Victims No More

By Christopher Heffron and Mary Jo Dangel
St. Anthony Messenger
June 2003
Downloaded June 9, 2003

Two survivors of clergy sexual abuse and the parents of a survivor share their stories

For many survivors of clergy sexual abuse, no passing of time or monetary settlement or heartfelt apology can ever fully mend their wounds. In light of the scandals that broke early last year, as well as the uprising of survivors who have voiced their anger in protest, the Church has vowed to listen.

In this section of our special issue, we focus on two survivors, John Vellante and Bobbie Sitterding, along with Anne and Ray Higgins, parents of a survivor. They share with us the ramifications of the abuse, their views of the Church and how they are healing.

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a national organization of clergy sex-abuse survivors, as well as representatives from SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), proved invaluable in helping us find these brave prople.

Bobbie, John, Ray and Anne bring different experiences to the forefront, yet they each share the same objectives: To raise the visibility of survivors, to replace statistics with human faces and to enhance the voices of those who endured unspeakable crimes, yet have summoned the courage to survive.

John Vellante

The Tireless Advocate

More than four decades have passed since John Vellante suffered sexual abuse that lasted his entire first year at the Stigmatine Fathers Junior Seminary in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Yet the memories born from that harrowing ordeal remain closely with him.

But John Vellante has endured.

Now 58 and living in North Andover, Massachusetts, John is a member of St. Michael's Parish, as well as a semi-retired sportswriter for The Boston Globe, the newspaper that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its coverage of the clergy sex-abuse scandal. John is also a devoted husband of 14 years, a father of five, an activist and, to be certain, a survivor.

In a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger, John speaks of his ongoing journey of healing. He talks of his loyalty to the Church, his undying support for survivors-a large, multigenerational family bound, not by blood, but by spirit-and his lifelong faith in God.

Silent Anguish

Survivors have differing methods of coping with the repercussions of their abuse. John Vellante suffered his in silence, burying the memories in the back of his mind, where they remained for decades. In fact, he was so good at eradicating the abuse that he even allowed the priest who abused him in 1958 to officiate at his wedding nine years later.

That marriage ended in divorce in 1985, an outcome that John believes stems from his ordeal. "I think my divorce was clearly related to the abuse and the fact that I lived a secret all of those years," he says. "Everything that should have been discussed in my marriage, I kept secret. You say to yourself, 'It'll go away,' but it didn't. What went away was the marriage."

Only in 1992 did John momentarily unearth the secret to his second wife, whom he married in 1988. "We discussed it very briefly and I gave her scant details," he says. "The next morning when we woke up, it was as if we had never talked about it. It wasn't discussed again until all of this came out."

After reconnecting with some of his seminary classmates, John learned that they too had been abused. The dialogue among them started John off on the road to recovery-one he's traveled ever since.

Silent No Longer

John Vellante lived a great many years in a crippling silence. Today, his voice is his champion, and he isn't afraid to use it. The abuse, along with the cover-ups that safeguarded his abuser, who left the priesthood in 1972 and married shortly thereafter, have led John to see a very real difference between his faith in God and in the Church as an institution.

"I have come to realize that my faith is not in the pope or cardinals, bishops or priests," he says. "My faith is in God, the Eucharist and the sacraments. It's a lot greater than any of the bishops or cardinals who were involved in covering this up."

Such cover-ups, coupled with the survivors who have gone public, as well as those yet to come forward, have led John to believe that the Church may never fully mend what has been broken.

"My gut feeling is that it's fractured beyond repair, but I'd like to think otherwise. You hear bishops say, 'We'll pray, we'll pray,' but prayer is not the only answer. You also need with it accountability and truth."

Truth, to John, is an invaluable step toward healing, but he knows that it may never be forthcoming. "I think the cardinals, bishops and everyone else who helped cover up this horrific situation should admit their faults and resign," he says.

"The Church must allow for the laity to have a greater role in its administration-men and women. I believe the Church must fully reach out to all victims and not just offer lip service. And priests of integrity," John adds, "must stand up, be courageous and condemn the actions of their bishops."

Family Ties

John Vellante is proud to belong to a large, diverse family of survivors. As a spokesperson for the North Andover chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a 30,000-member organization of lay Catholics, John is able to reach countless survivors. It's an involvement that aids, not only in the healing of others, but his own healing as well.

"At each and every meeting when I speak, somebody will approach me and say, 'Thank you. I'm in the same situation. How do I tell people that it happened to me too?'

"I first let them know that I believe them and that they're not alone. I tell them that when they are ready to go public, or if they want to keep it in their hearts forever, they'll know what's right for them."

John finds strength through his brother and sister survivors and he is tireless in his advocacy for their rights. Many times he has taken to the streets in protest, shoulder-to-shoulder with his newfound kin, fighting for their voices to be heard.

"I was in Concord, New Hampshire, a few months ago at a protest. It was about five or six below zero and we were out there protesting for three hours," John explains. "But it felt good. I know it was cold outside, but I was warm."

And until survivors' rights are honored, John has no intention of quieting his voice. "Until this stops," he says, "I'll always be there."

Never Alone

John's story-unlike those of other survivors, many of whom must summon the will simply to stay alive-is one that seems bound to end happily.

"I'm certainly blessed," he says. "I have a wonderful, supporting wife and beautiful children. I have a supportive family and a wonderful group of friends."

But John's praise doesn't end there. "And yes, hard as some may find this to believe, I have some wonderful priest friends who are also very supportive."

John Vellante will most likely travel the road of healing for the rest of his life. Perhaps his greatest blessing is that he will never walk it alone.

Bobbie Sitterding

The Path of Rediscovery

Bobbie Sitterding, a 52-year-old survivor from Chicago, experienced an awakening at the bishops' conference in Dallas last year. When a newspaper photographer outside the Fairmont Hotel asked if he could take her picture, Bobbie agreed. When he asked for her name, she refused.

When Bobbie later saw a copy of that Dallas newspaper, the caption underneath her photograph struck a sounding, and unpleasant, chord within her.

"It really hit me," she says. "It read, 'Unidentified Woman.'"

She pauses briefly. "I don't want to be the unidentified woman anymore."

Bobbie's phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger is one step in rediscovering the power and significance of her identity. For many years only her husband and daughter knew of the sexual abuse that she endured. Bobbie zealously guarded her secret from most of the outside world.

This interview, coupled with a speech she gave at a Voice of the Faithful meeting in late March, indicates an evolution for Bobbie Sitterding-a move toward a new healing.

The "unidentified woman" now has a name.

The Broken Vase

Bobbie heard an analogy several years ago about surviving the aftermath of sexual abuse that has been embedded in her mind ever since.

"The victim's life is like a shattered vase that's been reassembled," she says. "From a distance it looks normal but when you look at it more closely, it has all of these cracks. Even though it looks the same, it's never the same."

With Bobbie, the analogy is only partially accurate. There are unbroken portions to the vase as well-smooth, unharmed sections that symbolize her blessings: an unsullied faith in God, a thriving marriage, a 28-year-old daughter, a career as a legal secretary and scores of family and friends.

Even so, cracks can be found along the vase-fractures that represent the horrific sexual abuse that she suffered, both as a young teenager and as an adult, by different priests. And because of this, Bobbie wrestles with ongoing guilt.

"The hardest part has been trying to forgive myself for trusting so blindly," she says. "Many abusers make you feel special-they give you gifts and they take you places. They groom you to trust them and then they betray you. And like many victims, I thought I was the only one."

Bobbie's guilt shifts to anger, not only for the priests who damaged her innocence and trust, but also for the bishops who systematically covered up the crimes, which, in effect, spread the anguish to her loved ones.

"They have to recognize the horrendous effect it has had, not only on the victims but on the secondary victims-the family members. This doesn't just affect me, it affects my husband and my daughter as well."

Bobbie still feels the painful sting from those who were aware of the abuse she endured, yet, in acts of re-victimization, turned a blind eye to the crimes.

"For me, personally, the bishops who made conscious decisions to put the good of the Church before the good of children must pay the consequences for what they did," she says. "They have to start listening to their hearts and not to their public relations people and lawyers.

"They shouldn't treat survivors like damage control. They shouldn't blame the victims, or the victims' parents or those who put their trust in those priests," she says. "It's a betrayal. It's not just 'inappropriate behavior'-it's evil."

Bobbie is understandably hardened by those dark moments of her past but, nevertheless, looks with hope and with promise to the future.

A Listening Heart

Bobbie looks for a day when a revitalized Church can fix what has been broken and begin again. In the meantime, she has no intention of leaving it.

"Why should I leave and give up my Church?" she says. "It's my Church as well as anybody else's." Bobbie, who says she often weeps during Mass, finds some comfort there too. The Church, despite its faults, draws her still.

"I don't feel I need to go to church every Sunday because if I don't, it's a mortal sin. I go because I choose to. I get something out of it when I go to Mass," she says.

Attending Chicago's Old St. Patrick's offers Bobbie a spiritual refuge. Her decade-long involvement in The Linkup, a national organization of clergy sex-abuse survivors, and with Voice of the Faithful provides the emotional support and camaraderie she needs.

"The only way for me to survive this is through other people, by talking about what's going on in their lives and how much it's affected them," Bobbie says. "It's the giving of yourself to somebody else. What I do is listen. I can't fix what's hurting them, but I can be there to listen to what they have to say, to their stories."

Bobbie and her husband have found a family in other survivors. As such, tears and laughter, new memories, sadness and peace are the threads of their family's tapestry.

"I think it's important to realize that when you cry with people, you can also laugh with them. You try to be the best person that you can. The more you help other people, the more you get back," she says.

The Long Day's Journey

Bobbie has emerged as a survivor from an unspeakable wreckage. She knows that her past will linger, but she is grateful for the joy in her life that still abounds. "Living a happy life is the best revenge," she says.

Bobbie's healing has been an evolution, and she realizes the battle over her own survival has been a hard-won victory. "You go from victim to survivor to thriver," she says. "But being able to thrive doesn't mean that you put it behind you. It's always with you."

The complex story of Bobbie Sitterding is one with numerous chapters. What has been written cannot be changed, but that is of lesser importance. For Bobbie, a lifelong faith, the love and support from family and her continuing journey of growth and healing will undoubtedly fill the pages still to come.

Ray and Anne Higgins

Secondary Victims Include Parents

Ray and Anne Higgins learned firsthand that clergy sex abuse has a ripple effect on secondary victims: relatives and friends of the victim. In 1992, these soft-spoken parents discovered that their son had been sexually abused by two Franciscan friars during his high school years in the early 1980s. At the time of the abuse, their son was a student in Santa Barbara, California, at St. Anthony Seminary, which closed in 1987. One man is no longer a friar or priest and the other is not in active ministry.

"Our son was at the high school seminary and we used to go to Mass there," says Ray, a retired businessman. He and Anne were very active in this non-territorial Catholic community.

Even though they say they've gotten over feelings of guilt, the effects of the abuse still linger. "They've defiled my son, my child, the person I gave birth to," explains Anne, a retired nurse.

"We do not want to see this happen to another child," she stresses. "It is criminal activity."

Ray and Anne shared their story with St. Anthony Messenger at The Linkup's 11th annual conference, "The Road to Healing," held last February in Louisville, Kentucky. "Victims coming to these conferences get affirmation that they're not alone," Ray explains.

The Linkup advocates repealing statutes of limitations, knowing many victims take years to come to terms with their abuse and take action, reports Louisville's Courier-Journal.

Ray explains that he and Anne worked with other advocates to change the law in California: "There's a one-year window of opportunity for anybody to file a lawsuit regarding child sexual abuse."

He clarifies the reason for referring to victims as survivors: "We want to convince them that they're getting beyond the victim stage and into the survivor stage. But when you are talking about the crimes that have been committed, then they are the victims of those crimes."

After their son told them about the abuse, Ray and Anne recalled changes they had noticed at the time. Their son stopped getting haircuts and didn't bathe regularly, which they now realize was an effort to make himself appear unattractive. "He slept with a baseball bat and switchblade at his bedside," says Anne about the times he was home. "He would get up in the middle of the night and walk and walk and walk....This was directly related to the abuse by one of the friars who came into the dormitory room at night and would supposedly 'soothe' the boys."

Ray adds, "In his junior year, he said that he wanted to leave but wouldn't tell us why." They made their son stay until the end of the year, "which caused a lot of guilt on our part because we subjected him to about six more months of that torture."

Unlimited Counseling Needed

When they discovered that their son and others had been molested, Ray says their Catholic "community put pressure on the Franciscans to have an investigation." The Franciscan Province appointed a board of inquiry, of which Ray was a member. The board found that over a 23-year period "34 young men came forward against 11 priests."

In an out-of-court settlement their son received $90,000, of which his attorney's share was 40 percent. "It won't even pay for his therapy," explains Ray.

He believes it is important for survivors to file lawsuits because it "empowers the victim to get a measure of justice and gives them some financial resources so they can help organizations like The Linkup....It also makes it so expensive for the Church that it can't afford [to allow abusive priests] to continue."

Anne explains why the Church needs to offer unlimited counseling to victims: Events throughout life often trigger memories that can return them to "the victim mode, in which they must seek additional help." Her experience, however, has her convinced that the Church is "more concerned about preserving the image of the Catholic hierarchy and their purse than with helping the survivors."

"Where is the outrage by all of the good priests?" asks Ray. Because of the way the Church has handled the sex-abuse crisis, he believes "the Catholic clergy have lost all credibility."

For healing to begin, Anne believes Church leaders must "acknowledge that they have criminals in their ranks. They must turn these criminals over to the law enforcement and judicial process, and live with the consequences."

Once Catholic

Ray and Anne, who both graduated from Jesuit universities, have deep wounds from their experience. "Both of our families have been cradle-to-grave Catholics for many generations," says Ray. But "there is no way I would ever come back to the Catholic Church."

"I was a pillar of the Church," says Anne. "Many things related to my views, my values, my ethics are related to the Catholic education I received. But I'm not a participating member of a Catholic parish, nor do I ever intend to be. Our children have withdrawn from the Catholic Church ranks and so have my brothers....I do not think that organized religion has a place in my life."

Christopher Heffron and Mary Jo Dangel are assistant editors of this publication. Christopher interviewed Bobbie Sitterding and John Vellante. Mary Jo interviewed Ray and Anne Higgins.


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