National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 4, 2004

Family assists others in memory of Eric

Mother has list of 145 clergy abuse victims who ended their lives

Conway Springs, Kan.

Since his teen years, Janet and Horace Patterson’s son Eric had suffered from often debilitating depression. The family, including Eric’s two sisters and a brother, struggled to understand the source of his intense psychological suffering. Even though the cloud would occasionally lift, when he would regain some control over his life and they could see Eric’s best -- compassionate and spiritual, intelligent and gifted with language -- his illness would always return.

During Eric’s second psychiatric hospitalization, his sister Becky questioned his idea of a vengeful God who could never be pleased, and asked if he had always felt that way. His answer: “No, it all changed when I was 12.” That was when, he told her, he had been sexually abused by their priest. At the time he was an altar boy at St. Joseph Church in Conway Springs.

Eight months after he told this long-held secret, on Oct. 29, 1999, Eric shot himself. He was 29 years old.

In the five years since Eric’s suicide, his parents have found themselves immersed in a cause they never would have expected: demanding accountability from the leaders of the Catholic church for their handling of sexually abusive priests, and, for Janet Patterson especially, offering a listening ear, a source of support to victims and their families all over the United States.

Among those who have contacted her have been numerous families who have lost a loved one to suicide. Collected through those contacts and from news stories, she has a list of 145 victims of priest sexual abuse who have killed themselves.

What was once Eric’s bedroom is now the “War Room” in the Patterson home, where they run a Web site, “We Are Alert,” answer e-mails and take phone calls. As Janet Patterson described it, “We’re just a family sitting in the middle of a wheat field in the middle of America, and we lost a son to suicide because of clergy sexual abuse, and we’re just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.” Patterson, 60, is retiring a year early from her job as a teacher at Conway Springs High School in order to devote her time to the sexual abuse survivor movement.

Her husband Horace, a 61-year-old technical writer, said, “I look at it as moving on with him, instead of moving on without him.”

The Pattersons’ work is taking a new turn with the planned formation of a support group for family members of clergy sexual abuse survivors. An initial meeting for the group is to be held in Denver at the June 11-13 national conference of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.

Outreach to family members is “long overdue,” said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP. “So much focus has been just on the individual victims. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the betrayal and hurt.”

Through the nationwide contacts Janet Patterson has made already, “she’s making a long painful road towards recovery a little less painful, a little shorter for many,” he said.

Speaking with others who have been through the same experience helps parents and other family members understand the behavior of the loved one who has been abused, Patterson said. The family was also educated by Eric’s psychologist, who after his death explained the effects of sexual abuse that were reflected in Eric’s symptoms -- depression, eating disorders, loss of trust in others. “Once we lost Eric and began to be educated about the reality of sexual abuse, we said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Eric,’ ” Patterson said. “Now I understand. I’ve heard Eric’s story coming from so many people’s mouths that I understand him better now that I did before his death.”

The family’s pain is compounded by the fact that “there really are so few people to talk to who understand the whole dynamic. Not only have we lost a child, it was because of practicing our faith actively that our child was put in harm’s way. And so the parents naturally feel that not only was their child betrayed, their whole family was betrayed.”

The priest that Eric said abused him, Robert Larson, was removed from ministry by the Wichita diocese in 1988, after complaints against him dating as early as 1981. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to charges of sex abuse involving three former altar boys and a teenager he visited in jail. Larson is now serving a three- to 10-year sentence at the state prison in Lansing.

Larson has denied molesting Eric or four other former altar boys in the area who have committed suicide -- Daniel Romey, Bobby Thompson, Gilbert Rodriguez and Paul Tafolla, whose families say they believe the four were abused by Larson.

None of the Pattersons attends a Catholic church anymore. Janet Patterson said the betrayal touches previous generations who helped build their local parish. “I think they have to be weeping in heaven.” She noted that other parents have told her they have been ostracized by their parish community for speaking out about the abuse of their children.

One of the greatest effects on parents is an overwhelming guilt for what happened to their child. “I even felt guilty because we moved back from California to my hometown to keep our kids safe,” Patterson said.

Clohessy said, “One benefit when parents talk to each other is people begin to cut through that misplaced shame and guilt and self-blame. It’s easier to stop kicking yourself when you listen to other parents and realize they were all hoodwinked just the way I was.”

At the first meeting for the family support group in Denver, Patterson hopes to have a psychologist speak about the effects of sexual abuse. The gathering will give family members a chance to share their stories. “By having as many parents as possible meeting in Denver,” she said, “we hope to get a realistic idea of how best to set up support features and [what are] the primary needs of family members needing support.”

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

Expert says abuse by priest harms at ‘deeper level’

The effects of childhood sexual abuse are wide-ranging in both symptoms and severity, according to the American Psychological Association. Depression is common among adults who were sexually abused as children. Anxiety can result in self-destructive behavior, including alcoholism or drug abuse. Many victims experience problems in their adult relationships and in sexual functioning.

“As in any situation, there can be a spectrum of responses,” said Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. “One of the most extreme and tragic is that the person no longer wants to go on with life. Others thankfully seem to transcend it with minimal disruption; then there’s a whole spectrum in between.”

Carolyn Newberger, a Harvard Medical School psychologist known for her work on the consequences of child sexual abuse, said that abuse by a priest can have “a deeper level of harm because it involves not only exploitation by an adult, but by an adult who that child has been raised to believe is beyond fault.” The victim is left with a sense that “no place is safe, because [the church] is a place that should have been most safe.”

Last year Newberger was asked by attorneys involved in legal action against the Boston archdiocese to evaluate 13 victims of priest sexual abuse. One pervasive element in the cases, she told NCR, was that the victims were unlikely to let someone know, and when they did, they were often not believed. “They were often isolated and discredited in the community, and the abusers went on untouched,” she said. “This added to the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, the feeling that there was something wrong with them.”

Many, she said, were struggling to overcome histories of substance abuse, and a number had made suicide attempts or engaged in high-risk behaviors. “Almost everyone suffered from some form of posttraumatic stress disorder,” she said.

For family members, “one of the things most devastating is their sense that they should have known, should have been able to do more,” Berlin told NCR. They need to understand that “it’s in no way their fault, it’s the fault of the perpetrator.”

Berlin said support groups should not replace, but can be an adjunct to, professional help for victims and families. In addition, he noted, “different victims are affected in different ways,” and within support groups “there has to be acceptance of that kind of diversity, and not insist that everybody react in the same fashion.”

Support groups should “help people move on, not keep them indefinitely in a victim stance,” Berlin said. “The idea is to transcend that.”

-- Teresa Malcolm

Related Web sites
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
We Are Alert

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: