Victims share stories of abuse by priests

DALLAS - As the nation's Catholic bishops gather today to decide how tough they should get with clergy who sexually molest children, a grieving mother hopes they will consider the pain endured by victims like her son.

When Janet Patterson met with four cardinals yesterday, including Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, she showed them two pictures. One was of her son Eric, a handsome, strapping young man who was fluent in Spanish and played bass in a rock band. The other was of his tombstone, at the gravesite where they laid him three years ago after he killed himself, tormented over abuse by his parish priest. He was 29.

"My husband and I are not out to destroy the church," Patterson, of Conway Springs, Kan., said before meeting with the cardinals. Dressed in black with a picture of her son hanging from her neck, she said, "We're here to tell the stories of the victims."

The nearly 300 bishops who lead the American Catholic Church are meeting as a body for the first time since the sexual abuse scandal broke in January. Since then, the toll has been high. For many, trust in the church has been shattered. Four bishops have resigned, two just this week. Nearly 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests have resigned or been removed from ministry as allegations were revealed. Two priests have committed suicide, and one, the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, was shot by an alleged victim.

There is a palpable sense among observers, and even the bishops themselves, that the church is at a crossroads.

"This meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is unprecedented in our history," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the conference. The three-day session has drawn extraordinary attention - with 800 journalists accredited to cover it, as well as untold numbers of observers.

The major focus of debate is expected to be over whether to adopt a policy of "zero tolerance" toward priests who abused children in the past. A proposal drafted by a committee of bishops proposes defrocking any priest who commits an act of abuse in the future and those who have committed multiple acts in the past. But it leaves open the possibility that one-time offenders could be returned to ministry under very strict conditions.

The loophole is unacceptable to many bishops, including Keeler, who said he favors defrocking even for long-past, isolated abuse cases. (Last month, anticipating the adoption of zero tolerance, Keeler forced the retirement of the Rev. William Simms, who had been accused of abuse in the 1980s, had received psychological treatment and had been working in an administrative job since then in the chancery.)

The voices of victims predominated yesterday. The bishops' committee drafting the sexual abuse policy met with about 20 representatives of two victims advocacy groups, the Linkup and Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. Keeler and three other cardinals also met with them.

"This is not a theological problem. This is not a religious problem. This is a problem of covering up crimes," said Peter Isely, a SNAP representative.

The bishops and cardinals later said the meeting struck an emotional chord. "It touched me deeply, as you can see," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said at a news conference after the meeting. "I think it touched us all deeply to see how so many people have suffered because of a few very sick and mixed-up priests, criminal priests I guess you'd say."

Mark Serrano, a SNAP representative who was abused for several years by a priest in New Jersey, said the results of the meeting would best be judged by the actions the bishops take this week. "Listening comes easy. Talk is cheap," he said. "Moral action is priceless."

SNAP not only favors strict zero tolerance but also called yesterday for removal of bishops who they say protected abusers by assigning them to new parishes, where other children were subsequently abused.

Their demand came on the same day that The Dallas Morning News reported that roughly two-thirds of U.S. Catholic bishops allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to continue working in ministry. A review of the nation's 178 Roman Catholic dioceses showed that at least 111 are led by bishops who allowed alleged sexual abusers to return to parish ministry. The list included Keeler, who allowed Blackwell to return to parish after he was credibly accused of sexual abuse.

It was such a priest that the Pattersons say preyed on their son. They say he was tormented for years by the shame he felt over being repeatedly raped by a parish priest, the Rev. Robert Larson, as a 12-year-old altar boy. Eric Patterson revealed the abuse to his sister, who was visiting him in a mental hospital, just months before he shot himself.

"After he revealed the abuse, the nurse came in and found him pounding his head on the floor," Janet Patterson said. "He had to be placed in restraints and sedated."

He sank deeper into depression from which he never recovered. In his suicide note, which he titled "Hope," Eric Patterson wrote that he "tried to please God every day but I have always come up so short that he makes me feel guilty about my life."

His parents' hearts were broken a second time when they learned that the church knew the priest had a history of sexual abuse before he was assigned to their parish. "If Father Larson had not been in our parish, Eric would be alive today," said his father, Horace Patterson.