Devout and defiled
While male victims of predatory priests dominate the headlines, abused
girls and women suffer in silence
By Mary Papenfuss
January 9, 2003
It wasn't until Terrie Light had children of her own that she revealed
her darkest secret: She had been raped, at the age of 8, by a priest in
the rectory of a church in the Oakland Diocese.
"It was a violent, sadistic attack. I kept it inside of me for years,"
says the 51-year-old mother of six. "When my oldest son turned 7,
I couldn't ignore it any longer. I was a good Catholic girl -- obedient,
respectful. I always felt guilty because I was pretty. I tried not to
be attractive because I thought that being attractive was somehow sinful.
I think a lot of sex abuse victims were good Catholic girls."
Light, the Northern California representative of the Survivors Network
of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who eventually reached an out-of-court
settlement with the church, hopes a new California law suspending the
statute of limitations on sex abuse will give others like her the courage
to finally come forward and begin to shift national attention in the burgeoning
clerical abuse scandal to include a hidden but major population of victims
Abuse survivors, along with their attorneys and psychologists, say that
sexism and social conditioning, magnified many times over within the Catholic
Church, have led to the trivialization of harm suffered by women who have
come forward to finally report abuse by priests. At the same time, these
same factors have caused women to be ashamed -- and keep silent -- about
"There's no question that abuse of women [by priests] has been vastly
underreported," says A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist
who has studied priests' sex lives for more than 30 years. "There's
a tremendous bias against women in the U.S. -- and the world -- and a
tremendous callousness about sexual abuse against women."
No secular organization has statistics on the total number of people abused
by priests; the most complete numbers are held by church officials, who
aren't sharing. But attorneys and survivor networks estimate that from
one-third to over a half of all victims of sexually abusive priests are
women. And criminal cases filed in the last year in Los Angeles County
involve approximately the same number of male and female victims.
Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist whose Minneapolis Walk-in Counseling
Center has worked on more than 2,000 cases of clerical sex abuse, says
the majority of clerical abusers that he and his staff deal with (from
several denominations) victimize girls and women. Yet, he says, public
perception is that far more males are abused, and that the harm they suffer
is more serious than what females experience.
"Women and girls are every bit as much at risk as boys and men,"
says Schoener. "But the sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more
seriously, and is considered a far worse offense. Men are regarded as
too strong to be victims; their victimization is somehow more shocking
to the public. Women are expected to put up with more.
"The press also tends to cover -- and the big damage awards go to
-- the boy cases," he adds. "The altar boy cases tend to make
better copy -- they're more salacious."
Schoener says notorious, headline-grabbing cases of "gross mismanagement"
in places like Boston, where predatory priests were moved from one parish
to another and given easy access to large numbers of altar boys, tend
to distort the real picture of sex abuse in the church.
To begin with, women appear less likely to report abuse, says Schoener.
The shame of sexual abuse is similar for both genders, but women tend
to be "trashed" by church officials and supporters as being
seductresses, he says. "We have seen girls as young as 10 portrayed
as sirens." Reporting sex abuse also tends to have more serious ramifications
for a woman's marriage.
"A lot of men blame their wives for abuse and are shocked by the
sexual history," says Schoener. "Societal preoccupation with
virginity at the time of marriage cuts across many cultures. It's mind-bending."
An important factor in the underreporting by women, and their greater
emphasis on shame, says Schoener and others, comes from the idea that
women in the Catholic Church toil in the shadow of Eve. Just as Eve is
portrayed by the church as being responsible for original sin and leading
Adam astray, so too are tantalizing teenage girls characterized as responsible
for some priests' downfall.
"The church is so dominated by men that there's a tendency to portray
girls as provoking the crimes against themselves. The depositions read
like rape cases used to: Did you enjoy it? What were you wearing?"
reports Susan Gallagher, a political science professor at the University
of Massachusetts at Lowell. Gallagher won a $250,000 settlement after
being sexually abused at the age of 14 by the Rev. Frank Nugent, a priest
who ran a youth camp in Ellenville, N.Y., for the Salesian Catholic order.
Nugent also worked at the Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey,
N.J. He was later transferred to Massachusetts. "There's also a homophobic
view that sex with girls is somehow more natural, that some of these priests
were just being red-blooded American men."
This attitude was epitomized by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago when
he spoke out last spring against a zero-tolerance policy for sexually
abusive priests. Indicating that sex between priests and teenage girls
is somehow more forgivable, he said: "There is a difference between
a moral monster like [Boston priest] John Geoghan and a priest who, perhaps
under the influence of alcohol, is involved with a 17-year-old girl who
returns his affections. Both are crimes, but in terms of the possibility
of reform, they are very different sets of circumstances."
Adult women who have been abused face the toughest fight of any, Schoener
believes. Their abuse by priests -- often during spiritual or marital
counseling sessions -- wins little public attention compared to abuse
of children. In addition, they are often held responsible for the relationship.
The pattern of lawsuit filings also shows that suits tend to be filed
primarily on behalf of men, according to several attorneys. Jeffrey Anderson,
a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who is considered the nation's predominant litigator
in Catholic clergy sex-abuse cases, says that of the 700 cases he has
filed, about two-thirds of the victims are male and one-third are female.
That's the opposite ratio of sex-abuse cases in the general population,
where two-thirds of the victims are female and one-third male.
