(WOMENSENEWS)–Heather Mackey’s grandmother was such a devout Catholic that she went to St. Cecilia’s Church in Leominster, Mass., every single day. She donated large amounts of money to the church and spent hours in the sanctuary in prayer. Because Mackey’s grandmother cared for her while her parents worked, she went to church each day, too.
“That’s how it all started,” said Mackey, now 26.
Beginning when she was 4 or 5 years old, Father Robert Kelley–a priest she described as handsome and meticulous about his appearance–promised to take Heather out for ice cream, or to the library or a park. While they were alone he sexually molested her, regularly and repeatedly. Mackey says
the abuse continued for about five years.
Mackey joined with four other women who also allegedly were abused by Kelley to file a negligence lawsuit late last month against the diocese of Worcester, where Kelley was assigned. Seven other women are expected to join soon in the action filed in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge. The lawsuit is among the first group lawsuits brought by women in the burgeoning clerical abuse crisis sweeping the Roman Catholic Church.
As more and more pedophile priests are identified in the scandal, this civil suit also is unusual because the alleged perpetrator–Father Kelley–apparently preyed only on girls.
“The abuse of girls by priests is significantly underreported,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in St. Louis. Half of his organization’s 4,000 members are women, but Clohessy said he did not know of another case where a group of women have all filed at the same time.
While the abuse of girls by members of the clergy has received scant public attention, Dr. Richard Sipe, a psychiatrist in San Diego who is also a former priest, said the problem is extensive. The widespread notion that most clerical abuse involves priests molesting boys “simply is a misconception,” Sipe said.
“People have gotten on this bandwagon that clerical pedophilia is just a problem of homosexuality and they are really off course,” he said. “I’ve been studying this for 42 years, and if that were true, I would say so.”
Sipe said adolescent girls and even adult women often hesitate to report these experiences because abuse by a priest “does not challenge their sexual orientation.” He also said his research indicates this kind of abuse can begin when girls are as young as 4 years old.
“A priest can pick up a little girl and put her on his lap and it goes on from there,” Sipe said.
Frequent Abuse ‘Seemed Normal’
Mackey said she is barred from discussing specific acts Kelley allegedly committed. But she said the abuse was so frequent that “it just seemed like it was a normal thing.”
When the priest was not molesting her Mackey said, “He did good things, too. He taught me about the saints and about God.”
Mackey said her mother, who grew up in the same parish, was intimidated by priests as a child.
“So she was thrilled that there was this priest who was paying attention to me and wanting to spend time with me,” said Mackey.
Kelley was removed from parish duties at St. Cecilia’s in 1985, after the diocese learned “something was wrong,” said Monsignor Thomas Sullivan of the Worcester Diocese. Kelley later served seven years in prison for the rape of another girl at St. Cecilia’s. Kelley, now a florist in the Boston area, recently pleaded not guilty to additional child rape charges brought on Mackey’s behalf.
Sullivan said he was not familiar with the specific details of the lawsuit brought by Mackey and her co-plaintiffs.
“In the recent few months, new victims of Father Kelley have begun emerging,” said Sullivan. “All the complaints that have been brought to our attention surrounding Father Kelley involve young girls. Most of the allegations that have been made here and other places have involved young boys.”
Attorney Jeffrey Newman, representing Mackey and her co-plaintiffs, said the accelerating church scandal has prompted many previously silent victims to step forward. Since January, hundreds of priests across the country have been accused of sexual abuse over at least a 40-year period.
Men and Women Experience Abuse Differently
Newman, who also has represented numerous male clerical abuse victims, said men and women process the experience differently.
“Men get really messed up in terms of their sexuality. That is a very typical problem,” he said. “They fight hard to prove themselves as male. Women face very other significant problems, for example, being able to trust men in general.”
Mackey, a buyer for an athletic company, said that along with nightmares and flashbacks and a sense that “my entire childhood was stolen,” she experienced difficulties concentrating in school because of her history as an abuse victim.
“My mind was always wandering, thinking about this stuff,” she said. “I always have had difficulty trusting anybody, especially authority figures.”
When she became a teen-ager, she told her parents what had happened. They immediately confronted local church authorities. Her pastor, she recalls with some bitterness, “told me to stop being such a baby.”
“He told me to put it all behind me and not say anything because I would be destroying so many lives,” she recalls.
But his superior, the bishop, told Mackey he had heard the same story from other girls. He offered to pay for her therapy, begged her to say nothing publicly and volunteered to confirm her privately in his home.
“Like that’s what I wanted, to be alone with a priest in his home,” Mackey said.
Once church authorities learned she had contacted a lawyer, they ceased paying her therapy bills, Mackey said. She was in high school, and not yet ready to go public with her story. But after the clerical abuse crisis erupted in January, Mackey said, “I knew I had to come forward. Especially where it was mostly boys. I had to say, this happened to girls, too.”
Bringing Case to Court Has Been Therapeutic
She said that researching the case and connecting with other female church abuse victims has been almost therapeutic. She also said it helped to face Kelley in court when criminal charges were brought against him.
He seemed shorter than she remembered, Mackey said, much less powerful–and not a bit handsome.
Sipe said he found it unsurprising that the lawsuit by Mackey and her co-plaintiffs would be something of a first. He pointed out that over many years the church has made quiet settlements with female victims–women who were molested as children and also some who were abused as adults.
“I’ve said this for a long time: that once you open this up, you are going to see more and more of this,” Sipe said. “Many women are going to come forward because until now they thought they were alone.”
In a sense, he said, this lawsuit may serve as impetus and legitimization for other female church abuse victims.
“Before it was hidden, and the whole burden was on them,” Sipe said. “Now it is out there.”
Elizabeth Mehren is a writer for the Los Angeles Times.
For more information:
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests
“Clergy sex abuse of females complicates intricate issue”:
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
“Restoring Trust: Response to Sexual Abuse”: