Abuse Victim Is Suspicious about Timing of Apology

By Andy Newman
New York Times
April 11, 2002

Susan Gallagher received another e-mail message two weeks ago from the lawyer for the Salesians, the Roman Catholic order of the priest who had sexually abused her and two of her brothers in New Jersey and New York more than 20 years ago. It read like many others the order had sent her.

The lawyer, Richard Beran, wrote that the Salesians had taken all necessary steps to keep the priest, the Rev. Frank Nugent, now 80, away from children. That the Salesians would report clerical abuse in Massachusetts, where Father Nugent had also worked, when and if the state passed a law requiring it. And no, he said in response to a request from Ms. Gallagher, the Salesians would not release her from the confidentiality agreement that went with the $250,000 settlement they paid her in 1998.

The e-mail message that arrived five days later, on April 2, might have dropped from a different planet. It was from the Salesians' regional vice provincial himself, and it was an abject apology, the first Ms. Gallagher had received in the eight years since she first told the Salesians about Father Nugent's abuse.

The vice provincial, the Rev. James Heuser, apologized not just for the harm done by Father Nugent, but also for "the further pain you have experienced by our seeming failure to grasp the seriousness of your claims," which "only exacerbated the harm already caused you by Father Nugent himself."

He is now "being supervised in seclusion," Father Heuser wrote. He said the civil authorities in New Jersey and New York would be told of Ms. Gallagher's accusations.

In addition to a blanket admission of wrongdoing and regret like those issued by many Catholic officials in recent weeks, the Salesians, an international order of 34,000 priests and nuns whose stated mission is "to improve the lives of poor, innocent children," have begun the delicate process of extending personal mea culpas to individual victims of sexual abuse.

Father Heuser said in an interview on Tuesday that he wrote to Ms. Gallagher, 42, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, after spending part of Easter weekend reading over her letters and messages to the order, in which she described her pain and pleaded for the Salesians to come clean.

"I thought to myself, for her own sake and for her own ability to heal, I should write a letter apologizing," he said.

The day after he wrote to Ms. Gallagher, Father Heuser wrote in a news release -- prompted by an allegation that a Salesian brother had abused a boy at a Florida boarding school in 1987 -- that the order was "deeply sorry" for its mishandling of abuse cases and would institute reforms. Father Heuser said he had written personal letters to other victims, though he would not say how many. "We're trying to come to terms with the fact that some of our members have violated young people in grievous ways," Father Heuser said. "We need to be penitent."

Ms. Gallagher's lawyer, Stephen Rubino, attributed the Salesians' policy shift to the swift pace of events in the temporal world.

"They would have to be truly deaf, dumb and blind if they didn't realize after the last 90 days that they had to change, for their own survival," Mr. Rubino said. "They're doing the right thing because they've been hauled into the court of public opinion and been convicted. So this is an expression of remorse much like a person who is about to be sentenced in a criminal court."

Still, Mr. Rubino, who has handled dozens of clerical abuse cases, said he had never seen such an "unreserved admission of concern" as the one Father Heuser sent Ms. Gallagher.

In the mid-70's, according to Ms. Gallagher and several of her old friends, Father Nugent used his position as director of the Salesians' Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey, N.J., to serve as an all-purpose enabler for a group of wayward, mostly poor teenagers from the nearby town of Waldwick, including the Gallaghers.

They said he turned a stone house on school property into a sort of Plato's Youth Retreat, stocking it with vast amounts of liquor for parties, encouraging under-age couples to use it as a love nest.

At the center of Father Nugent's circle, Ms. Gallagher said, was her older brother Patrick, who was probably 12 when Father Nugent met him at a youth camp the priest ran in Ellenville, N.Y.

Ms. Gallagher said that Father Nugent lavished tens of thousands of the Salesians' dollars on Patrick, one of seven children of a perennially broke alcoholic single mother, paying for anything he wanted, like a trip to Europe, motel rooms for trysts with his girlfriends and endless beer.

Susan, four years younger than Patrick, was also on Father Nugent's A-list. She says he took her shopping often, bought her dinner at fancy restaurants and gave her hundreds of dollars to buy marijuana for herself and her friends, stuffing tightly folded bills into her pants pockets.

For Patrick, the price of this largesse was years of sexual abuse, Ms. Gallagher said. When Susan turned 14, she said, Father Nugent, a short, roly-poly man, started in on her, making her perform oral sex on him.

Patrick's older brother, Brendan, 48, who owns a bar and lives in New Orleans, said Father Nugent molested him once, too.

Over time, Ms. Gallagher said, Father Nugent lost interest in her, but not in Patrick. Eventually, Brendan said, Patrick began pushing Father Nugent away, but in 1980, while drunk, he drove a car owned by the Salesians into a pond and died. He was 25.

In 1994, long after the deadline for filing criminal charges, Ms. Gallagher finally told the Salesians about Father Nugent's abuse of Patrick. They removed him as director of a youth retreat in Ipswich, Mass., sent him to rehabilitation and paid for Ms. Gallagher's psychotherapy.

But in 1998, Ms. Gallagher learned that the Salesians had put Father Nugent in charge of the finances of a youth camp in Newton, N.J. Enraged, she told them about her own abuse and started legal action. The Salesians quickly settled with her.

Meanwhile, Father Nugent continued to live at the Salesian residence in Orange, N.J., teaching theology to college-age seminarians. Last year Ms. Gallagher learned that he had been asked to say a novena -- nine days of prayers and religious devotions -- near Scranton, Pa.

The Salesians, Ms. Gallagher believed, just didn't get it. "Imagine that a predator raped your daughter over a 10-year period," she wrote to Mr. Beran, the lawyer, in February. "How would you feel if you had to see that rapist placed on the altar year after year, provided with a position of religious honor, and selected to serve as a spiritual guide for younger priests?"

Shortly thereafter, the Salesians removed Father Nugent from the seminarians' residence. They will not disclose his present whereabouts, but one of their lawyers, Seth Taube, said, "He has been placed, without a car, in a location that is not near any youth facility, under the constant supervision of two other Salesians who are under instructions that he's not to go out."

As for Ms. Gallagher, she is not sure what to feel now.

On the one hand, she said, the apology lifted some of the burden that victims always feel -- that they are somehow to blame. On the other hand, she said, "it seems like they're only trying to cover themselves, and because they were finally left with no other choice. All around, what victims everywhere have faced for years on end is stonewalling and refusal. So this change is abrupt and profound, and somewhat mysterious. And not in a religious or spiritual way."


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