shadow

For survivors of priest child sex abuse, what would real justice look like?

Why We Wrote This

The question overlays every detailing of the sexual abuse of children by trusted spiritual figures: How can there be justice for such a crime? We asked several of those now-grown children what, exactly, ‘justice’ would mean for them.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Becky Ianni, shown at her home in Burke, Va., was 8 when her family’s parish priest began to abuse her. After years of seeking justice from the Catholic Church, she received part of what she wanted most: Her diocese publicly acknowledged what happened to her.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 13 Min. )

As states grapple anew with the parameters of justice for childhood sexual abuse by priests or ministers, four survivors shared their stories with the Monitor. They describe how, as adults, each of them began a journey to seek the kind of justice they were longing for, often in very different ways. Survivors have begun to coalesce around a number of concrete reforms to reshape the structures of justice: Eliminate statutes of limitations; establish free-standing grand juries with the power to subpoena documents from church archives; and require that all credible accusations of abuse are reported to police. “As a survivor, the biggest, most important part of justice is to be heard, and to be believed,” says Michael Norris, who was abused by a Roman Catholic priest at summer camp when he was 10. Mr. Norris was able to experience two facets of justice that many survivors say they long to see. He confronted his abuser, first face to face, then in a court of law – which found the priest guilty and sentenced him to prison. But the court became another ordeal. “That’s not necessarily justice,” Norris says of his experiences on the stand. “But justice is knowing that this man can’t hurt anybody. He’s in a place now where he’s not going to hurt anyone. And so that’s been justice for me.”  Part 1 of 2.

There are crimes for which justice can seem like a remote concept.

There are crimes, like the sexual abuse of children, from which many turn away – using language like “unspeakable,” “unimaginable,” or even “inhuman.”  Even survivors create their mental shields from the crimes they endured.

 “This form of abuse is really completely and utterly spiritually annihilating,” says Christa Brown, a survivor of abuse at the hands of a Baptist minister decades ago, and an author who now lives in Colorado. “It's been called ‘soul murder,’ and I think that's a very apt word for it.”

How can there be justice for such a crime? And what, exactly, would justice look like to those who, more and more, are finding the will, and perhaps the words, to define it?

“As a survivor, the biggest, most important part of justice is to be heard, and to be believed,” says Michael Norris, a chemical engineer and manager in Houston, who was abused by a Roman Catholic priest while attending summer camp when he was 10.

“To me, there’s healing, and then there’s justice,” says Becky Ianni, a mother of four who was sexually assaulted by a young parish priest, in her own home and for years, starting when she was 8.  

“To me justice is being able to file a police report and put your perpetrator in jail,” she says. “That's the ultimate justice.”

Ms. Brown, Mr. Norris, and Ianni were three of a number of survivors who shared their stories with the Monitor. They described the swirl of trauma, self-loathing, and guilt with which they’d lived. They described how, as adults, each broke their silence and gave voice to the now-speakable wrongs they endured. There are similarities, but each of them began a journey to seek the kind of justice they were longing for, often in very different ways. 

The nation’s institutions of criminal justice are grappling anew with the parameters of justice – and moving in unprecedented ways nearly two decades after the Boston Globe exposed the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, and the lengths its hierarchy went to cover up these crimes.

  • In August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailed more than 1,000 documented victims. It said that there were most likely thousands more. It publicly named more than 300 priests as abusers. But because of existing statutes of limitations, only two could be brought to justice.
  • In September, officials in at least seven states, including New York, Florida, and Illinois, announced investigations into Catholic dioceses, seeking what some attorneys general called the church’s "secret archives."
  • Over the past year, evangelical Protestants also have grappled with stories of abusive ministers targeting underage teenage girls, as well as other instances of child abuse. Because of these and other #MeToo stories, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, launched a study group in July “to consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse.” 

“I guess what finally underlies all forms of justice is truth,” says Brown, who advocates listed as one of 14 people the Southern Baptist Study group should consult. “The need for truth within all these processes, within all these systems, within all these faith communities – and especially the need for truth within our very souls and our hearts – certainly that's what survivors need and yearn for to a large degree.”

Survivors and their advocates, in fact, have begun to coalesce around a number of concrete institutional reforms to reshape the structures of justice. These include: Eliminate statutes of limitations for accusations of child abuse; establish free-standing grand juries throughout the states, each with the power to subpoena documents from church archives; and require that all credible accusations of abuse are reported to the police.

Not every victim finds a voice. But for many who have chosen to share their childhood abuse, justice has become more than the difficult journey through human bureaucracies in both the church and law enforcement.

Part of the idea of justice is recompense for what has been lost. But how do you begin to restore lost community and even lost faith?

“When you are abused and you lose your faith community, it’s another loss,” says Ianni, still struggling to recover her faith, and especially her trust in God. “When people are abused outside of religious settings, they might be able to turn to that. So then, when you're abused in that religious setting, what do you do?”

