Religion

/

Health

Clergy abuse survivors testify in Catholic church bankruptcy case: 'Do you see me now?'

Alex Mann and Jonathan M. Pitts, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Religious News

BALTIMORE — The 58-year-old woman couldn’t bear to share the details of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, but its effect on her came across loud and clear Monday in a Baltimore courtroom as she faced the leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“Do you see me now?” she cried toward Archbishop William Lori, who was seated across the courtroom from her. “Do I matter to you now? I suffer from PTSD, from anxiety, from depression and panic attacks. I’m on disability. It will take me days to recover from talking today. I hope you’ve heard my truth and feel the pain I’ve struggled with.”

Her testimony as one of eight abuse survivors to speak Monday in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case contributed to a chilling picture of children being tormented by Catholic clergy and a vivid portrait of the lives altered permanently by their experiences.

Victims recounted being abused in schools, in church rectories and at priests’ homes. Many remembered feeling confused about what happened to them and being told by their abusers — people they looked up to — to keep it to themselves. Survivors said the abuse led them to develop substance disorders, to lose their faith and ability to trust, to live in isolation.

Monday’s was the second such hearing in the archdiocese’s case. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner allowed the testimony, unusual in money-oriented bankruptcy cases, to bolster survivor participation and trust in the process. She booked the hearings at the request of a committee of survivors representing all victims in the case, and with the support of the church.

Although, unlike others, the 58-year-old woman shared few details of her abuse, she was graphic about how the scars it left on her destroyed her ability to tell right from wrong and led to a life of “horrible decisions,” promiscuity, substance abuse, eating disorders, persistent nightmares and abusive relationships.

At one point, she noted that she was directing her comments to the archdiocese because she was “angry,” particularly because the church did little when she came forward to report what she’d been through after her abuser was exposed.

“I’m sorry,” she said at one point, beginning to sob. “No, I’m not. I’m not sorry!”

A somber Lori maintained eye contact with her throughout her testimony, though he gave no spoken response, and said after court that as difficult as it was to hear, doing so is part of what he hopes is a healing process.

“I’ve met many, many times as a bishop with victim survivors — and some of those meetings have been like that,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “And when people share their raw emotions with me, it certainly brings home to me the horror of abuse.”

Monday’s hearing comes less than two weeks ahead of the May 31 deadline for sex abuse survivors to file claims against the archdiocese in bankruptcy court. As of Monday, there were an estimated 320 such claims filed in the case, Paul Jan Zdunek, chair of the survivors committee, said after court.

“We also wanted to be sure people know that the process can be completely anonymous if they would like it to be,” Zdunek said after court.

Standing with other committee members, including two who testified, Zdunek called the hearing “truly gut-wrenching.”

“What has been very interesting is to not only understand the abuse but more importantly what has happened in the time since, and in many cases, what hasn’t happened,” Zdunek said. “And that is their lives; they just stopped.”

Several survivors who testified Monday said they did so with hopes that their stories would inspire others.

Among them was Mark Easley, who came from a family of devout Catholics. Easley, who is Black, said he found St. Vincent de Paul Church to be a “safe haven” during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The pastor of the church, Edmund Stroup, gained his mother’s trust.

So it was “a privilege,” when Stroup invited Easley, who was about 6 or 7, and his little brother to spend nights at the church with him, he testified. Stroup brought them to the rectory, where there was only one bed, and told the children to change into pajamas. The priest went to the bathroom and emerged naked.

“I viewed this man as one of God’s messengers. … It was the first time I saw him with his collar off,” Easley recalled.

The Sun does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Easley said he was terrified to speak up. The abuse left him unable to finish high school. He said he struggled to make friends and never married.

 

“His terrible acts of sexual abuse sentenced me to a life of solitude,” said Easley, recalling that he didn’t share his story until he sat down with lawyers after Maryland enacted the Child Victims Act in April 2023.

That law abolished time limits for people sexually abused as children to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled their suffering.

The church declared bankruptcy Sept. 29, two days before the child victims law took effect.

By filing for bankruptcy, the archdiocese sought to protect its assets and limit its legal liability. The church also said it was doing so to be able to fairly compensate the estimated hundreds of survivors with civil claims rather than pay inordinate sums to only a few, allowing the archdiocese to carry forward with its mission.

State lawmakers enacted the child victims law following the Maryland attorney general’s release of a report that said 156 clergy and other Church officials tormented more than 600 children and young adults, dating to the 1940s. The abuse spanned the diocese’s jurisdiction, which covers Baltimore and nine counties in the central and western parts of the state.

Teresa Lancaster, a sexual abuse survivor who is now a lawyer and a victims’ advocate, said it was the Child Victims Act that gave survivors like those who spoke Monday the chance to seek redress.

If the archdiocese truly empathized with those survivors, she said, it wouldn’t be trying to impede their search for justice.

“They say they care? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it for one minute,” Lancaster told reporters. “And this bankruptcy is a farce. They declared bankruptcy before any claims were filed.”

In court, a woman who asked only to be identified as Rebecca talked about how she loved reading and writing and earned A’s at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Baltimore. That was until one frightening interaction altered the course of her life.

“One day he cornered me in the hallway when no one else was around,” she said of an archdiocesan employee at the school. “I think the first time he did this I was just 12. He was an adult and he was bigger than me. … I had no idea what had just happened. There was a next time, and a next time.”

Rebecca, a member of the survivor’s committee, remembered the abuse intensifying until she thought she put an end to it by telling a seminarian what happened. She said the seminarian said he would take care of it, leading her to believe she could have some peace at school.

“Then one day after I had stayed after to help the teacher, and I was leaving the school. I heard this banging and it was him. He told me to come over to him. I was scared to go, but I was scared not to do what I was told. He scolded me. He asked me, ‘Why did you tell on me?’”

Rebecca said the school employee then took her into a bathroom and raped her.

The abuse, she said, led her to switch schools. She struggled. She said she attempted to take her own life and that she was sent to a state psychiatric hospital.

She began drinking at 19, developing alcohol and drug abuse problems, to “drown out my fears and pain,” she said.

Decades after Catholic school, Rebecca said, she has maintained her passion for writing, an avocation that has helped her discover something she did not realize for many decades — that the abuse she suffered was not her fault. She penned a poem titled “To My Abuser” and read it aloud in court. The verses tell of intense pain and lost innocence, of years of her life stolen by him, of how she worked up the courage to come forward.

Its final lines echoed a thought many of the survivors shared as part of their stories.

“So now to my abuser, you put my life on hold,” she wrote. “But if my story can save at least one little child, then I’m glad it has been told.”

_____


©2024 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus