Recognizing Survivors: The Clergy Scandal

This week, a draft report on sexual abuse by clergy members indicated that even more claims have been made than previously thought. Here, ABC correspondent Ron Claiborne reflects on the struggle of survivors.

This week, a draft report on sexual abuse by clergy members indicated that even more claims have been made than previously thought. Here, ABC correspondent Ron Claiborne reflects on the struggle of survivors.

Last August, the defrocked pedophile priest John Geoghan was strangled and pummeled to death in his prison cell in Eastern Massachusetts. He was being housed in Protective Custody at the time.

The man who allegedly killed him was a fellow inmate, who was serving a life sentence for killing a man in 1988, according to one story, because the man made a sexual advance toward him. Another version is that he killed him just because he thought he was gay. It was a surprise to me and a lot of other people to learn that Protective Custody in Massachusetts means the protected prisoner is isolated from the general population, but not from one another — which, of course, does not make a lot of sense.

I remembered seeing Geoghan during his trial in 2002 for fondling a 10-year-old in a swimming pool. He was small, slight, stooped man. Impish was the word that came to mind. This little wisp of an old man was accused of molesting or raping more than 150 boys and girls. The real number was most likely much higher. One of his victims — "alleged victims," as we trained to report — was Patrick McSorley, now in his late 20's.

When interviewing the victims of pedophile priests — I must have talked to a dozen or more while covering the Boston Church Scandal — I would sometimes ask what the exactly had happened, sometimes not. Intuition told me when to pry, and when to just leave it unspecified. Most would volunteer details. McSorley was one of them. Almost none of them would ever look me in the eye. Most would squirm, shake, fidget, stammer and look away. McSorley was always very agitated — I'd met him several times — but this time was worse than usual.

In his thick working-class Boston accent, he told me how Geoghan, the local parish priest, (allegedly) came to his home for his father's wake. His father had killed himself. Geoghan offered to take McSorley — he was about 10, I think — to an ice cream shop. His mother said okay. They drove to the ice cream shop, drove back. Geoghan parked at near the McSorley home, and proceeded to perform an act of oral sex on young Patrick.

"And I remember holding that ice cream cone in my hand," he told me, holding his hand out as he must have that day, staring at it, "and watching the ice cream melt and drip down my arm."

I asked what happened next.

He finally met my gaze. "I went back inside and didn't think about it for the next 20 years." When Geoghan was killed, I thought of McSorley and the other "alleged victims." Almost everyone I spoke to described their lives as fractured and tortured life. A pattern emerged: alienation from family, drugs or alcohol abuse, often unmarried and unattached, unable to hold down a job, and so often, the same nervous, agitated demeanor — permanently rattled by the searing memories.

I didn't talk to any victims about Geoghan's death. I read about them, saw some on TV. They seemed confused. No doubt, they felt on some level that it was a just punishment — some said as much. Others were upset that he had met such a violent end. I read that one felt responsible, that by being one of his accusers, he helped set in train the events that led to Geoghan's murder.

A couple of weeks later, on Sept. 9, the Boston Archdiocese settled the lawsuits by more than 500 "alleged victims" of pedophile priests. The Church agreed to pay $85 million, with each individual who opted in to get between $80,000 and $300,000 depending on the duration and severity of his or her abuse. They would also be eligible for psychological counseling at the church's expense and — importantly — spiritual counseling. Many of these people had been unable to go into a Catholic Church for years. More than a few told me they were shaken by just the sight of a priest in a Roman collar. I had to wonder how many victims would trust a church they perceive as having coldly thrown them away in order to protect the priests who had abused them, to "avoid scandal," which the church leaders themselves admitted was their overarching concern.

The settlement proposal was officially disclosed in a hearing in the county court in downtown Boston. I watched one of the original lead lawyers for the Church who had recently been supplanted by a new attorney chosen by the new archbishop who was anxious to resolve the cases and make amends. A patrician-looking man in an expensive suit, he looked stricken as the monetary terms were explained.

Then, I looked to the gallery. An elderly couple — parents of an abuse victim — sat close together. The woman's head lay on his husband's shoulder. She looked weary. The man's head lolled back, looking at the ceiling ... or perhaps at nothing. They did not look like winners.

Afterward, the plaintiff's lawyers held a press conference in the little park outside the courthouse. Three victims spoke in front a phalanx of television cameras.

"This piece of paper means one thing to me and to many (other) men ... from this day forward in the eyes of you people, in the eyes of the church, I am not an alleged victim of clergy abuse," Gary Bergeron said. "I'm recognized. I'm a survivor. That's been a very painful journey."

This had been important to many of the victims I had spoken to: that people, the world, know that what had happened to them had really happened. That it was not just an accusation, an allegation, an hallucination. What they wanted was acknowledgement that it was real, it did happen. Most critical was the belief that by speaking out, by revealing their burning shame, it may be prevented from happening to some other child.

"I came forward on a simple premise," said Bernie McDaid, who said he was abused by 40 years ago. "This has to stop. This has to stop for the children."

No one said anything about money.