"Women have been discouraged culturally, and especially by the Catholic
Church, from reporting abuse," says Anderson. "Often, when they
go to a church leader to talk about an assault, they are rebuked rather
than helped." Anderson's own daughter was assaulted at age 8 by a
former priest -- during therapy. "I had no idea until I had been
doing this work for 10 years," he said. "She suffered for years
in silence and shame." His daughter's perpetrator was successfully
prosecuted, he said, but "she still wears the scars very painfully."
Many of those who are convinced that abuse of women by priests is vastly
underreported still suspect that, overall, more males than females have
been abused by priests, primarily because priests have more access to
boys after Mass and in sports programs. "It's easier for priests
to spend time -- and time alone -- with boys," says Gallagher.
In fact, many abusive priests are alleged to have attacked children of
both sexes, which is evidence that opportunity is a key factor when it
comes to which children are victimized. "Of thousands of cases across
the country that I'm familiar with, a significant number of priests abuse
both boys and girls," says Sipe. "It's a question of who they
can get their hands on."
Gallagher said her older brother, Patrick, was repeatedly abused by her
abuser. Patrick, who Susan said had become suicidal because of the abuse,
died at 25 in an accident driving a car owned by Nugent's order, the Salesians.
The public impression that abusive priests preyed only on boys hasn't
just caused abused women to feel pushed aside. It has provided fuel for
a drive on the part of conservative Catholics to rid the priesthood of
gay men, who, Sipe estimates, make up about a third of the priesthood.
The focus on boys is encouraged by the Vatican, says Sipe, and is seen
to provide convenient scapegoats -- gay priests -- for a problem that
has nothing to do with the issue.
In the Vatican's first comments about the developing American scandal
last spring, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, chief spokesman for Pope John Paul
II, said gay men should be barred from the priesthood. "People with
these inclinations just cannot be ordained," he said.
The public perception that sex-abuse victims in the church are almost
exclusively men is so distorted, says Gallagher, that men who attend SNAP
meetings are surprised to find women there -- and women are astonished
that they are not alone in a sea of men. This sense of isolation only
serves to keep women silent about their abuse, says Gallagher.
Gallagher says that even when women have the courage to come forward and
publicize their abuse, they are often shunned. She says she has protested
repeatedly about the lack of coverage of female victims of priest sex
abuse. She took her complaints to the Boston Globe, which spearheaded
coverage of the Boston priest abuse scandals, but the paper, she said,
failed to cover her story despite several interviews. Gallagher then turned
to the New York Times, which did run a story about her abuse.
Meanwhile, a Globe ombudsman responded to Gallagher's complaints, saying
that a story about female victims of priest sex abuse was on its "to-do
list" and that "a four-person reporting team can only do so
much." The Globe finally did a story on Dec. 27 about female victims
in the Boston Archdiocese -- almost nine months after the Times.
"If by [the Globe's] own admission as many as a third of the victims
are female, I don't think a single story does it," says Gallagher.
"The press has to keep up coverage of female victims so that more
people come forward. I told my story because I thought it would do some
good -- that others would see Father Nugent's name and come forward. He
was working for years with children."
Gallagher says she knows victims so mortified by their experiences that
they're "waiting for their parents to die" before they'll come
forward. Light says she was relieved when her attacker died. She remained
frightened of him even into adulthood. "These priests seemed almost
supernatural to us when we were children," she said.
The amount of fear, shame and self-loathing experienced by victims of
abusive priests has tended to be the same regardless of the victims' genders,
says Schoener. And the patterns of abuse also are similar. Attorney Michael
Meadows of Walnut Creek, Calif., says he consistently finds eerie parallels
in the cases of male and female clients.
"It's uncanny how similar these cases are," he says. "These
kids were abused at 12 or 13. They're singled out by priests as being
from broken or troubled homes. They're least likely to have someone to
turn to. Then it gets buried for years and years. Their lives deteriorate.
At some point in their late 20s or mid- to late 30s they hit rock bottom.
That's when they confront what happened to them, but under the statute
of limitations it's usually too late."
The statute of limitations often means that cases are lost before they're
even filed because of a "technicality," says Meadows. "These
people have lives with a deep, dark secret for years. It doesn't mean
these people suffered any less because time has passed. These are some
of the most psychologically damaged people you can imagine."
But the new California law, the first of its kind in the nation, has suspended
the statute of limitations on all sex-abuse cases in the state for one
year as of Jan. 1, 2003. The law came before the California Legislature
last summer at the height of the Boston scandal and passed without opposition.
Last month, church officials in California issued a letter to priests
and parishioners warning them of an expected flood of lawsuits.
"Some of these lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled
cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since
dead," said the letter. "Under those circumstances, it will
be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth." Church officials
have indicated they're willing to settle many cases without a court fight.
Jeffrey Anderson is joining with attorneys Dave and Larry Divron in Stockton,
Joe George in Sacramento, and Ray Boucher in Southern California, to file
some 250 suits in California during the coming year. "We expect more
as victims see their abusers' names in the press and continue to come
forward," says Divron. The chances are good that many women will
be among the plaintiffs.
Meadows, who plans to file seven cases representing clients ranging in
age from 30 to 52, welcomes the California law and says financial compensation
does help, but doesn't go far enough. "It's one small step on the
road to recovery," he says. "But there'd be nothing better than
to see some of these guys behind bars.
"You read the documents and it's the same over and over," he
says. "Abusive priests were moved from one church to another with
no word of warning to anyone. You wonder, where was the one man of conscience
looking out for the kids?"
About the writer: Mary Papenfuss is deputy senior editor of the Life section