For many survivors of clergy sexual abuse, no passing of time or
monetary settlement or heartfelt apology can ever fully mend their
wounds. In light of the scandals that broke early last year, as
well as the uprising of survivors who have voiced their anger in
protest, the Church has vowed to listen.
In this section of our special issue, we focus on two survivors,
John Vellante and Bobbie Sitterding, along with Anne and Ray Higgins,
parents of a survivor. They share with us the ramifications of the
abuse, their views of the Church and how they are healing.
Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a national organization of clergy sex-abuse survivors, as well as representatives from SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), proved invaluable in helping us find these brave prople.
Bobbie, John, Ray and Anne bring different experiences to the forefront, yet they each share the same objectives: To raise the visibility of survivors, to replace statistics with human faces and to enhance the voices of those who endured unspeakable crimes, yet have summoned the courage to survive.
The Tireless Advocate
More than four decades have passed since John Vellante suffered
sexual abuse that lasted his entire first year at the Stigmatine Fathers Junior
Seminary in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Yet the memories born from that harrowing
ordeal remain closely with him.
But John Vellante has endured.
Now 58 and living in North Andover, Massachusetts, John is a member
of St. Michael's Parish, as well as a semi-retired sportswriter for The Boston
Globe, the newspaper that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its coverage
of the clergy sex-abuse scandal. John is also a devoted husband of 14 years,
a father of five, an activist and, to be certain, a survivor.
In a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger, John speaks
of his ongoing journey of healing. He talks of his loyalty to the Church, his
undying support for survivors—a large, multigenerational family bound, not by
blood, but by spirit—and his lifelong faith in God.
Survivors have differing methods of coping with the repercussions
of their abuse. John Vellante suffered his in silence, burying the memories
in the back of his mind, where they remained for decades. In fact, he was so
good at eradicating the abuse that he even allowed the priest who abused him
in 1958 to officiate at his wedding nine years later.
That marriage ended in divorce in 1985, an outcome that John believes
stems from his ordeal. "I think my divorce was clearly related to
the abuse and the fact that I lived a secret all of those years,"
he says. "Everything that should have been discussed in my marriage,
I kept secret. You say to yourself, 'It'll go away,' but it didn't.
What went away was the marriage."
Only in 1992 did John momentarily unearth the secret to his second
wife, whom he married in 1988. "We discussed it very briefly and I gave her
scant details," he says. "The next morning when we woke up, it was as if we
had never talked about it. It wasn't discussed again until all of this came
After reconnecting with some of his seminary classmates, John learned
that they too had been abused. The dialogue among them started John off on the
road to recovery—one he's traveled ever since.
Silent No Longer
John Vellante lived a great many years in a crippling silence.
Today, his voice is his champion, and he isn't afraid to use it. The abuse,
along with the cover-ups that safeguarded his abuser, who left the priesthood
in 1972 and married shortly thereafter, have led John to see a very real difference
between his faith in God and in the Church as an institution.
"I have come to realize that my faith is not in the pope or cardinals,
bishops or priests," he says. "My faith is in God, the Eucharist and the sacraments.
It's a lot greater than any of the bishops or cardinals who were involved in
covering this up."
Such cover-ups, coupled with the survivors who have gone public,
as well as those yet to come forward, have led John to believe that the Church
may never fully mend what has been broken.
"My gut feeling is that it's fractured beyond repair, but I'd
like to think otherwise. You hear bishops say, 'We'll pray, we'll
pray,' but prayer is not the only answer. You also need with it
accountability and truth."
Truth, to John, is an invaluable step toward healing, but he knows
that it may never be forthcoming. "I think the cardinals, bishops and everyone
else who helped cover up this horrific situation should admit their faults and
resign," he says.
"The Church must allow for the laity to have a greater role in its
administration—men and women. I believe the Church must fully reach out
to all victims and not just offer lip service. And priests of integrity," John
adds, "must stand up, be courageous and condemn the actions of their bishops."
John Vellante is proud to belong to a large, diverse family
of survivors. As a spokesperson for the North Andover chapter of Voice of the
Faithful, a 30,000-member organization of lay Catholics, John is able to reach
countless survivors. It's an involvement that aids, not only in the healing
of others, but his own healing as well.
"At each and every meeting when I speak, somebody will approach
me and say, 'Thank you. I'm in the same situation. How do I tell
people that it happened to me too?'
"I first let them know that I believe them and that they're not
alone. I tell them that when they are ready to go public, or if they want to
keep it in their hearts forever, they'll know what's right for them."
John finds strength through his brother and sister survivors and
he is tireless in his advocacy for their rights. Many times he has taken to
the streets in protest, shoulder-to-shoulder with his newfound kin, fighting
for their voices to be heard.
"I was in Concord, New Hampshire, a few months ago at a protest.
It was about five or six below zero and we were out there protesting for three
hours," John explains. "But it felt good. I know it was cold outside, but I
And until survivors' rights are honored, John has no intention of
quieting his voice. "Until this stops," he says, "I'll always be there."
John's story—unlike those of other survivors, many of whom
must summon the will simply to stay alive—is one that seems bound to end happily.
"I'm certainly blessed," he says. "I have a wonderful, supporting
wife and beautiful children. I have a supportive family and a wonderful group
But John's praise doesn't end there. "And yes, hard as some may
find this to believe, I have some wonderful priest friends who are also very
John Vellante will most likely travel the road of healing for the
rest of his life. Perhaps his greatest blessing is that he will never walk it
The Path of Rediscovery
Bobbie Sitterding, a 52-year-old survivor from Chicago, experienced
an awakening at the bishops' conference in Dallas last year. When a newspaper
photographer outside the Fairmont Hotel asked if he could take her picture,
Bobbie agreed. When he asked for her name, she refused.
When Bobbie later saw a copy of that Dallas newspaper, the caption
underneath her photograph struck a sounding, and unpleasant, chord within her.
"It really hit me," she says. "It read, 'Unidentified Woman.'"
She pauses briefly. "I don't want to be the unidentified woman anymore."
Bobbie's phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger is one
step in rediscovering the power and significance of her identity. For many years
only her husband and daughter knew of the sexual abuse that she endured. Bobbie
zealously guarded her secret from most of the outside world.
This interview, coupled with a speech she gave at a Voice of the
Faithful meeting in late March, indicates an evolution for Bobbie Sitterding—a
move toward a new healing.
The "unidentified woman" now has a name.
The Broken Vase
Bobbie heard an analogy several years ago about surviving the
aftermath of sexual abuse that has been embedded in her mind ever since.
"The victim's life is like a shattered vase that's been reassembled,"
she says. "From a distance it looks normal but when you look at it more closely,
it has all of these cracks. Even though it looks the same, it's never the same."
With Bobbie, the analogy is only partially accurate. There are unbroken
portions to the vase as well—smooth, unharmed sections that symbolize her blessings:
an unsullied faith in God, a thriving marriage, a 28-year-old daughter, a career
as a legal secretary and scores of family and friends.
Even so, cracks can be found along the vase—fractures that represent
the horrific sexual abuse that she suffered, both as a young teenager and as
an adult, by different priests. And because of this, Bobbie wrestles with ongoing
"The hardest part has been trying to forgive myself for trusting
so blindly," she says. "Many abusers make you feel special—they give you gifts
and they take you places. They groom you to trust them and then they betray
you. And like many victims, I thought I was the only one."
Bobbie's guilt shifts to anger, not only for the priests who damaged
her innocence and trust, but also for the bishops who systematically covered
up the crimes, which, in effect, spread the anguish to her loved ones.
"They have to recognize the horrendous effect it has had, not only
on the victims but on the secondary victims—the family members. This doesn't
just affect me, it affects my husband and my daughter as well."
Bobbie still feels the painful sting from those who were aware of
the abuse she endured, yet, in acts of re-victimization, turned a blind eye
to the crimes.
"For me, personally, the bishops who made conscious decisions to
put the good of the Church before the good of children must pay the consequences
for what they did," she says. "They have to start listening to their hearts
and not to their public relations people and lawyers.
"They shouldn't treat survivors like damage control. They shouldn't
blame the victims, or the victims' parents or those who put their
trust in those priests," she says. "It's a betrayal. It's not just
'inappropriate behavior'—it's evil."
Bobbie is understandably hardened by those dark moments of her past
but, nevertheless, looks with hope and with promise to the future.
Bobbie looks for a day when a revitalized Church can fix what
has been broken and begin again. In the meantime, she has no intention of leaving
"Why should I leave and give up my Church?" she says. "It's my Church
as well as anybody else's." Bobbie, who says she often weeps during Mass, finds
some comfort there too. The Church, despite its faults, draws her still.
"I don't feel I need to go to church every Sunday because if I don't,
it's a mortal sin. I go because I choose to. I get something out of it when
I go to Mass," she says.
Attending Chicago's Old St. Patrick's offers Bobbie a spiritual
refuge. Her decade-long involvement in The Linkup, a national organization of
clergy sex-abuse survivors, and with Voice of the Faithful provides the emotional
support and camaraderie she needs.
"The only way for me to survive this is through other people, by
talking about what's going on in their lives and how much it's affected them,"
Bobbie says. "It's the giving of yourself to somebody else. What I do is listen.
I can't fix what's hurting them, but I can be there to listen to what they have
to say, to their stories."
Bobbie and her husband have found a family in other survivors. As
such, tears and laughter, new memories, sadness and peace are the threads of
their family's tapestry.
"I think it's important to realize that when you cry with people,
you can also laugh with them. You try to be the best person that you can. The
more you help other people, the more you get back," she says.
