" We Were the Good Kids"
" I Ran My Whole Life. Every Time Someone Would Get Close to Me, I'D Run Away."

By Kevin Horrigan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 14, 2002

Last week in this space, Harris Mirkin, a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City who studies sexual politics, suggested that the vast majority or children who are sexually abused suffer no permanent psychological harm.

John Eschen begs to differ. So do survivors.

"I'm sure he hasn't talked to many survivors," Eschen said. "Men who are abused as kids or teen-agers suffer a whole range of difficulties that are direct after-effects of abuse. And when the abuse is by a priest, there is an extra layer of betrayal on top of it."

Eschen spent eight years at Kenrick Seminary studying for the priesthood. After leaving the seminary, he spent 12 years as a teacher in archdiocesan schools. For the past 20 years, he's been a licensed professio nal counselor, specializing in men's issues. Inasmuch as government studies suggest that perhaps one boy in every six, and one girl in every four, has been a victim of sexual abuse, his practice is steady.

"Trust issues are paramount," he said. "The abuser is someone who is at least close enough to inspire some kind of trust. In a lot of cases, the abuse is presented as something that's good, but has to be a secret. The adult men I work with have a difficult time trusting other men. They're on guard and vigilant.

"In the majority of them, there's also some kind of sexual compulsivity, what (sexual therapists) Masters and Johnson called the 'trauma bond.' Some part of this experience creates an association that gets acted out later on. The sexual ramifications are profound."

Along with that are feelings of shame and complicity "Somehow they feel they share the blame," Eschen said. "They feel responsible. We've got this 'get over it' culture, like we're weak if we admit it.

"Some people repress things. They know it happened, but they don't think about it. Then something triggers a specific memory, and they're astounded to learn that the things causing trouble in their lives relate back to being abused."

Many victims live in fear that they, too, will abuse children. "You hear that a lot from survivors," Eschen said. "But the big majority don't become perpetrators themselves.

What can happen is that abuse can stunt normal sexual growth. "A lot of priests, for example, aren't pedophiles, but what we call 'regressed offenders,' " Eschen said. "They're men who don't have good sexual development, who are frozen in early adolescence. They never have a satisfying adult relationship, so in a passive way are drawn into relationships with a young person. They raise the child to a position of an adult, and say to themselves that it's OK. They're disassociated from right and wrong, so they re-frame the relationship in their own minds."

For their victims, the good news is that help is possible. Sometimes, es pecially for someone whose complaints have been dismissed by church officials, it's as simple as someone believing them.

"Amazing things happen when you get them into group therapy," Eschen said. "The rule of thumb is you do individual therapy for six months or so, and then get them into group. They hear other men's stories and get validated."

That's the way it happened for Steve Pona, 33. In a 1995 lawsuit, he accused the Rev. Bruce Forman of molesting him in 1983, when he was a member of Young Catholic Musicians, a youth choir and orchestra Forman directs. The archdiocese successfully argued that the statute of limitations had expired and had the suit dismissed. Forman, who is now pastor at St. Peter and Paul Church in Soulard, has denied the accusation.

"No one ever believed me," Pona said. "The only validation I ever got was at SNAP (the support group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests). From the time I was 14 to when I turned 30, I just kind of dropped out. I started doing everything I hated -- smoking, drinking, pot. I loved sports and writing, but I quit both of them. Sex? Who cared about sex?

"Then three years ago, I decided I'd get my life back. My time is coming. I decided I'd say to the church, '(expletive) you. You can't ruin my whole life.' "

For Bob Swart, 54, his abuse at the hands of a priest in Tampa, Fla., when he was 13 has governed his whole life. "I ran away from it," he said. "I ran my whole life. Every time someone would get close to me, I'd run away."

For Barbara Dorris, 56, memories of her abuse came late in life. It sent her into a tailspin of severe depression. A mother of six, she once attended daily Mass and was a pillar of St. Roch's Church in the West End. Now, she says, she's now viewed as "the crazy lady with an ax to grind."

Her allegations about her own abuse have been dismissed, as have allegations that she and other parents brought against a priest at St. Roch's in the early 1990s. She gave up her teaching job at the school and quit going to church. What she misses most is her faith.

"Why did we get driven out?" she asks. "That's the part I don't get. We didn't do anything wrong. We were the good kids. We obeyed father."


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