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Clergy sex abuse of females complicates intricate issue

The Kansas City Star - July 12, 2002

They are the forgotten victims of clergy sex abuse, neglected by the media and overlooked by church activists.

Yet many experts estimate that females -- both girls and women -- constitute a sizable number of all victims of sexual abuse by priests.

The public focus of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been on predatory homosexual behavior by rogue priests, and the subsequent cover-up by some bishops.

As a result, female victims say they feel frustrated and isolated as they attempt to deal with the emotional aftermath of sex abuse.

And, others say, dealing with those victims presents a unique set of problems for the church -- and for those looking to blame the crisis on gay priests.

"They were totally unwilling to really acknowledge that what happened to me was really terrible," said Corinne Corley, a Kansas City attorney who said she was sexually abused by a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis when she was a teen-ager in the 1970s. "Because of the heterosexual factor, they're going to assume that you were Lolita, a temptress."

"The double standard is terrible," agreed Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis who has handled hundreds of clergy abuse cases. "It is presumed that the abuse of young boys is more deviant and therefore more harmful."

Financial settlements involving female victims tend to be smaller than settlements for male victims, Schoener said. And women are more apt to feel victimized again after they report abuse -- meaning that cases involving sexual abuse of females tend to be under-reported.

"We're treated like we're the evil sinner; like we caused the good, holy priest to sin," said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Blaine said she had been sexually abused by a priest when she was a teen-ager in Ohio. She received a financial settlement in 1994 from the Diocese of Toledo and the priest's religious order.

"Girls and women are the only group that, if you're in a deposition, they're asked if they liked it," Schoener added. "I've probably only had that asked of one adult male, ever. The girls are asked what they were wearing; they are accused of being seductive. That is virtually routine. The way in which it's dealt with is totally different."

There are no comprehensive data on the gender of sexual abuse victims in the Catholic Church. Nor are there data that show how many female victims are minors and how many are adults.

But numerous cases involving female victims have become public since the church sex-abuse scandal first broke earlier this year. Several experts contacted by the The Kansas City Star estimated that females constitute a significant portion of those sexually abused by priests. Some think it's as much as half.

"Of the priests we've evaluated (in our practice), the vast majority had sex with females," Schoener said.

Corley said a priest who taught at her high school sexually abused her in the early 1970s. She was a sophomore and had gone to the Rev. Alfred Fitzgerald for help in dealing with a dysfunctional family.

Fitzgerald took advantage of her, Corley said. The abuse included furtive kisses and fondling. Fitzgerald also wrote long, dark letters to her for years afterward, describing, among other things, his "yearnings as a man," Corley said.

Corley reported the abuse in 1996 and received a $25,000 settlement as well as a written admission and an apology from Fitzgerald.

But, Corley said, an archdiocesan committee of laypersons and an auxiliary bishop treated her horribly at a 1999 meeting, when the committee was considering whether to reinstate Fitzgerald.

"It was degrading and demeaning," Corley said. "They talked about this guy like he was just a bad little boy..."

"That is nowhere near as bad as an altar boy being sodomized, or actual intercourse with a female victim," Corley said of her abuse. "But it was very, very difficult to deal with psychologically. It had a profound impact on me."

Fitzgerald, who was ordained in 1966, is listed as "on medical leave" in the 2001 Official Catholic Directory. Now 62, he lives at an archdiocesan home for retired priests in St. Louis. He did not return calls seeking comment.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said this week that "our policy is that we do not comment on specific cases."

Schoener said the impact of coming forward is different on girls than boys.

"If you are a girl, the likelihood that revealing the abuse may impact your current relationships like your marriage is fairly great," he said. "We have women and girls who lose their marriages or have their marriages badly mucked up because they came forward.

"I feel for the boys. It's not that I don't think it's harmful. It's that it is no more harmful than what happens to the girls or the women."

But some church officials have seemed unwilling to recognize that. Marita Gale, for example, said she told the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1993 that a priest had abused her in Kansas City in the mid-1960s.

The diocese agreed to pay for her counseling -- until she began naming, in her therapy sessions, the two priests she said abused her.

In a June 29, 1994, letter to Gale, the Rev. Norman Rotert, then the vicar general of the diocese, said that "we have nothing whatever that supports your claim" of abuse. He added that both priests "vehemently denied any improper activity whatsoever."

Rotert went on to offer Gale a deal.

"If you could advise me that you now realize that neither of these two priests abused you, I will commit the diocese to an additional six months of weekly therapy," Rotert wrote.

Gale went to Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, who wrote to Rotert, telling him his offer "smacks of extortion" and "betrays the church as uncaring and unsupportive."

Gale refused Rotert's offer, and has continued in therapy -- at her own expense.

Rotert told The Star that "I don't think it's a valid case at all." He declined to comment further.

The Rev. Patrick Rush, the diocese's current vicar general, said he thinks the diocese handles cases of female victims well, noting that women serve on both the response team that deals with victims and the review board that looks into allegations.

But Rush said cases of sex abuse in the Kansas City diocese involving males far outnumber those involving female victims.

"It's nowhere near 50 percent," he said of the number of female victims.

Officials in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said they had not had enough cases to judge whether females were victims as often as males.

Sexual orientation

The cases of female abuse victims suggest that the issue of sexual abuse in the church extends beyond gay priests.

Half of the members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests are women. Since the scandal broke this spring, The Star has been contacted by dozens of people alleging they were victims of clergy sex abuse. About half were women. Some said they had been kissed and fondled as youths, at school, in church, even in their homes. Others said the abuse had taken place when they were adults, during counseling sessions, when they were particularly vulnerable.

"People who say fundamentally it's homosexuality are almost as much off-base as those who say it's about our litigious society or our salacious media," said David Clohessy, national director of the network. "It's a simple solution to a complex issue."

Nevertheless, it's a solution many apparently are trying to apply -- even at the church's highest levels.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls created a stir when he declared in March that gay men should not be ordained as priests. Navarro-Valls, the chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, told a reporter that "people with these inclinations just cannot be ordained."

"That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality," Navarro-Valls added. "But you cannot be in this field."

U.S. church leaders have raised the issue as well. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit told CNN that, according to experts, "it's not truly a pedophilia-type problem, but a homosexual-type problem." Maida said the church needed to "look at this homosexual element as it exists, to what extent it is operative in our seminaries and our priesthood, and how to address it."

That thinking also has filtered into conservative Catholic culture.

In The Weekly Standard, a journal of conservative opinion, a recent article titled "The Elephant in the Sacristy" stated that "this crisis involving minors -- this ongoing institutionalized horror -- is almost entirely about man-boy sex. There is no outbreak of heterosexual child molestation in the American church."

Phil Lawler, editor of the conservative Catholic World Report, has called for a weeding out of homosexuals in seminaries.

To be sure, homosexual priests do present a problem when those men ignore their vows of celibacy and prey on teen-agers and boys. But some experts think that focusing on homosexuals may backfire on the church.

"If they weed out the homosexuals, they'd lose a third of all the bishops and priests," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a therapist who has studied clergy sexuality for decades. "And that's a conservative estimate."

Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, said "there is no evidence that a homosexual man is any more a risk to a boy than is a heterosexual man to a girl."

And the number of female victims belie the notion that the church's problem can be solved simply by purging the priesthood and seminaries of homosexuals, or that the issue is relegated to "man-boy sex," said Sue Archibald, an advocate for abuse victims who said she was sexually abused by a priest when she was a teen-ager.

"When you look at this scandal as a whole, there's one common factor," Archibald said. "All of them involve an abuse of power. Victims can have the same vulnerabilities whether they're 8 or 18 or 48. And the traumatic suffering that comes from the abuse extends beyond any age or gender barrier."

To reach Matt Stearns, Missouri correspondent, call (816) 234-4435 or send e-mail to [email protected]

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call (816) 234-4334 or send e-mail to [email protected]


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