For Many Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse, Healing Can Take a Lifetime

By Albert McKeon
Nashua Telegraph [Nashua NH]
January 12, 2003

It quickly became the catchphrase of the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, but for those who suffer, healing is a complicated and largely inexplicable process.

“You don’t ever get healed completely,” Jim Sacco said. “It’s an open wound, and it gets small over time.

“I think of a war veteran. They see all kinds of things and go through all kinds of stress. They go to all those counseling sessions, but it doesn’t go away.”

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An archive of the Telegraph's coverage of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

Sacco, a 47-year-old Amherst resident, alleges that former Massachusetts priest John Geoghan abused him, his four brothers and his sister when their family belonged to Blessed Sacrament Church in Saugus, Mass., four decades ago.

His story illustrates how victims cannot wrap healing into a tidy package. A violation of body and spirit by a trusted figure coincides with unmanageable apprehension, doubt and fear.

To the victims of clergy abuse, healing requires a lifetime. Seeing negligent bishops and abusive priests finally face varying degrees of accountability provides some comfort, but it does not fade the scars.

“It’s not like having bronchitis and you take a pill and it’s gone in seven days,” said Dawn Reams, executive director of Bridges: Domestic & Sexual Violence Support, a Nashua-based service.

“Healing takes a whole life. It changes your view of the whole world. A victim can think only, ‘They took away my naivete and the way I see the world.’ ”

The ramifications of clergy abuse have also prompted the church to change its view. Cognizant that it can no longer place abuser over victim for the sake of institutional preservation, the church has made healing a priority.

Joe Naff, a longtime Catholic Charities clinical social worker, now helps the Diocese of Manchester enter this phase. He assists anyone stepping forward with abuse claims – past or present – and offers an array of services focused on a victim’s emotional and spiritual needs.

“The theme is healing,” Naff said. “We’re trying to accomplish that, whatever form it takes. It’s a crisis. You have to respond to it. You got to work and stick with it.”

A family torn asunder

After his appointment to Blessed Sacrament Church, Geoghan became friendly with Sacco’s family, often visiting their home. Unbeknownst to Sacco’s parents, Geoghan preyed on their six children.

The Sacco kids did not discuss the abuse for 30

years. Individually, no one even knew that the others had suffered the same fate until the first public allegations surfaced against Geoghan about seven years ago.

“As time goes on you pretty much hide it,” said Jim Sacco. “You want it to all go away.”

With the statute of limitations expired, Sacco and his siblings reached civil settlements with the Archdiocese of Boston in 1998. In the two years between when he lodged his allegation and when he settled, Sacco received psychiatric treatment funded by the archdiocese.

“It got me to open up and talk,” Sacco said. “But once you get back into the time frame, reliving that abuse, that gets to be trying.”

Sacco ended his psychiatric sessions when the settlement was finalized. He has since attended a few group therapy meetings held by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. He said his sister has not sought help.

“We go about dealing with it in our own ways,” he said. “It affects people differently. You just live with it and deal with it.”

Mostly, Sacco concentrates on his wife, their three daughters and work. But he faces constant reminders: a torn family, continuous media coverage and concerns about the public’s perception of him.

After the settlement, Sacco’s second-oldest brother wanted some of his siblings’ shares in addition to his own because he had acted as point man in representing the family. The demand separated him from the family. Sacco and his brother both attended a rally for abuse victims last year, but they have not spoken in four years.

“That’s one of the tough things about child abuse,” Sacco said. “It continues with mental anguish.”

Watching the crisis unfold this past year revived raw memories. But the resultant – especially Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation – and ongoing change in the church assured him that perhaps someday children could avoid harm.

Sacco coaches local girls softball and basketball teams, but he fears others may grow uncomfortable with him in that role. He wonders how they will react to his story of abuse.

“Many victims of abuse end up abusing,” Sacco said. “So some people may look at me like I’ll abuse. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.”

With these concerns, Sacco can never fully distance himself from the past. Now, with the scandal likely to remain in the forefront for years, Sacco simply hopes to comfort other victims just by recounting his story and assuring them they are not alone.

“It’s not nearly as difficult as what a soldier in war has seen,” he said. “But it is a mental anguish you go through the rest of your life.”

