In the weeks since Pope Francis convened a Synod of Bishops from around the world to discuss issues important to family life, there has been a lot of talk about whether the Church should be more welcoming to gays, allow divorced/civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, or make annulments easier to obtain.
In the coming year, bishops are supposed to talk to their congregants and each other about the Church’s stance on these and other issues, all related to keeping families strong and together.
Yet the most destructive thing to happen to Catholic families in the history of the RCC is being completely ignored: clergy sexual abuse of children. The Church’s treatment of children is a record of carnage.
I know! I was sexually abused by my parish priest. It not only ruined my life; it also destroyed my family.
The Rev. John M. Cotter started to abuse me when I was seven years old and in second grade at St. Theresa of Avila School in West Roxbury, Mass. The sex abuse lasted for six and a half years. He was everywhere a little boy could be. Being a member of the parish meant that I was an altar boy, involved with the Cub Scout – Boy Scout program, CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), and school. He even abused me in my own home when I was very sick on the living room sofa while my mother was in the kitchen preparing him lunch.
For years, there was no escaping him, his torture, or his torment.
Accusations against Cotter surfaced not long after the global crisis started. In January of 2002, The Boston Globe reported accusations of sexual abuse by dozens of priests in the Boston Archdiocese. Church records were released in a sexual abuse lawsuit that revealed widespread child abuse and the complete failure of Church leaders to control the problem.
Later that year, more personnel files released by the Boston Archdiocese named Cotter, who died in 1989. Numerous others besides me reported they were molested as boys and girls in West Roxbury and Beverly during the 1960s and 1970s. Cotter molested them in swimming pools (where no bathing suits were worn), in church, in rectories, on camping trips, in cars, and in motel rooms. In one instance, after fondling two boys in a motel room, Cotter told the boys to kneel and pray or they would go to hell for committing a mortal sin.
The archdiocese must have believed the claims because in the 1990s, they came to financial settlements with some of the victims.
Other Cotter victims called Church officials to report his abuse. Two brothers, also from West Roxbury, said that around 1967, when they were about 13, they went on a trip to New York with Cotter. In a motel room, Cotter asked them if they had ever played with their penises. He then molested them.
Cotter served at my church from 1965 to 1973, and then was transferred to St. John the Evangelist in Beverly, where he was also accused of sexually molesting children. He was placed on sick leave in 1980 and never returned to active ministry.
A common result of child sex abuse is promiscuity, and I became promiscuous. On the night of my high school graduation, I was drugged and raped by three men. I later collapsed in front of my mother and the entire story of my sexual abuse by Cotter and others spilled out. I could no longer continue to live a double life.
My parents, who I thought would be there for me all of my life, blamed me for the abuse. My mother demanded that I tell my brothers and sisters “before they hear it on the street.” That evening, my parents insisted that I move out of the bedroom I had shared with my twin brother for 18 years and relocate to another room in the house. I had never felt so judged, angry, and alone in my life. Being rejected by my own parents, I feared being rejected by other family members as well. Things at home became so dreadful my only option was to move out of my family home.
My relationship with my family was never the same again. On her deathbed, my mother told me, “I wish you did not have to go through all you went through,” and she began to weep. My Dad, however, told me he was mortified by my advocacy for clergy abuse victims; his opinion of me never changed to the day he died.
Cotter and those who sheltered him destroyed my childhood and destroyed my relationship with my family. They should be held accountable.
Before the Church tries to tell families how they should live in the context of the recent synod and the final one next fall, it must acknowledge its part in destroying families.
And there’s another thing that Pope Francis should do: declare that helping clergy abuse victims and their families as well as disengaged Catholics to heal will be on the agenda for the next synod on the family, and bishops must add that to the list of issues to be discussed in the coming year.
Only then will the synod truly be addressing the needs of all Catholic families.
Remember what Jesus said:
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”
– Mark 9:42
Robert Costello is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse.