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Spotlight Report

Women face stigma of clergy abuse

Many are reluctant to come forward

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 12/27/2002


Jean Leahy with a photo of herself as a nun in 1965. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)
Jean Leahy kept her secret for 40 years: that she had had to fend off the Rev. Robert V. Meffan's repeated sexual advances - the hand on the thigh, the hug that lasted too long, the invitations to his bedroom - when she was a teenager studying at Sacred Heart Convent in Kingston.

Why tell anyone, she reasoned, when few people would believe the word of a woman over the word of a beloved priest?

But when Meffan's personnel file became public Dec. 3, and he acknowledged having sexual activity with teenage girls who, like her, were preparing to be nuns, Leahy decided there was no need for secrecy any more.

''If I came out with this story last January, people would have said, `Sure, whatever,''' said Leahy, 55, who is no longer a nun. ''I don't think the general public was ready to hear about girls and women being abused. I don't think they could handle that. They had enough to handle with realizing what was going on with the boys. So I just went on with my life.''

Leahy's reluctance to go public is far from rare.

In a yearlong cascade of disclosures about sexually abusive priests, the public face of victims has been largely male. This raises a puzzling question: When females are believed to account for a sizable percentage of those victimized by priests, why have comparatively few women come forward?

More than 90 percent of the clergy sex abuse cases referred to prosecutors in five counties in Eastern Massachusetts involve male victims. Boston attorneys Mitchell Garabedian and Jeffrey A. Newman, whose law firms represent at least 300 of the estimated 500 people with abuse claims against the Boston Archdiocese, say that 95 percent of their clients are male.

But those numbers understate the number of woman victims. In the Boston Archdiocese, at least 16 of the 82 priests accused of molesting minors whose files have been released in recent months allegedly preyed on females. And while reliable statistics are hard to come by, many specialists on clergy sex abuse say they believe that girls represent a substantial portion - some say a third or more - of minors who are molested by priests.

There is other, anecdotal evidence that woman victims have been undercounted: For example, nearly half the victims who become members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an organization that is the best-known advocacy group for victims, are women.

Meanwhile, attorneys for victims are pressing the Boston Archdiocese to release additional files involving adult victims, the vast majority of whom are believed to be women, according to attorneys and specialists in sex abuse by priests.

So why do men come forward in greater numbers? Lawyers, victim advocates, and victims themselves say a complex stew of emotions - shame, fear, embarrassment, a distaste for litigation, a desire to cope privately - has tended to make women more hesitant than men to publicly disclose their abuse.

''My experience with this has been that between 75 and 90 percent of the victims who come forward are boys,'' said Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas attorney who has represented numerous people who were abused by priests. ''Now what does that mean in terms of the actual victim population? Good question.''

Studies that attempt to determine a gender breakdown of clergy sex abuse victims are often confusing and contradictory, making authoritative data difficult to obtain and forcing researchers to rely heavily on anecdotal information.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has written extensively on clergy sex abuse, says he believes that, among young children and early adolescents, boys are twice as likely as girls to be victimized by priests. But Sipe found that the numbers change dramatically among late adolescents and adults, with woman victims outnumbering males 4 to 1.

Gary R. Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist whose counseling center has consulted on more than 1,000 cases involving people sexually abused by clergy, has reached similar conclusions.

Among clergy of all denominations, Schoener said, ''Far more clergy offend against women than against men,'' and more often against adults and late adolescents than children. But in cases involving Catholic priests, he said, victims are more likely to be children, and usually boys. One possible reason, Schoener said, is that the large number of Catholic-run schools, hospitals, and orphanages gave priests extraordinary access to children, and especially to boys.

''Priests could easily take a group of altar boys to a cabin for the weekend, which they couldn't have done with girls,'' said Barbara Blaine, who founded SNAP in 1989 after growing frustrated with the church's treatment of her when she reported that she had been abused by a Toledo priest starting when she was 12 or 13.

Many specialists in sexual abuse also believe boys make easier targets than girls for abusive clergy - or for any sexual abuser - because adults are less likely to be on the alert that a boy could be the target of a sexual predator.

And both Schoener and Sipe say they believe that while a majority of priests who engage in sexual misconduct focus on girls and women, there may be more male victims because priests who are serial abusers accumulate large numbers of victims, and their victims are most often boys.

To cite two examples: A decade ago, 77 of the 99 victims who came forward with accusations against defrocked Fall River priest James R. Porter were male. In September of this year, 50 victims of another defrocked priest, John J. Geoghan, settled claims that Geoghan molested them. Just five of the 50 are female.

Against that backdrop, woman victims cite a host of reasons why they have long suffered in the shadows.

''When you're a woman, many times they feel as if you're the one who instigated it, particularly if you were an adult woman,'' said Linda Allegretti of Brooklyn, who says she was sexually abused by a priest beginning when she was 20. ''You hesitate to come forward because you feel you will be the one who's the bad guy because you should have known better.''

Many women are hesitant to come forward because disclosures of past abuse can jeopardize their marriages and family life, victim advocates say.

There is another reason men are more likely to come forward, according to Sipe. ''It's easier for men to speak up because the violation is more easily accepted as an outrage,'' he said.

And some women, Schoener said, are reluctant to take the adversarial route of bringing litigation because, he said, as adults, women are often ''treated like whores in depositions,'' painted by defense lawyers as the temptress or sexual aggressor.

Madeleine Manning of Houston, who says she was sexually assaulted by a priest in Missouri in the 1950s, beginning when she was 6, said she has never formally reported her abuse to the church or civil or criminal authorities. ''I feel absolutely convinced that there would be some price to be paid at some point and on some level, and that's not worth it to me,'' Manning said.

Among the questions female victims have been asked by church officials, said Sue Archibald, president of Linkup, a support group for clergy sex abuse victims, are: ''Were you in love with him? Did you initiate contact? Did you return his affections?'' The natural conclusion drawn from that line of questioning, Archibald said, is that, ''Women are treated more as seductresses who tempted priests into sin than as people who were victimized.''

Those concerns may help explain why men come forward and women are more apt to choose the relative anonymity of private support groups. Women tend to cope with their emotions inwardly, such as discussing their abuse in private forums, according to David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, ''whereas men tend to turn their anger outward by filing lawsuits or picketing at church - stuff that gets their case in the news media a little bit more.''

For those reasons, Clohessy said, women may be ''substantially overrepresented in support group meetings'' relative to their proportion of actual victims.

Sipe and Schoener, among others, said the quiet existence of so many woman victims of priests disproves the contention of many influential Catholics, including some senior Vatican officials, that the clergy sexual abuse scandal can be attributed primarily to the sizable percentage of homosexual priests.

And the ranks of known woman victims may be growing.

Since the disclosures in recent weeks about priests, like Meffan, who abused females, the number of women who have contacted Greenberg Traurig, a Boston law firm that represents about 220 victims of sexual abuse, has increased, according to Diane Nealon, a social worker at the firm. In the third week of December, Nealon said, a half-dozen woman victims approached the firm.

But going public sometimes brings its own struggles; victim advocates say they believe the church has sometimes treated priests more leniently when their sexual misbehavior involves teenage girls or women.

When a Franklin man wrote in 1984 to Archbishop Bernard F. Law to complain that the Rev. Anthony J. Rebeiro had molested his wife, Law responded dismissively. ''After some consultation,'' Law wrote back, ''I find that this matter is something that is personal to Father Rebeiro and must be considered such.''

Because of such treatment, Jacqueline Petinge of Wilmington waited months this year before deciding to file suit against a priest.

''For a woman, it's humiliating to come forward,'' said Petinge, whose lawsuit accuses the Rev. Robert D. Fay of molesting her when she was a teenager at Incarnation Church in Melrose in the 1970s. Fay, who remains a priest on health leave but owns a real estate company, initially denied to a Globe reporter last summer that he knew Petinge, but then acknowledged that he did. Fay, however, denied molesting her.

''I have a family, I have a husband, I have children, and people look at me and think something like this couldn't happen to me,'' Petinge said. ''But I want to be able to come forward and do the right thing so other women have the strength and courage to do it also.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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