Reshaping lives

Victims need someone to whom they can confide, whether the abuse occurred yesterday or 20 years ago, Reams said. Bridges offers a 24-hour support line because a call for help can come at any time, she said.

“Through healing, people may have nightmares, flashbacks or they may be scared,” Reams said. “It’s not so much a crisis like it just happened, but you may want to talk about it. It does continue to affect your life for years and years.”

Counselors recommend that victims exercise, practice yoga or develop new skills to achieve empowerment, Reams said. Self-care becomes an important step in the healing process, she said.

Support groups become an essential tool because a victim sees “it’s not just me,” she said. “They realize other people are having nightmares and flashbacks. They’re angry. So what do you do with that anger? You talk with others on how to effectively use that anger.”

Last year, Bridges established a support group for clergy abuse victims with St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack, Reams said. The initiative worked so well that the Manchester diocese has taken the reins, she said.

The diocese will soon start a support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The group, Bethany, took shape partially from the Bridges-St. John Neumann collaborative, but it mainly was derived at the request of victims dealing with the diocese, Naff said.

Bethany will welcome all victims of abuse, not just those harmed by clergy, Naff said. Meetings will take place in various diocesan churches across the state.

The group will supplement the diocese’s other efforts, Naff said. Those offerings vary, but foremost among them is the diocese’s obligation to just listen, he said.

“Once Joe showed me, I’ve seen how amazing it is,” said the Rev. Edward Arsenault, the diocesan chancellor and the delegate on sexual misconduct. “You ask them, ‘What can I do to help you?’ The authority is theirs. To come from a priest – to say, ‘How do you want it done?’ – that’s how we can make a difference.”

After providing initial counseling and reporting the abuse to civil authorities – a stipulation of the diocese’s criminal agreement last month with the state attorney general – Naff offers the services of a therapist, either one in private practice or with Catholic Charities.

Naff also connects abuse victims with clergy members. Victims in these instances seek spiritual help, want to rejoin the church or would like their children raised in the Catholic faith but first want assurances that their young ones will not meet the same fate.

Victims sometimes feel improved after meeting with Bishop John McCormack because they need to hear from someone in his position, and he does apologize, Naff said. While they want their trust in clergy restored, others have no desire to rekindle their faith.

“It’s important to recognize the mistakes that have been made,” Naff said. “The church’s way of handling it has not been effective. We have to acknowledge that to be ready to lead society.”

Naff, who worked for Catholic Charities for 23 years before joining the diocese in 2001, never expected the crisis would explode as it did. But he believes the church will rebound, and that its role in the healing process will help realize that goal.

“When people see the openness, the structural changes and the laity being involved, then the people will see the church is putting its money where its mouth is,” he said.

Endless journey

David Clohessy became one of the faces of the clergy abuse crisis last year, a distinction cemented by his being named one of People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People.

As executive director of SNAP, Clohessy represents victims and believes healing will come when the full truth emerges about the church.

“Say I get run over by a drunk driver,” Clohessy said. “If I see that same guy in a car with a beer in his hand swerving, I’m not going to recover. The bishops may contend they don’t have the same policies then as now, but policies don’t change the deep-rooted affliction of denial, secrecy. The mindset is still there.”

Clohessy, 46, claims a priest abused him as a teenager in Moberly, Mo., a town about 130 miles west of St. Louis. His brother Kevin, a priest now on leave of absence, was accused in 1993 of molesting a male student while assigned to a Catholic student center at a Missouri university. Clohessy does not keep in contact with his brother.

“Abuse of kids is like a cancer,” Clohessy said. “It’s an infection. If the doctor comes along and says, ‘We’re going to cut out 40 percent of it,’ that won’t do it. The key to physical or emotional trauma is to root it out completely. Victims heal completely when truth comes out.”

As with Sacco, Clohessy seeks comfort with his family and seeing the courage of other victims when they approach the church or police. Every time a victim reports abuse, it brings society a step closer to safety, Clohessy said.

“I hope healing moves beyond being a buzzword and becomes a reality and a preoccupation for people,” Clohessy said. “But healing has to be secondary. The first priory is prevention. Luckily for most survivors, they go hand-in-hand.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 249-3339.


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