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Priest Abuse Brings Woman Back Home

Oct 27, 2002 | The Daily Record

She lives in an affordable-housing complex in Passaic. He lives in a house set in the woods, overlooking a pond.

She says she hasn't been able to hold a job for more than a couple of years. He's still listed on a Web site as pastor emeritus of his old church in Morristown, where a building is named after him.

Cheryl Christopher, 57, says she was sexually abused by a priest when she was a teenager, but she wasn't emotionally ready to go to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson with those allegations until 1993. A diocesan official told her at the time, in a letter, that the church was not liable for the alleged abuse but offered to pay for counseling.

Monsignor John Henry Dericks, 86, the priest, gave Christopher $25,000, out of his own pocket, in a legal settlement over her accusations of sexual abuse eight years ago, although at the time his attorney said in legal documents that the priest denied abusing Christopher.

Dericks went on with his life, already in retirement, sometimes saying Mass at a local church. Christopher continued to have trouble holding down a job, living alone, moving from place to place.

After living in Colorado and Ohio, she came back to New Jersey this year, encouraged by friends to ask church officials to look into punishing the man she had accused. The time was right, they told her, because of a national crisis in the church caused by some priests who abused children and some church leaders who covered up their crimes.

More than four decades after the alleged crime, nine years after church officials were told of the allegations, eight years after Christopher received a financial settlement from the priest, church officials recently told Dericks that he could no longer say Mass. He has been barred from functioning as a priest, church officials said, at least until a diocesan review board examines his case.

"For years, I just tried to put it out of my mind," Christopher said.

"I tried all kinds of psychotherapy. I was conditioned to being a patient. I thought I was crazy. It was a lonely life. I wanted to tell my story and get it out there before he dies. It's important to me."

Dericks lives on a large piece of land in Andover, where a pavilion sits next to the pond on his property, and a sign over a covered bridge that leads to his house proclaims "Father Jack's Farm." He answered the door last week but refused to talk about Christopher.

"I don't talk," Dericks said, and then he pointed to no trespassing signs that line the driveway leading into his property, warning hunters to stay away. "That is my story."

Church officials said over the past two weeks that they had not punished Dericks before now because he already was retired when Christopher first went to them in 1993. They knew Dericks, a former pastor at Holy Spirit in Pequannock and Assumption parish in Morristown, was saying Mass at Our Lady of the Mountain in Washington Township over the years but said that seemed harmless because of his age.

"He was in his 80s," said Marianna Thompson, a spokesman for Paterson Diocese Bishop Frank Rodimer. "That added to our lack of concern."

However, a charter passed by American bishops at a national conference in June requires specific punishments for priests who are the subject of credible allegations of child abuse. They are not allowed to function as priests until church-appointed review boards examine their cases. If the review board determines that they have abused a child, bishops have a couple of options - removing them from the priesthood or having them live a life of penance in a monastery.

Christopher said she wrote letters to diocese officials in April and May, asking to talk, but they didn't call her until earlier this month, after reporters started calling the diocese to ask about the case. A diocese official had sent her a letter in August, saying that a $220 bill for acupuncture, which she said she needed to stop the ringing in her ears, would be paid. However, Thompson said she didn't know that Christopher was living in New Jersey until a couple of weeks ago. That's when Dericks was told that he had to stop functioning as a priest.

"He is not to conduct himself publicly as a priest," Thompson said. "That decision was made as soon as I spoke to Cheryl Christopher."

While the diocese never came to a legal settlement with Christopher, Thompson said it has paid for at least some of her counseling bills. She said the diocesan review board was scheduled to look into Dericks' case even before Christopher recently asked church officials to apply the Dallas charter.

Dericks' name already had been given to prosecutors, Thompson said, along with those of other priests accused of child abuse over the years. However, the criminal statute of limitations expired long ago, before Christopher came forward to the diocese in 1993.

A couple of weeks ago, diocese officials issued a statement that said they didn't notify authorities in 1993 because Christopher wasn't a minor when she came forward, and because she requested confidentiality.

Christopher said she doesn't remember ever asking for confidentiality.

"Why would I do that?" she said. "I wanted it exposed."

To the people who ask why victims come forward years or even decades after they have been abused, Christopher said she never got past the abuse.

She was in medical school in the early 1970s when she started drinking and failed a course, just six weeks before she would have graduated. She never went back. She received a master's degree in psychological counseling, but she said she's easily rattled, and has never been able to hold onto a job for more than a couple of years.

Married for a couple of months in the early-1980s, she said she's never had a lasting romantic relationship. She imagined having a family but knew that she wouldn't. She said she's been diagnosed as having a psychological disability and lives on $500 monthly Social Security checks although church officials have been trying to help her find a job.

Christopher said she lived most of her life afraid to talk about the alleged abuse she suffered as a teenager. She was embarrassed by it and thought that few people would believe her. She said she doesn't trust people. To understand why, she said, you have to know something about her childhood.

Christopher said her mother was domineering, and, in the early-1960s, had an affair with Dericks, then pastor of Holy Spirit. She said her mother brought her to the priest's country house in Andover on weekends, starting when she was 14 years old and lasting until she was 17. She said she enjoyed going up to the house, to swim in Dericks' pond, and that she thought the priest had charisma.

Christopher also said she wanted her mother to love her, so she did as she was told - lying in bed with her mother and the priest while they were intimate, Christopher said, sometimes while the priest fondled her. She said her mother separated from her father shortly after the affair began and told her that she had to come to Dericks' house because he liked young people.

"If you don't come," the mother said, according to Christopher, "he won't want me."

Christopher said she once locked herself in the bathroom at Dericks's house, crying, until her mother forced her to come out. She said she always wondered, but was too afraid to ask, whether the priest knew she didn't want to be touched.

Christopher also has fond memories of Dericks. The priest once bought mother and daughter matching white, hip-hugger jeans, she said, and brought them rings that he purchased while on a Caribbean cruise. He took them to restaurants, she said, and to a Broadway play.

The priest called her his princess, she said, and she was told to call him "Dad."

"We were like a family," Christopher said.

"I didn't know what a normal family was. I knew what they were doing was upsetting to me. But when I was there, I was just so happy to be loved by my mother."

Christopher said her mother now refuses to talk to her, and that she does not even know how to contact her.

Christopher said she recently told her story at a Morris County meeting that included survivors of abuse by priests. Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Mendham, heard about the story and at first didn't believe it. He said he had known Dericks, a highly respected priest, for a long time.

Lasch, who has been supportive of parishioners who say they were abused as children by a former pastor of his church, thought Christopher must have made up the story.

"I said to myself, 'This has gone too far,'" Lasch said.

Then Christopher showed him a copy of the $25,000 check she received to settle her claims of abuse against Dericks. It is possible that he paid the money simply to avoid the embarrassment of a lawsuit, however, and his attorney at the time wrote that he denied the allegations.

Christopher also has a letter that she said Dericks sent to her two years ago, on stationary imprinted with the initials J.H.D., after she wrote him to say she forgave him, even if he was unable to ask for forgiveness.

The letter comes close to being an apology, but not for anything specific.

"Thank you for your gracious and generous gift of forgiveness," the note reads.

"I really needed that. I deeply regret all the pain and distress that I have caused. I ask God's forgiveness every day. And you are in my daily prayers for your happiness and peace of mind."

Lasch said he now plans to write Dericks a letter, to let him know what he has been told.

Christopher said she just wants her story out in the open. She said she didn't realize she'd been abused until she was in medical school, where she studied psychology, and told her story to a counselor. As she talked about it, she said, she felt like she was going crazy, overcome by shame. She had lost not only her trust, she said, but her religion. She remembers watching Dericks get dressed 40 years ago to go to church, putting on his priest's collar.

"I kept thinking, 'What a scam,'" she said.

Christopher said she's gone to therapy much of her life but didn't contact the diocese until after she started going to a support group for incest victims in the early-1990s. The group was started by Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, a former Miss America, who in 1991 publicly started talking about being the victim of incest as a child, at the hands of her millionaire father.

D.D. Harvey, a retired Presbyterian minister from Denver, who helped run the support group, remembers listening to Christopher's story in 1991 and thinking that it was one of the saddest he'd heard, a mixture of incest and betrayal by a priest. He said Christopher and other survivors shared some of the same characteristics. They blamed themselves for their abuse, and didn't think anybody would believe them.

Harvey told Christopher that in order to heal, she had to confront her abusers.

Christopher said that when she finally had the courage to talk to her mother in 1991, she received an apology. When she told her mother she might one day write a book about her abuse, she said, her mother stopped talking to her, and told her that she would not be believed.

In 1993, Christopher approached the diocese and asked for a financial settlement. Her psychotherapist, Carol Fredrek, wrote a letter to the diocese, saying Christopher appeared to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"Cheryl presented with symptoms common to survivors of childhood sexual abuse," Fredrek wrote.

"Among these are intense feelings of powerlessness and feeling trapped, shame and guilt, a profound sense of not being safe, feeling worthless, difficulty trusting, sexual issues, fear of abandonment, alienation from her body, depression and anxiety."

Christopher's attorney threatened to take the case to court, even though the statute of limitations had expired. The attorney eventually reached a settlement with Dericks.

"She got a partial sense of being justified," Harvey said.

But like Van Durber Atler and other sexual abuse victims, Harvey said, Christopher wanted something else. She wanted Dericks to acknowledge that she'd been abused.

"It's almost a religious commitment to themselves to get the perpetrator, usually the father, to acknowledge the abuse," Harvey said. "That would be the resolving act that would erase her guilt."

James McKenna, a Morristown attorney who represented Dericks in 1994, made it clear in a letter to Christopher's attorney that the settlement was not an admission of guilt.

"In fact," McKenna wrote, "my client denies that the acts complained of ever took place."

McKenna said last week that he no longer represents Dericks, and could not comment on the case. Dericks refused to say whether he has an attorney.

Christopher said she has tried to contact Dericks, sending him letters, once telling him that he was living a lie. Another time, she said she wrote to Dericks to ask him for a little piece of land, a place that she could call her own, because she fears that she might end up homeless. She said the priest did not respond.

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