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updated: 1/26/2014 4:01 PM

Clergy sex abuse survivors stress speaking up

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  • Carmen Severino of Naperville says she was abused by a priest when she was a child at a Chicago South Side parish.

       Carmen Severino of Naperville says she was abused by a priest when she was a child at a Chicago South Side parish.
    Jamie Sotonoff | Staff Photographer

 
 

For nearly 40 years, Carmen Severino hid the fact that she was sexually abused by her family parish's priest between fifth grade and her senior year of high school.

Scared to tell her devout family, fearing they'd side with the church over her, Severino suppressed the memories and soldiered on with her life. She got married and had children. Divorced and remarried. Pursued successful careers as an actress and nutritionist.

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Everything seemed fine on the outside, but the psychological wounds festered for decades. When she finally opened up about the abuse nine years ago, it took years of therapy to come to terms with her guilt and shame. Even today, at 59, something as simple as the sight of a priest wearing clerical robes can trigger thoughts of her painful past.

For Severino, of Naperville, and many other survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the trauma they suffered decades ago is something they still deal with in their daily lives. Yet most agree that the best thing they did to heal was to talk about it with someone, either a professional, a trusted friend or a fellow survivor.

"When I first came forward, I was the sinner. I was the shame," she said. "It still is a journey ... but the more it comes out, the better it will be for those suffering in silence. You have to shine the light in the corners of the kitchen to have the cockroaches come out."

Severino was among a handful of suburban survivors who shared their priest sexual abuse stories last week, after the Archdiocese of Chicago released internal documents showing its leaders knew about the abuse of children and tried to cover it up.

Sexual abuse, particularly by someone as respected as a priest, can cause psychological scars that linger for a lifetime, social workers and psychologists say.

Each person deals with it differently. Some are open about it, seek counseling, join support groups like Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and speak out for related causes. Others hide their past, telling only a few trusted people, if anyone. Some survivors lead seemingly happy and healthy lives, relying on a strong support network of friends and family, while others isolate themselves and struggle with depression, addiction, or, in a small percentage of cases, become abusers themselves, the experts say.

Cardinal Francis George views the problem as being one in the church's past.

"Today no priest with even one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor serves in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago," according to a statement from the archdiocese.

The church has reformed its abuse reporting system, created a group that helps victims heal and "is working hard to regain trust," the statement said. Meanwhile, other educational efforts -- things like teaching children the difference between good touch and bad touch -- have led to a decline in sex abuse cases in recent years..

But even abuse that happened decades ago can still be difficult for survivors to deal with today.

Severino can't bear to see a priest wearing a cassock, a clerical robe, since her abuser wore one every time he assaulted her.

"I can't even watch Bing Crosby in 'Going My Way,'" Severino said. "I went to a funeral, and there were a lot of priests with cassocks ... and I thought, I can't go in there. So I went in, paid my respects, and walked right out."

Sometimes she'll feel anxious when being intimate with her husband. Other things trigger memories, such as people sneaking up behind her.

"Anyone who's been sexually abused knows that you just don't get over it," said Sue Albrecht, 56, of Midlothian, who was abused by her priest, as was her younger sister, Therese. Their father had been sick, and Albrecht said the priest warned that if she told anyone what was happening, he'd snap his fingers and her dad would die. The two sisters didn't share their secret with each other until they were in their 40s.

Albrecht has dealt with her guilt and shame in therapy, vowing not to let the priest who abused her have power over her life. But her sister isn't faring as well, and lives "with death on her back every day," Albrecht said.

It's not just the abused who suffer. The family members, do, too. Jim and Kathy Laarveld, of Wheeling, were plagued with guilt for not realizing, and thereby preventing, their 10-year-old son's abuse by the priest who they welcomed into their home and trusted. They still have problems trusting and warn parents to be vigilant.

"It's terrible to say, but don't trust anybody," Jim Laarveld said.

Common problems caused by childhood sexual abuse include intense guilt and shame, difficulty trusting people and authority, a lack of self-confidence and problems forming healthy relationships. Experts say victims also might act out sexually, or if the abuse was same-sex, struggle with their sexuality. Many lose their faith in the Catholic church, or God.

"The feelings they felt at age 6 or 8 and 10 are the same feelings they have about it now," said John P. Harris, a Chicago social worker who works with men who have been sexually abused, including several by priests. "They have to sort all that out and recognize that they're not responsible for what happened to them, but it's a very gradual process. You don't turn this around in a short time. There's a lot of processing that needs to take place and a lot of relearning that needs to take place."

How a person deals with the aftermath can vary depending on the child's age when abused, the frequency and intensity of the abuse, whether he or she attempted to speak up, or if the child was ever threatened to keep quiet, Harris said.

"There are so many variables," Harris said. "It will never be to the point where this didn't happen to them, but they can put it into perspective and transcend the guilt and shame, relieve themselves of those burdens and find healthy relationships. That's really the key, I think, focusing on one's relationships. It's central to one's sense of well-being."

Dr. Christine Kieffer, a psychologist who helps childhood sexual abuse victims at her practices in Chicago and Winnetka, said the wounds can be deeper if a child confessed the abuse to an adult, and the adult then dismissed the story, saying "you're lying" or "don't talk about it."

"If parents can take steps to help and protect (the child), there's typically a better outcome," Kieffer said. "But if they're told to essentially shut up and be quiet, the thoughts are still present. A child will shut down in a certain way."

Severino stayed shut down for four decades, finally opening up about her abuse in 2005 after reading a newspaper article about a woman who had been abused by the same priest. Suddenly, all the issues she thought she'd "packed neatly in a little box in my mind, and pushed it way, way, way back" bubbled up.

"I just started to cry. I said, 'I feel like there's something wrong with me.' I'm getting all these perverse images in my head. I thought, I must be nuts," she said.

She saw several doctors, leaving one because he overmedicated her, and ended up with a psychologist who helped her work through her issues without drugs.

It was a powerful moment when she went up to the microphone in front of the national media cameras last week and said, "I committed no sin. I have no shame. The sin lies in them."

"Then, when I got home," she said, "I cried."

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