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How Deep the Scars of Abuse?

Some Victims Crippled; Others Stay Resilient

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 29, 2002; Page A01

Although they have never met, Henry R. Bachmann of Port Wentworth, Ga., and Frank L. Fitzpatrick of Cranston, R.I., have a lot in common.

Both men, now in their early fifties, were molested by Roman Catholic priests in the mid-1960s when they were altar boys. For decades, both repressed the memory of what had happened -- a festering secret that metastasized into consuming self-hatred, unfocused anger, and serious sexual problems. Both men continue to take medication to treat depression and anxiety stemming from the abuse inflicted by men they revered.

Despite their many overt similarities, Bachmann, 51, and Fitzpatrick, 52, have fared quite differently. Bachmann says he cannot stop thinking about the sadistic "games" the Rev. James Gummersbach repeatedly forced on him in the basement of a St. Louis church 38 years ago. He has dropped out of school, battled alcoholism, attempted suicide, been diagnosed with predatory sexual disorders and spent time in a mental hospital and jail. He is now unemployed.

By contrast, Fitzpatrick has managed to fashion a satisfying life, juggling careers as an insurance investigator, advocate for the abused and, most recently, a music teacher. Despite his successes, Fitzpatrick said he still bears the psychological scars inflicted by James R. Porter, a former priest who is serving a 20-year prison term in Massachusetts.

The disparate experiences of Bachmann and Fitzpatrick illuminate one of the most important and least explored questions in the sex-abuse crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church: Why are some victims permanently crippled by child sexual abuse while others are able to transcend the trauma? This issue is likely to assume greater importance in the coming months, both for adult victims coming forward now, decades after they were molested, and for younger victims and their families, who may more readily disclose abuse and seek help because they are more likely to be taken seriously.

While the quartet of victims who addressed the Catholic bishops' conference last month in Dallas movingly described the devastation wrought by abusive priests -- shame, guilt, substance abuse, promiscuity, mental illness, suicide -- psychologists who treat survivors of child abuse caution that none of these problems is inevitable, although all are common. Nor is there any way to predict with certainty who is likely to be severely damaged, as Bachmann was, and who, like Fitzpatrick, will prove to be more resilient.

"Unfortunately there's this sense that everyone who is sexually abused as a child is doomed for life, which is not true," said Anthony P. Mannarino, professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Typically, children who tell an adult what happened soon after they were molested, who receive prompt treatment and whose perpetrators face swift consequences tend to fare best -- all factors that were absent in the cases of Bachmann and Fitzpatrick and most other victims of priests. Those whose families are unsupportive, abusive or chaotic and victims who carry the secret for years or who are not believed tend to do worse.

"The truth is, it's hard to say why one person does well and another doesn't," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Because there is little good research on clergy abuse -- there are no reliable statistics on how often children are abused by priests or anyone else -- psychologists apply many of the lessons learned treating survivors of incest, widely regarded as the most damaging form of molestation because of the closeness of victim and perpetrator.

"Being sexually abused is not a life sentence, although it can be," said psychologist Christine Courtois, clinical director of the Posttraumatic Disorders Program at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. "I think 80 percent of people can heal" with proper support and therapy, she said. "But not everyone's going to make it."

Devout and Vulnerable

Most behavioral scientists agree that traditional psychotherapy is ineffective at overcoming abuse. What seems to work best is a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy with twin goals: robbing traumatic memories of their power by exposing them to a victim in a protected setting; and altering the distorted thoughts and dysfunctional behavior that accompany such memories. Cognitive techniques focus on changing thoughts -- the most common is belief that the abuse was the victim's fault -- and behavioral strategies are aimed at changing the harmful response to those thoughts, such as heavy drinking or binge eating.

Medications that reduce depression and anxiety are frequently employed. For victims who have serious drug or alcohol problems, sobriety may be the initial goal.

For many victims, support groups also play a critical role. Fitzpatrick formed a national support group called Survivor Connections from a nucleus of Porter's 330 known victims. "What we found is that even though there were so many of us, a lot of people thought they were the only one," he said.

Invariably, victims of priests describe themselves as unusually religious children, another trait exploited by their abusers. "The easiest targets are the devout, because they can be conned more easily," said psychologist Gary Schoener of Minneapolis, who has counseled hundreds of clergy victims. Priests tend to inflict maximum damage on their devout victims because Catholicism teaches that priests are God's representatives on earth, worthy of complete obedience and trust. To children, it often seems as though God is abusing them, a violation that can forever destroy the refuge organized religion provides.

Hank Bachmann was nothing if not devout. As a 13-year-old altar boy, he wanted to be a priest like his idol Gummersbach, who took him to baseball games and got him summer lawn-mowing jobs that helped support Bachmann's needy family. When it was time to collect his pay, Gummersbach summoned the boy to the basement of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. He blindfolded Bachmann, tied his hands to an overhead pipe, stripped him and then sodomized him.

"One of the things that happens is that people are so filled with shame and guilt that it has a dramatic impact on their self-concept throughout their lives," said Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist who has treated dozens of victims of Massachusetts's most notorious pedophile priests -- those of Porter and John Geoghan.

Barbara Blaine, a Chicago lawyer and social worker who in 1988 founded the Support Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that the priest who molested her between the ages of 13 and 17 blamed her for "tempting" him.

"I had this basic feeling of being dirty and bad that I carried around for years," Blaine recalled. Even though her family was supportive and her perpetrator was defrocked when she revealed years later what had happened, "I carry with me the sense that I'm a bad person -- I think that's still there," said Blaine, 45, who underwent years of therapy and recently married for the first time.

Bachmann was vulnerable for another reason: He says his father, whom he described as a sporadically employed meatpacker and an alcoholic, physically abused him, something he believes Gummersbach exploited.

"Perpetrators are very good at choosing boys they can compromise," said New York psychoanalyst Richard B. Gartner, president of the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization. "Either they're having trouble at home, or they have only one parent and the perpetrator offers himself as savior, which just compounds the betrayal."

Because it was prolonged, it involved both penetration and violence, and it occurred at a critical developmental phase -- early adolescence -- Bachmann's abuse was likely to be particularly damaging. Studies have found that abuse that is infrequent and not physically invasive and that occurs when a victim is younger or past adolescence tends to cause less permanent injury.

Fitzpatrick said he is not precisely sure what the priest did to him or how often it happened. He said the first incident he remembers occurred when he was 12 and the priest made him eat a piece of mincemeat pie laced with drugs. When Fitzpatrick woke up, he said, he was lying on the floor on his stomach and Porter was on top of him.

"Adolescence is such a defining window," said Peter Isely, a therapist who directed an inpatient unit for clergy-abuse victims in a Milwaukee hospital. "For a lot of people this is the inaugural sexual act and it helps define how people feel about sex," added Isely, who said he was molested by a priest at a high school seminary when he was 13.

Boys abused as teenagers are more likely to worry that they may be gay, although most experts believe that sexual orientation is fixed earlier. Molested boys are more apt to become perpetrators themselves, sometimes as a way to demonstrate that they are not victims, a trait regarded as female, psychologists say. Girls who are molested are more likely to become promiscuous or to choose partners who abuse them. Among both sexes, depression, anxiety and substance abuse are common.

Fitzpatrick said that for years before his memory returned in 1989, he found it hard to trust anyone, was uneasy around priests without knowing why and worried that he might be bisexual. Bachmann said that he began stealing women's underwear off clotheslines and peeping in windows around the time Gummersbach abused him. Several years later he developed a compulsive interest in pornography and began stalking women he spotted at shopping malls.

Bachmann said that for years he did not remember what Gummersbach had done to him because he had dissociated: He had put himself into a trance in which he did not consciously feel pain or terror and watched from outside his body, as though it was happening to someone else. After each assault, Bachmann retreated to the only safe place he knew: a hidden spot in a nearby park, where he lay in the bushes listening to the soothing sound of wind blowing through the trees.

Terrifying flashbacks can occur decades later -- triggered by a smell, sound or an incident. Bachmann said shards of memory began returning one afternoon at work in 1992, when his boss yelled at him. Fitzpatrick said he was lying on his bed at home when he heard heavy breathing and a crinkling sound and recalled the feeling of someone lying on top of him. For both men, a flood of memories soon followed.

Searching for Peace

Fitzpatrick said his parents were devastated when they learned that he and his three sisters had all been Porter's victims; they have not been inside a Catholic church in more than a decade. Bachmann's parents, now dead, sided with the church. They cut him off when he and his wife sued the St. Louis archdiocese, which shuffled Gummersbach from parish to parish for 40 years.

How a family reacts is more critical if a victim is a child but is important at any age, psychologists say.

"If the victim is blamed or mistreated as a sinner, then that can be more devastating than the original abuse," said Schoener, the Minneapolis psychologist. "In the past month I've seen kids whose parents didn't believe their child was abused by a priest. Or else they believe it, but they don't want something done. What kind of message does that send?"

For Fitzpatrick, bringing Porter to justice was undeniably therapeutic. Porter was convicted in 1992, after Fitzpatrick laboriously tracked him down, recorded incriminating telephone conversations, rounded up dozens of other victims in the same small Massachusetts town and persuaded skeptical law enforcement officials to prosecute.

"I'm very pigheaded," he said. "I just kept focusing on the question of whether Porter was doing this to other kids and stopping it."

Bachmann's legal case, which he regarded as a way to "take back" his life, ended more ambiguously. In 1999, five years after he sued the priest, the archbishop and the archdiocese, Bachmann received $25,000 and a letter of apology, admitting the abuse, from Gummersbach, who now lives in a St. Louis retirement home.

Later that year, a jury awarded Bachmann and his wife $1.2 million -- including nearly $500,000 in punitive damages, highly unusual in such cases. The church appealed, challenging Bachmann's contention that his memory of the abuse had been repressed. An appellate court overturned the verdict and ruled in favor of the church on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

Bachmann said he remains a prisoner of his past. "I feel all this anger that he was allowed to get away with it, that the church was allowed to get away with it," he said. "I can't forgive and I can't forget. The thing is, I still feel like I'm responsible for what happened."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests