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Healing takes time for victims of abuse

The Woonsocket Call - February 10, 2002
By Russ Olivo

BELLINGHAM -- When Joe Fleuette III picked up the morning paper a few days ago, it brought him back to a place inside of himself where the wounds of his childhood were still alive and raw. But he knew immediately what he had to do, and he knew it wouldn't be easy.
Fleuette, 37, saw a story about a priest who had served at Assumption Church who was facing a lawsuit from two men who claimed he had repeatedly sexually molested them as altar boys in the mid-1980s.

Fleuette, too, had been an altar boy at Assumption parish, beginning when he was about 11 years old. And he says he, too, had been sexually molested by the priest, Father Paul M. Desilets. The abuse was chronic, says Fleuette, and it lasted until he was about 13 years old.

For the most part, however, Fleuette never told anybody about the abuse. He kept it to himself, burying the memories deep inside, determined to cope with the trauma the best he could -- which was often not very well at all. But when Fleuette read the paper and saw that brothers Brian and Jim Corriveau had been abused by Desilets, too, suddenly Fleuette realized he didn't have to suffer in silence anymore.

"I was shocked," Fleuette said. "I thought I was all alone. I thought I was the only boy that Desilets had ever touched."

Within two days of reading the story, Fleuette joined a growing list of plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit filed by a Boston lawyer against Desilets, now 79 years old and living in a nursing home in Quebec. The Bellingham police have also taken statements from Fleuette and other alleged victims which the authorities say could lead to as many as 20 criminal complaints against the priest, who served in Assumption Church from 1974 to 1984.

Fleuette says his main reason for coming forward now is to do for other potential victims what the Corriveaus did for him -- give them the strength to name their abuser publicly.

Keeping the story of what happened buried inside of him, he said, is not a good strategy for healing.

"My healing process has begun," proclaimed Fleuette inside the quaint white cottage he shares with his parents in the southern end of town. "The best way we can heal is to let people know what that monster did."

People often are skeptical of victims who come forward a decade or more after they were allegedly sexually abused by priests, but Fleuette says they don't understand how it feels to make such allegations against men of the cloth. To him -- a child growing up in a devoutly Catholic household -- Desilets was "the hand of God."

He felt guilty of making such notorious, lowly allegations against a figure of such stature --allegations which seemed, especially to a child, that anyone was likely to believe.

"You can't go against God," he says.

Nervously fidgeting with his wristwatch, Fleuette said he was molested by Desilets hundreds of times while he was an altar boy. The molestation ended when he stopped being an altar boy.

Fleuette never kept track of Desilets' career to find out what happened to him, but he knew the molestation had damaged him emotionally, compromising his ability to enjoy any kind of intimacy or physical contact in relationships with women or, for that matter, social relationships with male buddies. He avoided organized sports activity in high school because the idea of physical contact was too upsetting.

"You can't touch. You can't love. You can't give a guy a handshake," says Fleuette. "You can't allow women to touch you, even clothed. You don't allow anybody to get into your personal space."

His biggest fear?

"Believe it or not, it was turning gay," says Fleuette, a divorced father of an 8-year-old girl.

Fleuette's ordeal of abuse and its aftermath is remarkably similar to that of Phil Saviano, who launched the New England chapter of Survivors Network for Those Abused By Priests (SNAP) as a result of his experiences.

In 1964, Saviano was an 11-year-old working as a newspaper delivery boy in East Douglas, Mass., where one of his customers was the St. Denis Church Rectory. He was also taking CCD classes. It was amid those circumstances, says Saviano, that he came into abusive contact with Father David Holley.

He was repeatedly molested by Holley for about two years, says Saviano, until one day when Holley suddenly disappeared from the parish. He never questioned what happened to the priest, merely accepting his sudden departure from the parish as his good fortune. Then, in 1992, he read a story in the Boston Globe about two boys who claimed Holley had molested them in New Mexico in the 1970s.

"It was like a bolt of lightening hit me," Saviano recalled. "The whole thing blew me away. I never, never thought there was a big problem in the church."

His curiosity about Holley now lit, Saviano filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester for access to records about the priest. Suddenly Saviano's picture was on the front page of the Globe, alleging Holley had abused him, and a short time after that, USA Today followed suit. The litigation was settled out of court in 1996 and Saviano eventually got records showing a well-documented trail of allegations of child molestation which had dogged Holley from the beginning of his career.

About a year later, Saviano decided to start a local chapter of SNAP to help new victims pointing the finger at Father John Geoghan, a defrocked priest now facing some 80 civil complaints of molestation at parishes in Massachusetts.

Child molestation creates its own devastating impact on victims, but when the abuser is a priest, the impact is substantially more complex, he says. In addition to problems with romance, social isolation and other effects, "It leaves kids seriously questioning their spiritual beliefs," according to Saviano.

"When we think this priest, this holy man, can do this, then anything is possible," says Saviano, a medical writer from Jamaica Plain.

Often the public compounds the difficulty for victims with reactions of skepticism, especially when they see a dozen or more victims suddenly emerging as if from nowhere, years after the alleged molestation took place. But Saviano says these are typical patterns in cases of priest abuse. Often, the trauma of being abused by a priest is so great some people never get over it, burying it for years rather than relive the memories, which is a necessary part of healing.

"It's not always easy to just get over it," he says. "I hear people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, go through their entire lives trying to make sense of it. Often they're burying it. They end up reliving their sexual experiences with the priest, like there's a third person in bed with them."

Often the pattern that emerges in a community is that one victim breaks the ice for many others who follow, Saviano said. "Nobody wants to be the first victim to come forward," he says.

Dr. Rick Solomon, a Providence psychotherapist who has treated many victims of priest abuse, says it takes more than time to heal victims. First, they must get to the point where they are able to talk about themselves openly.

"No healing can occur until the relationship can finally be discussed," says Solomon, who has co-authored a book about child abuse called "Paternal Deprivation and Child Maltreatment."

Solomon says the effects of priest abuse depend on the nature of the child, the duration and severity of the abuse, and other factors, but in general as victims become adults they often suffer problems developing intimacy in relationships, feeling ill at ease in sexual relationships, depression and low self-esteem.

"Some feel tremendous anger, tremendous guilt," says Solomon. "They feel they should have been able to stop it when, in reality there was no way they could have."

To the victims emerging in the case against Desilets, Saviano has this advice: get ready for the long haul. Civil litigation takes a long time, and complainants often feel twice victimized by the legal process known as discovery, when lawyers trade information about accusers and victims.

"The thing they have to know is it's going to take a long time," he said. "Civil cases take years. And everything you want to know about the priest, the priest's lawyers are going to want to know about them. Everything is going to be put on the table."

Richard Cappalli, a Woonsocket lawyer who has some 40 civil cases pending involving child molestation against a dozen priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, agrees. Cappalli's wave of litigation began with a handful of complaints over seven years ago against the Rev. James J. Silva, who had served at St. Joseph's Church in Pascoag, a parish where one of Silva's victims worshipped.

"We're no closer to trial today than we were seven years ago," said Cappalli in a phone interview from his Florida condo.

The litigation, says Cappalli, has been a war. The church has played hardball tactics and managed to keep vital information they need to make their case out of the hands of lawyers, claiming church privilege. By contrast, Cappalli said he is heartened by recent developments in Massachusetts, in which church authorities have agreed to relinquish detailed information about the backgrounds of allegedly abusive priests.

"Rhode Island has taken a much more militant approach than Archbishop Law," he said. "At least he appears to be cooperating."

 

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