The dates blur with time: The year the priest sexually abused her son. The year he finally told her about it. The time they battled the archdiocese and the priest.
For Denise McClain, what never blur are the memories: Her fifth-grade son turning “overnight from being cheerful and pleasant to like the lights had gone out inside his eyes.” The day she saw self-inflicted cuts on his wrist.
Brian McClain is 26 now. He was 11 when, he says, the Rev. Paul Conn, a priest at Queen of Angels parish in Port Angeles, molested him.
In 1988, Conn pleaded guilty to molesting other boys and went to prison. He now lives in California and is no longer a priest. A civil suit filed by the McClains and others was settled with the Seattle Archdiocese in 1996.
Brian McClain says the abuse and subsequent legal battle “completely shattered my life. I had to rebuild again.”
He did not finish college. He has had bouts of depression and difficulty in relationships.
The child sex-abuse scandal radiating through the Roman Catholic Church has provoked painful debates over claims of cover-ups, unquestioned power by church hierarchy, priestly celibacy. Less has been said of the fate of the victims, for whom the psychological effects can be long-lasting and far-reaching.
There are no across-the-board symptoms for all victims, said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. Some never display symptoms. “Being abused doesn’t necessarily have to lead to long-term psychological changes, although it can,” she said.
Many wrestle with confusion, shame, guilt and rage; they can have difficulties with intimacy, authority and addictions.
David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a Chicago-based organization with 3,700 members, said the effects of clergy abuse “affect virtually every relationship in a survivor’s life. While you can get better, nothing totally erases the pain and its impact.”
Since the recent scandal broke in January, at least 177 priests suspected of molesting minors have resigned or been taken off duty in 28 states and the District of Columbia, according to The Associated Press.
Locally, two priests have been accused of abusing minors. Since early April, at least a dozen people have come forward with accusations of sexual abuse, occurring mainly in the 1970s, against the Rev. John Cornelius, a pastor in Seattle and Everett. In September, a Clark County lawsuit was filed accusing Pierce County priest Barry Ashwell of molesting a former altar boy, also in the 1970s.
Cornelius and Ashwell, placed on leave pending investigation, have denied the allegations through the Seattle Archdiocese.
The archdiocese, considered by many a leader in how it deals with abuse claims, says it applauds those who have reported possible abuse.
“We are so grateful to the people who have come forward,” said Jessie Dye, the archdiocesan employee who takes victims’ complaints and helps them get church-paid counseling if they want it. “Our experience is, if someone can gather the courage to talk to us about the abuse, and are listened to with compassion and openness, it can be the beginning of both personal and institutional healing.”
Winning, and betraying, trust
Abuse by clergy typically follows a pattern. Often the perpetrator gains a potential victim’s trust — and sometimes that of the family — in a process called grooming. It is the violation of this trust, along with children’s tendency to equate representatives of God with God, that can make clergy abuse so damaging.
Sexual abuse by a trusted person causes more serious and long-term harm than sexual abuse by a stranger, said Fran Ferder, a nun and clinical psychologist at Therapy and Renewal Associates, a Seattle counseling and resource center. It damages a child’s sense of judgment about whom they can trust.
Victims typically keep the abuse secret at the time. They may have been threatened by their abuser, or they feel shame or guilt. Experts say it sometimes takes years for victims to understand clearly what happened and to feel secure enough to report it.
All those patterns fit Brian McClain, now a salesman in Olympia and engaged to be married in July. It has taken years of counseling and introspection, he said, to get beyond his sense of betrayal.
The recent scandal has stirred “deep anger” in McClain, who agreed to be interviewed in hopes of pushing changes in the church.
He said Conn would fondle his thighs and shoulders when he was an altar boy. He said there was a more serious incident, but he won’t talk about it.
Media reports also have provoked “horrendous nightmares” for abuse victim Ben Black, 35, a Seattle jazz vocalist diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Black won a $125,000 settlement in 1990 against a former military chaplain serving in the Northwest.
After the chaplain, a priest, first molested him in 1985, Black said he locked himself in a shower and scrubbed until his skin was raw. Because Black was 18, the priest said the sex was consensual.
But Black felt the priest had groomed him from childhood, eventually molesting him while at the same time counseling him on sexuality during a vulnerable time in his life.
“The first time it happened, I knew something was terribly wrong, but I thought it was my fault for not having more control.”
Representatives of God
Grooming can involve making a child feel something terrible will happen if he doesn’t submit. In some cases, the child essentially complies with the abuse and may not even think of it as victimization, Berliner said.
Kent bus driver Rick Barquet, 38, accused Cornelius of molesting him in the 1970s. He said Cornelius let him drive his car and helped him get a high-school scholarship. “He was always giving me stuff, taking me around with him. He made me feel special.”
Ferder, the psychologist, said that when children accept such favors, and then engage in or allow sexual activity, “they can feel even more guilty because they feel even more complicit.”
Feelings of guilt and shame can be more intense for victims when the abuser is a priest, because children have typically been taught that their priest, minister or nun is a representative of God.
“Children are very literal in how they understand that,” Ferder said. “When someone they’re taught represents God, represents holiness — when that person abuses them, it is as though God has hurt them.”
Dawn Meiklejohn, a 53-year-old Seattleite, said a priest in upstate New York raped her when she was 10. When she fought back, she said, the priest told her she was “committing a mortal sin hitting a priest. At the end, he told me if I told anyone I would go to hell.”
In her Catholic school, she was taught that priests and nuns are called by God.
“When someone who’s called by God — God’s special, holy instrument — raped you, what are you worth? You weren’t called by God. You were hurt by the person called by God. So nobody wants you.”
Patrick Hoch, 46, of Oregon, claimed Cornelius molested him when he was 12. Hoch said fear, confusion and shame prevented him from revealing his alleged abuse for decades.
“Growing up, you didn’t talk about things like that,” he said. “You didn’t even say ‘bra’ or ‘girdle,’ and certainly not ‘sex.’ I didn’t have a clue what that was about. All I knew was it was wrong.”
Secrecy, shame and guilt
It’s typical for children who’ve been sexually abused by someone they trust to keep it secret, Ferder said.
“Children automatically blame themselves,” she said. “They’re taught adults are smarter than they are. When adults do something to them that feels bad to them, they have a tendency to think it happened to them because they did something bad.”
A child may also feel guilty for freezing up and doing nothing during abuse, or even for feeling aroused, she said.
“Unless there’s physical pain that’s associated with it, it’s possible for a child or adolescent to feel aroused with things like fondling or sexual talk or that sort of thing,” Ferder said. “Especially if the person that’s doing it to them is being loving and gentle or affectionate, which often times abusers will be.”
The younger a child is at the time of abuse, the fewer emotional and psychological tools he has to deal with it. And experts say older children may feel extra shame if they think they should have known better or could have stopped the abuse.
Hoch said it’s hard to parse out what in his life might be linked to the alleged abuse. For years, he said, he couldn’t look at a clergy person, in real life or on TV, without having bad memories.
Before, “the Catholic church was a home for me, a sanctuary.”
Even victims who think they’re OK may reach a point when they realize the abuse is causing problems, said Clohessy, of SNAP: “When they get in their 40s or 50s, they realize: I’m on my fourth marriage, or I’ve been fired five times for arguing with my boss.”
Victims may wait years to come forward because sometimes that’s how long it takes for them to feel “that something bad isn’t going to happen to them if they tell,” Ferder said.
One reason so many are coming forward today, she said, is that the current scandal has made people feel “a little bit safer. They’ve got a little bit more company.”
Even years later, with plenty of support, the telling isn’t easy. Barquet said he has been having anxiety attacks. Hoch has had trouble sleeping.
But “the guilt of not bringing this out for so many years — at least that guilt is gone,” Hoch said. “Leaving the guilt behind has been worth every minute of sleep I’ve lost.”
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