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Women tell their own stories of abuse

By Meg Murphy - Lawrence, MA Eagle Tribune
Monday, November 18, 2002

NORTH ANDOVER -- There was more grief and betrayal expressed yesterday
byvictims of predatory clergy -- but this time the memories of abuse were
delivered primarily by women.

Over a half-dozen abuse survivors, mostly women, sat on the altar of North
Parish Church and told members of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay reformist group, about experiences that came close to ruining many of their lives.

One woman said she had not stepped into a church since her rape by a priest at age 11; another woman spoke of girlhood abuse by a priest who dined with the family; and another woman described how the Catholic Church paid $250,000 to keep her quiet.

"I didn't think that I was ready or brave enough to speak to a group like this but then we started hearing about people feeling this is a homosexual issue," said Christine Hickey, a Somerville resident. "I think we need women to speak out because the Vatican says it is a gay issue."

Drawing attention to female abuse stories was exactly what the St. Michael's affiliate of the Voice of the Faithful in North Andover hoped to accomplish when they organized an outdoor candlelight vigil at the Old Center Common last night. Rain and sleet forced the approximately 120 parishioners, who ranged in age from elderly people to children, to
perform the entire service at nearby North Parish, a Unitarian Universalist Church.

The Voice of the Faithful members filled the center of the church and quickly created a warm and vibrant atmosphere despite the cold night. They sat close together, sometimes holding hands. They prayed with eyes shut, sang with clear voices, and clapped in a catchy rhythm. They lit candles and held them high.

"Tonight I want to put to rest, hopefully forever, the belief that it was only young boys that some members of the clergy preyed on," said John Vellante, co-chair of the St. Michael's Voice of the Faithful and a clergy abuse survivor.

"That's simply not true. Not by a long shot. There were many young girls, too. And these young girls, women now, have suffered just as long, just as intensely, and just as quietly as we have. But no longer. Now they are standing up, telling their stories, and people are beginning to listen."

One-third to one-half of the victims of clergy abuse are female, according to Susan Gallagher, who recently went public about the abuse she says she suffered beginning in the late 1960s and stretching to about 1980. She drew the estimate from attendance at national support groups for victims of clergy abuse.

"All pedophiles care about is access, they don't care about gender," she said, adding that both she and her brother were abused by the same priest.

Growing up, people harassed Mary Ryan, a Rhode Island resident, calling her a liar and priest lover, when she told her story of abuse, she said.

Ryan said she did not take a recent settlement offer with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence because she believes in justice.

"When I filed this lawsuit, I believed in God, the God you all still believe in. I no longer do," Ryan said. "I believe in justice; it is the best form of therapy."

One woman, a Chelmsford resident who asked to remain anonymous, told her
story publicly for the first time, describing a priest who began to kiss, and eventually rape her when she was just 11.

"The love I feel at this gathering is just amazing," she said, explaining how the abuse led to self-hatred and a desire to hide.

"I wish I had been protected when I was young. It feels wonderful to be protected now."

Paula and Rodney Ford, the parents of a male abuse survivor, spoke about losing their son to 17 mental hospitals and debilitating depression because of a priest who violated him as a young boy. They described how their son even tried to step through a Victorian window at a hospital once, and how they held to their faith during the struggle. Paula Ford told the crowd that the couple continues to believe in the love and compassion around them.

"It is in your faces that we see God in our lives," she said.


Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests