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Post-Dallas: March to Boston cathedral shows faces of abuse victims


Name by name, they called out: “Steve, Denise, Jane Doe, Patrick, Robert, Brian, Paul, Donna.”

Poster by poster, they removed purple shrouds, revealing photographs of those whose names they said out loud. These were the faces of children -- all alleged victims of sexual abuse, photographed at or near the ages when their abuse began.

Captions under their faces read:

“Phil, molested at age 11. Father like son, both victims.”

“Meet Donna one year prior to the beginning of Fr. Reilly’s sexually assaulting her until the age of 6.”

“Silence is not golden: Art, abused by Paul Shanley: 1968-1974. Silent 1968-1998.”

“Greg at age 5, victim of Paul Shanley from ages 6 to 11.”

“B., age 15 ‘Priest stole my innocence and trust.’ ”

“Gerry O. Cannon, molested ages 9-11.”

“Susan: abused and stalked 11-14 yrs. old. Never told parents.”

As their names and photographs greeted the hazy New England sunshine, many onlookers openly shed tears.

Hundreds of family members, friends and supporters rallied here June 23 to show support for the 70-plus alleged victims and press for church reform and justice.

The solidarity walk was sponsored by the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, a reform and advocacy organization that has sprung to life in the wake of the Boston archdiocese sex abuse scandal.

After the unveiling of posters, coalition members and supporters lined up single file. They walked silently behind poster bearers along a 1.3 mile trek to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. There they gathered to hear six survivors address a crowd of more than 300 people.

John Harris of Norwood, Mass., spoke first. “I am a survivor of sex abuse by Fr. Paul Shanley,” he said. “This was in 1979 when I was referred to him in a counseling capacity to come to terms with my sexuality and Catholicism. When I met with him, he raped me.”

Steve Lewis recalled being abused at age 11. “Shortly after, I remember crying in my room. I got out of bed and walked over to a crucifix on the wall and spat on it. I said to Christ, ‘How could you let this happen to me?’ ” He added, “I know that I am forgiven for this.”

Bill Gately reflected on the emotional impact and lifelong effects of his sexual molestation. He said that a few days before the rally, “I cried. I haven’t cried in a very long time. I have never cried about my sex abuse, never allowing myself to feel that abuse so deeply.”

He said, “I cried also because my heart ached when I think about the needless pain that has been inflicted on us. … As children we have the right to grow up with safe, appropriate boundaries. These were forever taken from us and can never be replaced.”

Gately was first abused at 14. At 17, he remembers thinking he would be better off dead. At 20, he remembers, “looking into a loaded revolver and thinking how easy it would be to end it all.”

But he survived, and his life went on. “Things are better now, some 30 years later,” he said. But, “With sex abuse there is no closure. The word survivor is very appropriate. I spend as much time surviving as I do living. Some days surviving is all I can do.” Nonetheless, Gately left no doubt about his resolve. “We are the personification of the systemic problem of the Catholic church,” he said. “Many people, including some in the clergy, wish that we would go away. We the survivors, though fragile, are resilient women and men, gay and straight, young and old. We are parents, grandparents and children. As the challenge mounts, so does our strength.”

Ann Hagan Webb of Wellesley, Mass., said that growing up, her family, with long and deep ties to a parish in Rhode Island, expressed great pride in the special attention she received at school. “I got chosen to crown the Virgin Mary in May and be an angel at first Communion. The nuns called me by name to answer questions at the children’s Mass,” she said.

However, she said, her family, “never guessed for most of those years in grade school I was being sexually abused by the monsignor.”

For years she said, “My psyche found a way to protect me from the awful knowledge. I learned to repress and disassociate my memories and feelings.” Memories came back when her children became the same age she was when the abuse started, she said. She told her family. “Miraculously they believed me and continue to be my greatest support.”

When Webb told church officials, however, she met an entirely different response. “I told the church and hit stonewall after stonewall. I was looking for a pastoral response. Instead, I met interrogation and insult,” she said.

“Look at my face,” Webb said. “It is the face of a survivor of sex abuse by a Catholic priest. There are names and faces of people you won’t see here today because they didn’t survive.

“I don’t want your sympathy,” she said. “I would like your respect. The victims who are not here because the pain was so great that they had to leave us and those who are not ready to come forward -- all of us deserve your respect as well.”

Webb urged the crowd to take action: “Look at me. Look at the pictures of us as children. Listen to our stories. Let yourself be horrified. And never let this happen to another child.”

Steve Lynch, another survivor, expressed solidarity with his “wounded brothers and sisters,” from California and Texas, to Chicago, New York and Florida; and from Canada and Ireland, to Poland and Australia. “I support you,” he said. “Find your voice to speak truth to power.”

The final survivor to speak was Art Austin. On hand to express their support were his mother, other family members and friends. Addressing archdiocesan priests accused of sexual misconduct, Austin said, “You lose. We are still here. We told your dirty secrets. We are taking back our names and faces, we are taking back our lives and the lives of our priest-killed brothers and sisters, with honor and reverence. You cannot have them. We have taken back our place in the sun, and we will never give it up.”

Representatives of the local archdiocese attended the event, including Barbara Thorp, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law’s director of Healing and Assistance. Law was in Washington, but spokesperson Fr. Christopher Coyne spoke with journalists after the event. “This is a very cathartic thing for people,” he said. “If any good can come out of this, something like this event lets victims know they are not alone. And it might help others to come forward to get the type of help they need, if they need it,” he said. He was quoted in the Boston Globe.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002