese timeline of Roberts’ service, it happened shortly before Mother’s Day in 1949, when she was 10.
Her family church, St. Anthony’s Parish in White River Junction, offered a photo shoot so children in the community could give the pictures to their mothers as presents. At the time, young Patty Thurston thought of Roberts as a safe, almost holy figure, someone she could trust.
“I loved Father Roberts because he was kind to all the kids,” she said. “The parents thought the world of him.”
Patty dressed in one of her best outfits, a little green and white coat-and-dress combination her aunt had given her. She remembers the outfit vividly; the coat had a peplum at the bottom and red seashell buttons running down the middle.
When Patty met Roberts on a stage in the basement of the church for the photo shoot, he had set up a tripod and a light, she remembered.
She said Roberts moved her hair to the side and told her, “We have to get more light off your skin.”
At the memory, Rondeau’s voice sank quieter. He opened the red seashell buttons, she said, and assaulted her.
“I was so scared,” she said between tears. “Why did he do that? It hurt.”
The next moments are a blur for Rondeau. She knows she ran from the church with her coat askew. She knows she screamed. She knows that when she returned home, she cried in her mother’s arms, telling her, “He hurt me,” and she knows her father got angry.
“To me, it seems like everything froze,” Rondeau said, remembering how her father swore and how her mother held her. “It was like time froze.”
Her father called the head of St. Anthony’s and the police chief, demanding they bring Roberts and meet at the house, Rondeau said.
“All of a sudden, they were there,” she remembered, her voice growing. “Father Roberts did a sign of the cross.”
Roberts disappeared from the community after the incident, and Rondeau said she believed at the time he was transferred to a facility or a job where he wouldn’t be around children.
In fact, Roberts became a chaplain at Mount Saint Mary Academy, a girls’ school in Burlington, and spent 30 more years, until his retirement, working at churches and schools around Vermont, including St. Francis of Assisi in Windsor, from 1969-75. He also worked as a chaplain at the Brandon State School, a former psychiatric facility for children in Brandon, Vt., and a pastor at St. Thomas Church in Underhill Center, St. Ann Church in Milton and St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Hinesburg.
Though Rondeau didn’t know where Roberts went at the time, she knew one thing: that he, and the threat, were gone.
“I assumed it was over,” she said, “except in my head.”
‘He took my Catholic faith’
Rondeau grew up on a quiet street, now known as Connecticut River Road, in White River Junction and remembers her childhood before the assault in a kind of glow. On summer nights, neighbors would swing open their doors and invite in the local families for drinks and food and the children for games. On afternoons, a woman down the street would have all the neighborhood kids over for lemonade and cookies while she taught them how to play poker.
When she was 8 years old, Rondeau had a small, 25-square-foot garden outside her house, growing out of the ash of dumped coals from the fireplace. She would watch as her flowers and her neighbors’ grew in the spring until they stood tall “like soldiers” in the summer grass.
It’s difficult for Rondeau to combine those memories with the assault. Even now, she says, she keeps them separate, as if two different experiences existing in the same quiet neighborhood of White River Junction.
“It’s like, in my mind, I don’t even want to remember that,” Rondeau said of the assault. “It’s a place I want to pull out.”
As she grew up, Rondeau became a nurse, taking a job at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and volunteering in the community as a Girl Scout leader and a caretaker at a day care. She married Armand Rondeau, her husband of 62 years, had one son and one daughter, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
But still, the pain of the experience follows some memories like a shadow, even as she works to heal.
“I had anger, great anger,” Rondeau said. She stopped going to church immediately after the assault — a choice her parents accepted — saying that the place which had once been a refuge became something she couldn’t stand.
“He took my Catholic faith,” Rondeau said. “He dirtied the water. He dirtied the whole experience.”
It wasn’t until years later that she revisited her childhood church for her brother’s wedding. But she said sitting in the pews, above the basement where she was assaulted, set the building in a new light.
“I was looking around at this beautiful church that I had loved so dearly, where I believed I was safe, where God took care of everybody,” Rondeau said. “I began to question at that point, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ”
It was a question that sat with her for years.
