Dead Priest Left Legacy of Pain, Fear

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald
June 5, 2005

Patricia Butkowski has only a few clear memories about being abused by the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino.

In one memory, she crouches on the floor of the priest's car, crying as he pulls up to her family's house in Lewiston. She is 6 years old.

In another, she is 9 and asks her mother why her name is on a bottle of pills. The medicine is for her nightmares and helps her sleep, her mother replies.

Butkowski's mother later filled in some of the gaps about that day in 1958 when Trish came home crying: The family's doctor said Trish was bruised and swollen and had been sexually molested.

Her parents went to police and then to the Roman Catholic bishop in Portland. They felt assured that Sabatino would be kept away from other children.

He wasn't. Instead, the young priest was transferred to a parish in Portland, where he had plenty of access to young girls.

Sabatino was never charged with sexual abuse or accused in a lawsuit. But since his death at the age of 65 in 1990, 13 additional women, either personally or through family members, have come forward to say Sabatino sexually abused them after his transfer to St. Peter's more than four decades ago.

The accusations against Sabatino and the legacy of pain left to so many victims stand out among the cases of Maine priests and church employees accused of sexually abusing children - a group that includes more than 60 people over the past 75 years.

And it is the only known case in which a Maine priest continued abusing children after being reported to the Diocese of Portland. "It's the worst," said diocese spokeswoman Sue Bernard.

Butkowski and two of the other women who say Sabatino molested them agreed to talk about their experience with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Their stories, and the accounts of other victims who came forward to say Sabatino abused them, are included in investigative documents released May 27 by the Maine Attorney General's Office.


Those documents for the first time publicly identified Sabatino and 19 other dead priests accused of sexual abuse. They were released after a lawsuit by the Blethen Maine Newspapers, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, ended with a Maine Supreme Judicial Court order to make the records public.

The women, now in their 40s or 50s, came forward independently. But their stories of abuse - touching, rubbing and grinding - are remarkably similar.

So are many of their stories about the deep wounds that they say Sabatino inflicted, right down to the anger and depression, the loss of faith and the nightmares, that haunt some of them more than four decades later.

"I just thought I was a worthless piece of (expletive)," said Maureen Bickford of Windham, who says she was abused repeatedly by Sabatino as a young girl growing up in downtown Portland.

"I always felt at fault," she said. "I always felt I didn't stop him."

The Attorney General's Office singled out the case - without disclosing details or Sabatino's name - in its February 2004 report about sexual abuse of children in the Maine church.

The allegations against Sabatino were too old to prosecute, even if he were still alive. State investigators looked at the case for a potential criminal charge against church officials who reassigned Sabatino. But, again, too much time had passed and the people involved had died, said Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin.

"If that were to happen today, the diocese or other officials who were making that decision might be liable for child endangerment," she said.

But it could not happen today, Bernard insisted. A church policy now calls for suspending a priest after one credible allegation of abuse. And the case clearly shows how awareness and attitudes about the crime have changed in the past 40 to 50 years.

Following the attorney general's report last year, then-Bishop Joseph Gerry singled out the case and the pain that it continues to cause. "On behalf of the church, I apologize to the victims for their immeasurable suffering," he wrote in a public statement.

The records show that 14 women or their family members have told either the church or civil authorities that Sabatino molested the women more than 30 years ago. Most of the women say they were between 7 and 13 years old at the time, although one said the abuse continued until she was 17.

Except for the abuse of Butkowski in Lewiston, the incidents appear to have taken place in the Portland area.


Many of the women were part of Sodality, an after-school children's club at St. Peter's parish hall in Portland. They said Sabatino invited them and supervised them.

The popular priest got the girls to play games, several of the women recalled. A favorite was hide-and-seek. He would pick one girl to hide with and then abuse her, sometimes touching her genitals or rubbing himself against her groin or belly so hard it hurt, the women said.

One anonymous victim told investigators that he also made her reach under his robes and touch his genitals. She was led to believe that if she did not do what she as told, she would not go to heaven.

Another said Sabatino would tie her to a support pole in the hall, then grind against her and kiss her.

Sabatino was a Portland native. He was part of a large family and a graduate of Cheverus High School, at the time the city's Catholic boys' school. He served as a priest in Maine for 35 years.

His nephew, Joseph Sabatino of Windham, said he had recently heard his late uncle's name mentioned in connection with the abuse investigations but that he did not hear details or talk about it with relatives.

"He was well-liked, a very popular person, everywhere he went. This is really a big shock," Joseph Sabatino said.

All of Sabatino's immediate family members have died, he said, but there are many relatives in the area who have great respect for him and will be devastated by publication of the allegations.

"My God, all the good memories I have, and I'm not the only one, . . . will be wiped out," he said.

The women who were abused, meanwhile, have been affected in various ways.

Some say they have dealt with the memories and the feelings, either through counseling or on their own, while others continue to sort through the pain. The diocese is paying for therapy for women who contacted the church and requested its support.

The disclosure of Sabatino's name and his misconduct is both a painful reminder and a hopeful step for the women who agreed to speak out about the abuse.

"I think it's those of us who learned to process how we were affected that will talk about it," Bickford said. "I don't carry the shame as much anymore. I know the facts."

The women hope that talking about it, though difficult, will help them move forward.

They hope disclosure will mean that both Sabatino and church leaders finally will be held more accountable for what they did and did not do.

And they hope their voices will be a lifeline for any other victims who may still feel shame and believe they are the only ones.

Trish Butkowski also hopes she someday will feel safe in her own home and that the recurring nightmare that started when she was 6 will fade away and let her rest.

"It could have been stopped," Butkowski said.


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