Long Day's Journey
Bobbie has emerged as a survivor from an unspeakable wreckage.
She knows that her past will linger, but she is grateful for the joy in her
life that still abounds. "Living a happy life is the best revenge," she says.
Bobbie's healing has been an evolution, and she realizes the battle
over her own survival has been a hard-won victory. "You go from victim to survivor
to thriver," she says. "But being able to thrive doesn't mean that you
put it behind you. It's always with you."
The complex story of Bobbie Sitterding is one with numerous chapters.
What has been written cannot be changed, but that is of lesser importance. For
Bobbie, a lifelong faith, the love and support from family and her continuing
journey of growth and healing will undoubtedly fill the pages still to come.
Ray and Anne Higgins
Secondary Victims Include Parents
Ray and Anne Higgins learned firsthand that clergy sex abuse
has a ripple effect on secondary victims: relatives and friends of the victim.
In 1992, these soft-spoken parents discovered that their son had been sexually
abused by two Franciscan friars during his high school years in the early 1980s.
At the time of the abuse, their son was a student in Santa Barbara, California,
at St. Anthony Seminary, which closed in 1987. One man is no longer a friar
or priest and the other is not in active ministry.
"Our son was at the high school seminary and we used to go to Mass
there," says Ray, a retired businessman. He and Anne were very active in this
non-territorial Catholic community.
Even though they say they've gotten over feelings of guilt, the
effects of the abuse still linger. "They've defiled my son, my child, the person
I gave birth to," explains Anne, a retired nurse.
"We do not want to see this happen to another child," she stresses.
"It is criminal activity."
Ray and Anne shared their story with St. Anthony Messenger
at The Linkup's 11th annual conference, "The Road to Healing," held last February
in Louisville, Kentucky. "Victims coming to these conferences get affirmation
that they're not alone," Ray explains.
The Linkup advocates repealing statutes of limitations, knowing
many victims take years to come to terms with their abuse and take action, reports
Ray explains that he and Anne worked with other advocates to change
the law in California: "There's a one-year window of opportunity for anybody
to file a lawsuit regarding child sexual abuse."
He clarifies the reason for referring to victims as survivors:
"We want to convince them that they're getting beyond the victim stage
and into the survivor stage. But when you are talking about the crimes
that have been committed, then they are the victims of those crimes."
After their son told them about the abuse, Ray and Anne recalled
changes they had noticed at the time. Their son stopped getting
haircuts and didn't bathe regularly, which they now realize was
an effort to make himself appear unattractive. "He slept with a
baseball bat and switchblade at his bedside," says Anne about the
times he was home. "He would get up in the middle of the night and
walk and walk and walk....This was directly related to the abuse
by one of the friars who came into the dormitory room at night and
would supposedly 'soothe' the boys."
Ray adds, "In his junior year, he said that he wanted to leave but
wouldn't tell us why." They made their son stay until the end of the year, "which
caused a lot of guilt on our part because we subjected him to about six more
months of that torture."
Unlimited Counseling Needed
When they discovered that their son and others had been molested,
Ray says their Catholic "community put pressure on the Franciscans to have an
investigation." The Franciscan Province appointed a board of inquiry, of which
Ray was a member. The board found that over a 23-year period "34 young men came
forward against 11 priests."
In an out-of-court settlement their son received $90,000, of which
his attorney's share was 40 percent. "It won't even pay for his therapy," explains
He believes it is important for survivors to file lawsuits because
it "empowers the victim to get a measure of justice and gives them some financial
resources so they can help organizations like The Linkup....It also makes it
so expensive for the Church that it can't afford [to allow abusive priests]
Anne explains why the Church needs to offer unlimited counseling
to victims: Events throughout life often trigger memories that can return them
to "the victim mode, in which they must seek additional help." Her experience,
however, has her convinced that the Church is "more concerned about preserving
the image of the Catholic hierarchy and their purse than with helping the survivors."
"Where is the outrage by all of the good priests?" asks Ray. Because
of the way the Church has handled the sex-abuse crisis, he believes "the Catholic
clergy have lost all credibility."
For healing to begin, Anne believes Church leaders must "acknowledge
that they have criminals in their ranks. They must turn these criminals over
to the law enforcement and judicial process, and live with the consequences."
Ray and Anne, who both graduated from Jesuit universities,
have deep wounds from their experience. "Both of our families have been cradle-to-grave
Catholics for many generations," says Ray. But "there is no way I would ever
come back to the Catholic Church."
"I was a pillar of the Church," says Anne. "Many things related
to my views, my values, my ethics are related to the Catholic education I received.
But I'm not a participating member of a Catholic parish, nor do I ever intend
to be. Our children have withdrawn from the Catholic Church ranks and so have
my brothers....I do not think that organized religion has a place in my life."