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Abuse seen as cause of suicides

Sunday, June 12, 2005
By BILL ZAJAC - The Springfield, MA Republican
[email protected]

When James E. Thibault tried to kill himself three years ago, he left a note that shocked his brother.

Thibault, then 53, revealed to his brother for the first time he was sexually abused as a child.

Thibault's brother, Kickapoo Thunder of Chicopee, won't reveal the perpetrator's name, but said it was a man in training for the priesthood who was later accused by others once he served as a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

Thibault's obituary, prepared by his family, said: "Jim was a victim of sexual assault as a child by people claiming to be Christians. Like so many of our families who have been affected so tragically, Jim could no longer live with this burden and tragically ended his life."

"It explained a lot about the trouble and pain my brother experienced in his life," Thunder said.

Several weeks ago, Thibault's remains were found along the Connecticut River after what his brother and police believe was a successful suicide attempt.

Thunder believes the suicide was the result of the sexual abuse.

Although no hard data is available, Thibault is just one of hundreds of people nationwide and a handful in Greater Springfield whose deaths are linked to clergy sexual abuse, according to family members and victim advocates.

"Sexual abuse - clergy or otherwise - is a life-and-death issue," said Janet E. Patterson of Conway Springs, Kan., who has been an advocate for clergy abuse victims since her son, Eric, killed himself at 29 in 1999.

Patterson later learned that four other men allegedly abused by her son's accused abuser also killed themselves. There would have been a sixth if a story about Patterson's son and the other men hadn't been published. "Up until the story was revealed, he thought he was the only one," said Patterson.

Patterson, who speaks to many support groups, says it is rare for a clergy abuse survivor not to suffer suicide ideation.

"A friend of mine who is a victim once said she was going to take her secret of abuse to the grave, but then she discovered her secret was taking her to the grave," Patterson said.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, believes the Catholic church should try to determine how many deaths can be linked to clergy sexual abuse. He said it could be done through annual internal and external audits.

"Victims' families want their loved ones to be counted. They want something to become of their pain. Families feel the need to recognize their pain in some meaningful way," he said.

One father, Allen Klump, believing his ex-Marine son killed himself as a result of abuse by a priest in the Diocese of St. Louis, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the diocese two years ago. The suit is still pending, according to Klump's lawyer, Patrick W. Noaker.

Similar suits have been filed in other states, according to various news reports.

Patterson, Clohessy and others say isolation often leads to suicide.

"The most important thing an abuse victim can do is to get help in counseling and find support," said Clohessy.

The organization's Web site displays a suicide hotline number, (800) SUICIDE (784-2433) that will connect a caller to the certified crisis center nearest the caller.

"Once someone seeks help, it is hard to imagine that it won't get better ... Sometimes I can see survivors getting better in months, not years," Clohessy said.

The Rev. James J. Scahill of East Longmeadow, a vocal critic of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield's response to the clergy abuse crisis, agrees with Clohessy.

"The challenge is to get someone to counseling. I'm not a counselor. I am a friend, an advocate. I am someone trying to keep someone's oars in the water," said Scahill, who has been approached for help by many sexual abuse victims.

He said clergy abuse has its own unique effects. "Not only did these young people suffer a molestation of the body, but there was also a slaying of the spirit," Scahill said.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who has represented 60 or so alleged clergy abuse victims, said many victims become so depressed and despondent that suicide seems the only way to escape their pain.

"I have been on the phone many late nights trying to keep survivors alive," Stobierski said.

"The number of victims who have been suicidal at one time or another is not trivial. There is suicide when someone consciously ends their suffering. And then there is suicide by those who do it slowly with drugs, alcohol, and engaging in other risky behavior," Stobierski said.

Some survivors call it suicide "on the installment plan." Raymond J. Chelte of Chicopee believes his son Raymond J. Chelte Jr. falls into that category.

He said his son fatally overdosed on drugs four years after he was one of 17 alleged sexual abuse victims of former priest Richard Lavigne who settled a suit with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield for $1.4 million in 1994.

Peter Bessone, an alleged victim of Lavigne who was part of the $1.4 settlement with other Lavigne victims in the mid 1990s, said his cousin David Bessone committed suicide more than 20 years ago because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Lavigne.

David Bessone, who was in his mid-20s when he died, never filed a suit or reported the abuse to diocesan authorities. "He didn't want anyone to know about it. He was too ashamed. He was a teacher and didn't want to jeopardize his job," Peter Bessone said.

Clergy abuse survivor Martin P. Bono of Chicopee said he believes the death of fellow clergy abuse victim Shawn M. Dobbert last summer was a suicide.

"I don't care what the medical examiner's report says, Shawn killed himself," said Bono.

The death of Dobbert, within hours of signing papers to settle a suit against the Springfield diocese, was ruled accidental by Berkshire County Medical Examiner Dr. Benjamin Glick.

Bono said his daily thoughts of suicide were intense and frequent during more than one year of litigation with the diocese.

"At one point I had to change the route I took to work because I was fearful I was going to jump off a bridge I crossed each day," Bono said. "I had so much pain that I couldn't tell my wife and kids. I cried five to six times a day. I felt isolated and angry and saw suicide as my ticket out of it."

Therapy was the key to feeling better about life, he said.

Upon settling his suit, Bono, with the diocese's financial support, established a resource center to help victims with everything from therapy to career counseling.

He said he stills thinks about suicide, but the feelings are less intense and less frequent.

Stobierski feels that most clergy abuse victims feel victimized twice.

"First, the priest molests them. Then, they feel victimized by an institution that covered up the abuse and has not dealt with them fairly as adults," he said.

For some, Patterson said, even therapy and support from loved ones and other victims isn't enough to save them.

"This is such a traumatic thing that some can't climb out of the black hole of depression," she said.

However, Stobierski said most of his 46 clients that settled suits with the diocese last summer are emotionally healthier today.

"For those who have received a small piece of justice from the church, they have been able to gain some control of the demons of clergy abuse. Most are in better place than where they were when they first came forward to deal with it," Stobierski said.

©2005 The Republican

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests