Victim speaks out, but archdiocese is slow to end secrecy
Donald McGowan has kept a painful secret for most of his life--first out of embarrassment and later because of a contractual agreement.
But at age 60, after hearing countless allegations of pedophilia made against Catholic priests and simmering for years over the "pittance" he received for trauma he suffered as a child, McGowan decided he has remained silent long enough.
In 1997 the archdiocese of Chicago paid McGowan $55,000 for being the victim of alleged sexual abuse by "employees, representatives and/or agents of the Catholic Bishop" of Chicago, according to a confidential settlement McGowan provided to the Tribune.
McGowan is still bound by the terms of that settlement, under which he and the archdiocese agreed not to talk publicly about his allegations or the money he received. Unlike the archdioceses of Boston and Los Angeles, Chicago has not decided to allow victims who have signed confidentiality agreements to speak out if they choose.
But McGowan--who has been troubled by an adult life of alcoholism, drug abuse and depression that he believes stems from the sexual abuse--said he feels compelled to break the silence about his case.
"At first my motivation [to break the settlement] was anger, but I figure if there is a chance speaking out might help somebody, I ought to talk," he said.
Advocates for victims who have been sexually abused by clergy say the secrecy stipulation in McGowan's settlement is common practice, but they also say such agreements make coping difficult and can even make victims feel complicit in hiding problems of sexual abuse within the church. The advocates have been pushing dioceses to relax the agreements since allegations of the church mishandling complaints have erupted nationwide.
Jim Dwyer, a spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese, said the matter is under review. "Our whole policy is under review," he said.
The agreement with McGowan states: "The parties acknowledge that the nature of the subject matter of this agreement is sensitive and potentially damaging to the reputations of each of the parties." It specifically points out that "genuine harm" could be suffered by both parties if the settlement was disclosed to the media.
Although the archdiocese has not chosen to loosen such confidentiality agreements, Cardinal Francis George said last week that little action could be taken against victims who did violate the stipulation.
"What strength has a confidentiality agreement? If someone decides they don't want to keep confidentiality, what do you do? Sue them? Once the confidentiality agreement is broken, it's broken," George said Tuesday before a meeting at a Winnetka parish that lost its priest amid charges of sexual misconduct.
Dwyer said legal action against McGowan for breaking his settlement is "something that the archdiocese is not considering at this time."
Paying a high price
The archdiocese has spent about $10 million to deal with sexual misconduct by priests in the last decade, Dwyer said. About half of that went to cover legal settlements with victims; the rest has gone to administrative costs for a new fitness review board, monitoring of problem priests and counseling for their victims.
Attorney Joseph Klest, who has represented Chicago plaintiffs in more than 15 cases, said that in recent weeks, six of his clients who have reached settlements with the Chicago archdiocese have asked what would happen if they broke their confidentiality agreements.
"I've been telling them that legally they probably should stay pat with their agreement, but in reality what are they [the archdiocese] going to do to them if they break their agreements?" he said.
Although his settlement does not go into specifics, McGowan said a priest and a lay staff person at the Maryville Academy in Des Plaines sexually abused him repeatedly over several years during the 1950s. He was put in the care of the priests and nuns at Maryville when he was 6 by alcoholic parents who could not care for him, he said.
McGowan said that by the time he was 10, he was fondled, groped and sodomized by the priest, and he was later molested by a staff worker on Maryville's campus.
"I'm not sure I could really evaluate at the time that what was going on was wrong," McGowan said in a recent interview at a diner in west suburban Riverside. "I felt really bad about myself and it stuck with me all these years."
Dwyer declined to comment on McGowan's case, noting that the agreement also prevents the archdiocese from discussing it.
Dr. Sharon Lamb, an associate professor of psychology at St. Michael's College in Vermont, who has studied the effects of sexual abuse on victims, said secrecy agreements perpetuate the victimization of survivors and can even make them feel complicit in the sexual abuse they suffered.
"There is symbolism to the secrecy element of these settlements that causes a repeated victimization of the survivor," Lamb said. "When the abuse happens, they've been told by their abuser not to say anything. Once they've confronted the church, they have been told by the authority to remain silent again."
Dr. Jack Saul, a psychologist who heads the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University, said speaking publicly about the abuse they suffered can be therapeutic for the victims.
"I think for some of these people, not being able to speak out publicly about the sexual abuse they suffered can be very traumatic, and the guilt can be overwhelming," Saul said.
In a letter that was sent Friday to priests of the Boston archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law wrote that in hindsight the church should have "changed our emphasis on secrecy."
"While this focus was inspired by a desire to protect the privacy of the victim, to avoid scandal to the faithful and preserve the reputation of the priest, we now realize both within the church and in society at large that secrecy often inhibits healing and places others at risk," Law wrote.
40 years of silence
In McGowan's case, he didn't confront the archdiocese about the abuse until about 40 years after he said it occurred.
McGowan said he has a troubled past--most of which he has been able to talk about openly.
He has been in and out of more county jails than he can count--most recently a stint in Ventura County Jail in California on an animal-cruelty charge for stabbing his cat with a buck knife. And he said he has been fired from every job he has had.
But he said confronting the sexual abuse was something he was unable to do for most of his life and something he still feels uneasy talking about.
"I wouldn't tell anybody about it," McGowan said. "Even my brothers didn't know about it--to this day they don't know about it."
But one day in 1996--as he sat in his living room in Santa Paula, Calif., getting drunk--McGowan said he began telling his late wife, Patricia, about the sexual abuse he suffered when he was a boy at Maryville.
McGowan told her that when he was sent down to the priests' offices as a 5th or 6th grader, a priest he remembers as a "cruel and unrelenting disciplinarian" would offer him the option of being spanked or submitting to sexual abuse.
"I recall wishing--when I would have to go down to the priests for punishment--I would always hope I would get the other priest," McGowan said.
Later, when he was about 14, McGowan said a man who worked at the boarding school would grope him and kiss him as McGowan tried to do chores.
The agreement names neither the priest nor the staff person. The men named by McGowan could not be located.
Church's swift response
McGowan said his wife urged him to contact the Chicago archdiocese and confront them with the allegations. He wrote a letter that was answered by the diocese in a matter of weeks, followed by a series of phone calls.
In April 1997, less than a year after McGowan wrote the initial letter, he and his Ventura-based attorney, David Praver, sat down with officials from the archdiocese who flew to California to hammer out an agreement.
Praver declined to comment for this article, saying he was bound to uphold his part of the settlement agreement.
McGowan said he looks back at his life as "being screwed up" in large part because of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.
Less than three months out of jail, McGowan has moved back from California and is staying with an old friend in the western suburbs. He said he is trying to move forward with his life, but his anger makes it difficult for him to forget.
"I can't say that I'm not afraid to break the agreement I made in good faith," McGowan said. "But it is not right that I should have to keep this secret."
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