As Bishops Talk, Women are Listening

By Gayle White
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
June 12, 2002

As the nation's Catholic bishops meet today in Dallas to address the church's sex abuse scandal, Ellie Harold of Norcross, Ga., will also be there _ making sure that she and other victims are not ignored.

Harold will be keeping watch on the bishops as they debate the most contentious issue of the meeting _ whether to establish a policy of "zero tolerance" for past sexual misconduct.

And she wants to make sure at least some women's voices are heard.

Numerous reports of sexual misconduct and cover-ups in the Catholic Church have broken around the country this year, resulting in the suspension or resignation of more than 200 of the nation's 46,000 priests and potentially costing the church millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements.

Two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse. And more than 300 lawsuits alleging clerical sexual abuse have been filed in 16 states since January, according to The Associated Press.

The allegations, affecting dioceses from New England to the West Coast, are so widespread and serious that U.S. bishops are formulating a national policy on clergy misconduct.

The bishops themselves are not unscathed. Several, including the cardinals of Boston and New York, have been accused of harboring child molesters by moving them from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. Four bishops Anthony O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla.; James F. McCarthy of New York; J.

Kendrick Williams of Lexington, Ky.; and Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee _ have stepped down after being accused of inappropriate sexual relationships.

Within this context, the country's almost 300 Roman Catholic bishops will conduct their work at the annual meeting with an audience of almost three times that many reporters. In a nearby hotel, victims plan their own news conferences while monitoring the bishops' deliberations.

Throughout the scandal's repeated disclosures, most of the attention has focused on the sexual abuse of boys and young men. In the shadows are "thousands upon thousands" of cases of women and girls who have been sexually abused by priests, said Gary Richard Schoener, a Minnesota psychologist and expert on sexual abuse by clergy.

Richard Sipe, a researcher and author in the field of sexual abuse, estimates that one in four children abused by priests are girls, "but girls aren't getting a fourth of the attention."

Furthermore, he said, four times as many priests are involved with women as with minors of both genders combined. Although some of those relationships are clearly consensual, others involve counselors taking inappropriate advantage of vulnerable parishioners, Sipe said.

Emboldened by outrage, some women are beginning to speak out.

"It's taken us a long time to feel good about being able to stand up for who we are," said Kate Swiatek, 53, a nurse and former nun who lives in DeKalb County, Ga.

Swiatek is among a cluster of Atlanta-area women who, since disclosures of sexual abuse in the church began unfolding, have begun to share a secret some had kept for decades.

All say they were molested by the Rev. Clarence Biggers, a priest at St.

Joseph's Church in Marietta, Ga., in the early 1960s. Biggers, 90, is living at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga.

The Rev. Dennis Steik, present-day provincial head of the Marists, the religious order that assigned Biggers to St. Joseph's, said old files support the women's allegations.

Swiatek said Biggers, a frequent guest in her childhood home, would fondle her after she went to bed, expose himself in the country club swimming pool and put his hand in her bathing suit.

At a recent meeting of victims, some said they had been molested repeatedly by Biggers. Others had experienced a single incident.

Some didn't want to talk about what happened to them. Others couldn't stop.

Steik, representing the Marists, was also there.

Everyone seemed to find catharsis in finally getting the truth out into the open.

"To think I went through all those years thinking it was just me," said Pat Hajduk, 51. "Now I know there's five of us. Probably there are many, many more we don't know about."

Her long-held feeling of isolation is not unusual, say experts in the field of child sexual abuse.

Men and women who were sexually abused as children often keep silent for years, said Schoener.

If they do come forward, he said, females are more likely than males to be blamed for what happened to them.

"If you go into a case with a little girl, they're going to try to paint her as seductive," he said. "I've never seen that done with little boys."

Girls themselves may feel somehow to blame, or may feel unworthy of bringing allegations against a man of God, said Sipe.

Swiatek concurs. "I think Catholic women have basically been educated to revere the priests," she said. "The message is, we're here to serve you.

Being taken advantage of sexually only reinforces that."

Some of the families of the priest's victims felt scorned after one girl told her parents what he had done to her and the parents wrote a letter of complaint.

"These were all people who were very active in the church and school, who gave constantly of their time and money," said Swiatek, "and they were suddenly pariahs."

Some families left the school and church because of the backlash. To children, who didn't know about the letter and the other victims, being removed felt like punishment.

"The next thing I knew, my brother and I were pulled out of school," said Hajduk. "And no one ever mentioned it to me again. It was like it never happened."

In general, people may be more horrified by same-sex abuse than by men molesting girls, said Susan Archibald, a victim activist who said she was abused by a Catholic chaplain at the Air Force Academy her freshman year.

Biggers himself reflected this attitude, according to Harold.

Confronted at the monastery in 1991, she said, the priest told her: "At least I'm not like those priests you read about in the newspaper. ... I've never done anything with little boys."

Archibald is organizing a panel on female victims that will take place in Dallas while the bishops are meeting. Harold, who will be there, is planning to organize an Atlanta branch of a national victims organization.

To those who say victims should "just get over it," Harold explains the significance: "This was my first sexual experience. That's what's so profound. It paints every other contact of that sort."

She worries that women's voices will go unheard.

"My concern is, it looks as if the church is going to focus on the problem being one of homosexual priests," she said. "The danger is they will try to install safeguards to avoid that, scapegoat the gay priests, and totally overlook the women, the vulnerable girls."

But she, Swiatek and Hajduk look at the revelations as a beginning.

"If any good can come of this, it's that we're together," said Hajduk, who recently left a sales job to pursue a long-held dream and become a flight attendant. "We are able to take the next step _ what are we going to do about it?"


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