Rondeau said it was hard to discuss with other people, adding that, to this day, she doesn’t know how much her siblings knew about her assault. For almost her entire childhood, Rondeau believed she was alone in her experience.
In desperation, she turned to her only confidante: a doll in a blue dress named Suzy, which she had received as a Christmas present years earlier. In quiet nights of pain, she would turn to the doll and whisper, “What did I do?”
“That hung on all these years,” Rondeau said of the question. “What did I do wrong? What do I do to correct this?”
As the years went on, Rondeau hardened. She became tougher and angrier. She avoided large groups at parties. She stopped being as “adventurous” as she was before.
“I don’t know if I thought, ‘I’m different,’ ” Rondeau said. “But somewhere in my soul, I felt different.”
When she became an adult, Rondeau said family members tried to get her to forgive Roberts, especially near the end of his life in 1981.
Rondeau remembers one sister, calling her, asking her to visit the priest and to give him her “blessing.”
“I said, ‘No, I don’t have to do anything,’ ” Rondeau told her. She never wavered, and she never forgave him, Rondeau said. The pain was too strong.
“It affects you. Whatever you see, whatever you do, it’s still there. It filters your life.”
Rondeau’s inability to speak with others about the assault is not surprising for experts of sexual violence like Kate Rohdenburg, program director for WISE Upper Valley, an organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Isolation is such a powerful force,” Rohdenburg said, adding that it’s enough to discourage many survivors from discussing their assault.
But, she said, the culture has started to shift, in part due to increased education about sexual assault. Rape crisis centers and discussions around sexual violence and the long-term effects of sexual assault weren’t too common before the 1970s and ’80s, Rohdenburg said.
“That’s not to say there weren’t conversations about sexual violence before then,” Rohdenburg said. “But it wasn’t until more recently that we had this cultural movement ... that there started to be places to go where you could talk about it.”
Awareness about sexual assault, especially against children, increased more with national stories, particularly a bombshell Boston Globe investigation in 2002 about rampant sexual abuse at Catholic churches in Massachusetts.
Other stories have followed, like that of Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA gymnastics and former professor at Michigan State University who was sentenced in 2018 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting multiple women athletes; and the case of Harvey Weinstein, the film producer sentenced last year to 23 years in prison for a criminal sexual act count.
His arrest helped ignite the #MeToo movement in 2017, in which survivors of sexual assault began to share their stories to encourage more open discussions about he prevalence of sexual violence.
“I do think that broke another wall down,” Hanover psychologist Sarah Ackerman said of #MeToo. “It’s been pretty astounding and terrifying and liberating. Suddenly lots of women can come forward and share their stories.”
For people like Rondeau, who have held onto their stories for decades, Ackerman said the ability to finally talk about the experience is likely powerful. Suppressing the trauma can be “powerfully debilitating” for many survivors, she said.
“There’s one reality where they’re living what happened to them and another where they’re trying to ignore this elephant” of their experience, she said. “It’s a terrible injustice that she’s had to wait this long.”
On a snowy morning in January, Rondeau sat at her dining room table, donning a long green summer dress covered in flowers, and she smiled.
“I called my friend last night,” she said. She had opened up about the abuse during the phone call, and her friend responded with compassion, Rondeau said.
It’s been a long road to get to the point where Rondeau can tell her story to friends and acquaintances. She said she started therapy years ago, likening the experience to “tap dancing,” trying to tamp down all the trauma, from the assault as well as other periods of grief in her life. Still, Rondeau said, she “grew with each thing that I had to face.”
When asked about how the assault shook her faith, Rondeau paused.
“Not faith. It wasn’t my faith that was shaken. It was me and the church,” Rondeau said, adding that she brought her children to a Baptist church when they were young, but she no longer attends church.
Even so, she said the experience might have even made her faith — or her as a person — stronger.
“I’ve gone through some serious stuff, and my thought now is, ‘Give me your best shot.’ ”