Silence is broken
Victims of sexual abuse by clergy seek strength and answers at conference
By Michael Hirsley
October 19, 1992
The woman rose hesitantly to speak of a bygone day. And though tears came to her eyes before she finished, her words poured out in a powerful rush.
"Where do I direct my rage at the priest who abused me in a convent?" she asked.
"The first kiss of a young woman should not come from a middle-aged priest."
Although the conference where she spoke had the amenities of many conventions - wine and cheese on a banquet table, a hospitality suite and name badges - the theme that brought these 300 or so delegates together from across the country was antisocial.
Victims of one of the nation's most sinister religious problems - sexual abuse by clergy - sought to unite hundreds of isolated cases into a collective call for change at the first annual National Convention of VOCAL, an acronym for Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup.
Ninety percent of the delegates at the three-day conference were Catholics and a dozen clergy from various denominations attended, according to VOCAL President Jeanne Miller. Most of the delegates, all of them adults, were victims or family members of victims of clergy sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to physical abuse.
Empowering those whose accusations of clergy abuse have been downplayed by their respective denominations, and building a support network were goals of the conference, which concluded Sunday at the Woodfield Hilton Hotel in Arlington Heights. "Breaking the Cycle of Silence" was its theme.
Tears flowed freely as the men and women talked of their childhood abuse during open sessions and workshops.
Some participants did not want their names to be used in print. Those who did not want to talk to the press at all wore yellow ribbons on their badges.
But others were willing to talk openly, including some who had not publicly discussed their abuse before.
Rick Springer, 55, of Chicago, spoke for the first time of being sexually abused by a priest 40 years ago.
"I knew that what he was doing was wrong," said Springer, who was a Catholic convert and seminarian when it happened. "But I couldn't tell my family, which was alcoholic dysfunctional. I told leaders of my church, who said the archbishop of Chicago would be informed.
"But nothing happened. I was told to leave the seminary because I wasn't a good candidate for priesthood. That's the way it stayed for 31 years."
He said his life since has been filled with fits of alcoholism, self-loathing and abuse of others.
"Not sexual abuse, but for 31 years I have not been able to love or experience the love of others," he said. "Seven years of heavy psychiatric care has gotten me here."
Chris Schmidt, a college instructor living in St. Charles, said she was abused by a Presbyterian minister when she was 12 years old.
Among repressed memories that brought on suicidal thoughts four years ago, she said, was "the man lying on top of me, telling me not to worry because he had taken care of everything. I didn't know what he meant."
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which has struggled with clergy sex abuse cases, last month adopted a new reform policy that for the first time includes lay people in the investigation of sex abuse allegations against priests.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who had earlier agreed to address the conference, canceled after Miller criticized some aspects of the policy reforms.
In a letter to Miller, which she read Friday, Bernardin wrote that he believed "my appearance would be counterproductive both for you and me."
Rev. Andrew Greeley was the only attendee in clerical garb and the only priest to show up from the Chicago archdiocese.
Greeley, a longtime critic of the Catholic church's lack of response to the abuse problem, blamed a "privileged class" church structure that rewards loyalty, sometimes punishes individual idealism, and "imposes no standards of appropriate professional behavior on its members."
As a result, Greeley said in a speech at the conference, "priests can do anything they damn please to people, and feel pretty confident that they can get away with it.
"The sexually maladjusted priest has been able to abuse the children of the laity and thus far be reasonably secure from punishment. There is no power of church or state that is willing to force priests to be accountable for their behavior."
After quipping that "even the outfit . . . mob, syndicate, Cosa Nostra, call it what you want . . . has sanctions," Greeley drew prolonged applause when he said, "Every priest in the country who does not take action against the problem is, I would argue, morally responsible for it."
He gave brief praise to Bernardin's new reforms, but he said he did not expect change without continued pressure from Catholic laity.
One Catholic attendee, Gerald Prete, said he wanted abusive priests removed, but criticized VOCAL for "a general indictment of all priests in the diocese.
"I'm not going to be part of any witch hunt. There are too many good priests," he said.
But many who had experienced abuse were more critical and no longer attend church.
Frank Fitzpatrick, who was once a Catholic altar boy, now calls himself an atheist. Fitzpatrick, of Cranston, R.I., is among dozens of adult plaintiffs who have filed criminal and civil lawsuits against former priest John Porter, charging that he sexually abused them as children.
Porter is now a married father of four who lives in Minnesota.
"Religion victimizes us by demanding blind morality, blind faith," Fitzpatrick said. "I feel the whole institution therefore is vile and evil."