Our Towns: A Family Caught Between Faith and a Sister's Dark Secret

By Matthew Purdy
New York Times
April 28, 2002

Monroe, Conn. - You have to wonder whether the Catholic Church deserves Peggy Fry.

Mrs. Fry, 51, was sexually abused as a teenager by a clergyman in the Bridgeport Diocese who last week publicly apologized. Her story is shocking in its familiarity: an affable priest insinuates himself into a devout family and preys on one of its children.

Less familiar is the story of a victimized family keeping faith with a church that inflicted pain, only partly eased by its new formula for addressing abuse -- zero tolerance plus some tolerance equals muddle.

Mrs. Fry made her own adjustments. She never encouraged her three sons to be altar boys. She attends Mass, but no longer gives money. She briefly explored other denominations, and says with a hint of heresy: "There is one God, but I'm not sure there's only one church. That's a big statement. I'm a Roman Catholic."

She was raised in what one brother calls "the epitome of an Irish-Catholic family" in Trumbull. Their mother attended Mass daily and wove the church seamlessly into the lives of her five children. "We sat around the table after dinner every night and said the rosary, all seven of us," said Hugh Gallagher. "How do you rip that out?"

A young priest, Gregory M. Smith, pursued Mrs. Fry, then Peggy Gallagher, when she was 16, forcing her to have sex repeatedly for about a year, she said. When another girl complained, he was shuffled to another parish, Mrs. Fry contends.

Mrs. Fry never told her parents and told her siblings only in recent years. Now they are navigating between a church hierarchy she sees as corrupt, and a faith they love.

Last week, one of Mrs. Fry's sisters, Pam Arsenault, an education director at a nearby parish, asked their brother Ray to a Mass supporting so-called "good priests." But during a standing ovation for the priests, Ray remained seated. "It wasn't meant to be malicious," he said. "I think at that point the victims needed our attention."

Mrs. Arsenault insisted he stand. He refused and she worried they would start shouting in church. For Mrs. Arsenault, this is a painful period that she hopes will strengthen the church in the end. For Ray, "God is still God." But, he said: "The church was our connection to God. Now church is big business."

Mrs. Fry sought solace from the church. But when she revealed the abuse at confession years later, she said the priest came into her cubicle, saying, "Get out of here! You're making up lies. This is a house of God." She wrote to Edward M. Egan, then Bridgeport's bishop and now cardinal in New York, in the 1990's, and she said a monsignor responded, telling her, "I'm not saying it's not true, but God has given me the ability to forget what has been forgiven."

When Mrs. Fry's father died in 1995, her husband, Bill, told their priest about the abuse, asking that Father Smith be kept from the funeral. "He covered his ears," Mr. Fry recounted, and then the priest said, " 'I don't want to know who it is because if I do, I'll have to do something about it.' "

Mrs. Fry sued in 1997 and church officials, finding the allegations credible, suspended the priest, by then Monsignor Smith. The suit was dismissed because the claims were too old. He was declared "fit to return to ministry" and resumed work at a Bridgeport parish and Sacred Heart University.

She wrote to the Vatican representative in Washington in 1998, saying, "Please help me be at peace by responding." No one did.

Last week, after pressure from the Frys and local media attention, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport announced that Monsignor Smith was taking a leave. A spokesman said the monsignor, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, had acknowledged the contact with Mrs. Fry and the other woman. He left behind a letter saying, "I truly wish to apologize to those I harmed early in my ministry and I ask their forgiveness."

It is a lot to ask. The pain has reached a second generation. With the family joyously anticipating today's confirmation of a nephew of Mrs. Fry, her 23-year-old son called Thursday so angry that he questioned his own confirmation. "I think I convinced him that the confirmation was committing himself not to the organization of the church but to living as a Christian," she said.

"I 100 percent understood him," she said. "I lived with this all my life. He's looking for answers and I don't necessarily have the answers."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.