It is a question that most survivors, often in very different ways, are still struggling to answer. Brown describes justice as an ever-moving process.

“But as abuse survivors, we can still work within our very selves to bring about a form of justice, a justice within our own bodies, a justice over the portion that we ourselves have any possibility of exercising some control over,” says Brown, who has embraced the meditative solace of yoga and hiking the Rocky Mountains that surround her. 

“And that's not whole justice, that’s not complete justice – it doesn’t do anything about the perpetrators and the enablers and the community that would rather look away,” she continues. “But working within ourselves, we can arrive at some place of peace and wholeness and go on and have a good life – and that really is the ultimate form of justice.” 

***

Norris was able to experience two facets of justice that many survivors say they long to see. 

Norris confronted his abuser, first face to face, then in a court of law – a court that found the priest guilty and sentenced him to prison.

Johnny Hanson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Michael Norris, Houston area chapter leader of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, experienced a form of justice that few survivors ever find: He was able to accuse his abuser in a criminal court and see him sentenced to prison. The photo shows Mr. Norris (center with head tilting) with a group of boys at their first communion.

As the grand jury lamented, existing statutes of limitations have prevented law enforcement officials from pursuing criminal charges against most priests. In states like New York, victims of many forms of childhood sexual abuse have only until they turn 23 to make an accusation, and until 21 to file for civil damages, according to a state-by-state report of statutes of limitations by the advocacy group Child USA.

By contrast, states such as Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, South Carolina, and West Virginia have no statutes of limitations for sex abuse crimes – a reform that survivors and their advocates have begun to demand from other state legislatures. Kentucky, the jurisdiction that sentenced Norris’s abuser, eliminated statutes of limitations for all forms of child sex abuse in 1974.     

In recounting his story again and again – to church officials, to the police, to prosecutors, to defense attorneys, on the witness stand, at appeals hearings, and now at parole board hearings – Norris says the criminal justice system became yet another ordeal.   

He has been subjected to attacks on his character: “He was starved for attention,” his abuser’s defense attorney said at the trial. “He’s gotten plenty out of this.”

“That’s not necessarily justice,” Norris says of his experiences in criminal court. “But justice is knowing that this man can’t hurt anybody. He's in a place now where he's not going to hurt anyone. And so that’s been justice for me.”

Norris was abused at a summer camp in Kentucky in 1973, after he got poison ivy during a hike. He was sent to the first aid cabin, and one of the camp administrators, Father Joseph Hemmerle, was supposed to give him treatment and care. 

He never forgot the episode. In fact, in the years to come, his life seemed to constantly orbit the priest, a beloved religious leader in the Louisville community – which included his parents, who would often gush about him, he says. When Norris enrolled in his local Catholic high school, Hemmerle was his religion teacher. 

He began to drink heavily, and “I was also getting high on pot every day,” he says. And then one day in class, when Norris and another boy were talking during a lecture, his abuser mocked him. “He says, ‘Norris, you’re trouble. You’re just going to end up in prison someday,’” he says.

Norris dropped out. Later, he attempted suicide. He enrolled in another high school, but dropped out again. His parents finally told him he had to get a job, go to school, or leave the house.

Instead he joined the Navy, Norris says. He attended the University of Louisville and got a degree in chemical engineering and got married. After they moved to Houston, his wife was the first person he ever told about his abuse.

It wasn’t easy going back to Kentucky to visit his family. “Every time I would go home, my mother would talk about him. ‘Oh, I saw Father Hemmerle. He’s such a good guy. He remembers you, too!’ ” Norris says. “My wife would say, ‘You need to say something to her.’ But I didn’t know how to do it.”

In 1996, after his mother again starting gushing, Norris finally just blurted out, “Mom, he’s a pedophile.”

“She didn’t know what to say, she was so taken aback,” he says. “Then she asked me what happened, and I told her. And she said she loved me. My mother at that point said, you need to do something about it, but I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t know how to handle it. I was still abusing alcohol heavily, my career wasn’t really where I thought it should be.”

But his mother’s support meant the world, he says. He began to see a therapist. “That little boy was still hurting down there, and I never really dealt with it." It took years, “but I finally reached a point, I can actually tell the story of what happened to me, without getting emotional,” he says. “I did nothing wrong. I learned how to deal with it in a constructive manner.”

This included a momentous decision. He would report his abuse, nearly 25 years after the fact, to church officials. He wrote a letter in 2001 to the diocese in Louisville, formally accusing Father Hemmerle and requesting that he be removed from ministry. He met with the local bishop, but in the end, no action was taken.

Then came the Globe’s bombshell reports. Norris decided to report his abuse to the police. Again, not enough evidence could be found to charge the priest.

“Finally, I reached a point – you know, I’ve done what I can do,” Norris says. “My hands are clean. There’s nothing I can really say.”

But the death of his father prompted Norris to confront Hemmerle face to face. On his father’s death bed, “I sat down and I’m by myself with him, and he says to me, ‘I want to tell you I'm sorry. I’m sorry that I allowed you to be put in that situation.’ ”

“And you know, I had no idea that my father was feeling guilty about this,” Norris says, choking back his tears. “So, that was the last conversation I had with my father, a conversation about this priest.”

A year later, he drove to the rectory where Hemmerle lived.

“I walk up to the door and knock on it,” Norris says. “He comes out, opens the door, and he says hello. He has a smile on his face. And I said, ‘I’m Michael Norris.’ ”

Hemmerle’s smile quickly turned to fear. “He was scared. But he looked at me and he could tell I wasn't there to do anything violent. And he looked at me, and said, ‘I, I know who you are.’ He let me walk in, saying, ‘I didn’t do this, I didn’t do this.’ I told him, ‘I know what happened, and you know what happened. But that’s not why I’m here.’”

“I just wanted him to know that I persevered. I persevered,” Norris says. “You know, he abused me, and I felt the impact of that for 40 years, but I’m OK now. I’m a productive member of society. And I wanted him to know that. It was part of a healing process.”

“I told him the story of my father, and the impact of what he had done to me, how it impacted my whole family, and that he needed to understand that,” he says.

“I felt so relieved when I walked out of there. That you know, I felt like I had unloaded all the pain that I had, and that he knew about what had happened to me,” Norris continues.

Almost a decade later, their orbits crossed again. Another person accused Hemmerle of abuse, and the police re-opened their investigation into Norris’s accusations.

This time, prosecutors subpoenaed church documents – an effort other states are beginning to take. These documents included the Catholic diocese's own psychiatric evaluation of Hemmerle. The evaluation corroborated Norris’s accusations. Armed with this report, prosecutors convinced a jury to convict the priest and send him to prison.

Advocates say that this is the reason states like New York have begun to subpoena such documents in church archives. 

Norris has refused any monetary damages. And he says that he forgave Hemmerle years ago.

Yet he cannot bring himself to step foot again in a Catholic Church, he says, or sit through a liturgy. “I told my mother I won’t go to her funeral, I refuse,” Norris says, remembering icy stares he received during his father's funeral liturgy. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to put myself in that place again.”

***

Unlike Norris, Becky Ianni, the mother of four in Virginia, was never able to confront the priest who abused her when she was a girl, or see him brought to justice in a court of law. 

It’s been more than 12 years, since she first stepped forward to break decades of silence. She had forgotten the abuse she endured as a child until a moment in 2006, when a photo of the priest opened a hidden place and memories flooded over her.

Michael Bonfigli/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Becky Ianni poses for a portrait at her home in Burke, Va., on Sept. 12. A survivor and mother of four, she was never able to confront the priest who abused her for years when she was a girl, or see him brought to justice in a court of of law.

By this time, her diocese in Arlington, Va., had already instituted reforms, and she didn't wait long to contact the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator. She told her she was asking for three simple things.

“I need the church to say they’re sorry, and I need them to tell me I’m not going to hell – because I still felt like, if I'm going to tell on the priest, then I’m going to hell,” Ianni says. “And then I need them to do something about it, and acknowledge what happened to me.”

For the next 18 months, there were bureaucratic disputes about which diocese had jurisdiction over her case. Church leaders ignored her numerous letters and phone calls, and seemed indifferent when she recounted her story again and again. “You know, I just poured out my heart to you, and that’s how you treat me?” Ianni says.

In the late 1960s, when she was 8, a charismatic young priest, Father William Reinecke, came to her family’s parish in Alexandria, Va. He played football on the streets with the neighborhood boys. “And he sort of adopted our family,” Ianni says. He ate dinner at their house two to three times a week. He drove her older brother, an altar boy, back and forth from liturgies. The priest even helped the family buy a new color TV, she says.

“As an 8-year-old, I wanted his attention, too,” Ianni says. “But he took that adoration and began.…” Her voice trails off. “He would abuse me, literally abuse me in the basement of my house, and then go up and have dinner with my family.”

“I thought I had done something wrong, or that I had more ‘original sin’ than other people, and though I didn’t know why, I knew it was my fault. I thought I was being punished by God because I was a bad little girl,” Ianni says.

As she grew up, Ianni says she pushed these memories to the outer peripheries of her conscious self.  

Reineke climbed the ranks, becoming a monsignor and the chancellor of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. One of his duties during his 13-year tenure: investigating claims of child abuse.

Ianni got a degree in elementary education from the College of William and Mary. She met her husband Dan, and they had four children. They attended mass regularly and they raised their children in the faith. “But I never felt I was lovable, really, and saying no was just not part of my vocabulary,” she says. 

In 1992, a number of people began to step forward to accuse Monsignor Reinecke of abusing them. That September, after a former altar boy confronted Reinecke face to face, he used a shotgun to take his own life.

Neither her abuser’s well-publicized suicide nor the explosive revelations by the Boston Globe in 2002 sparked Ianni's memories. In 2006, however, one of her sons was struggling with alcoholism and she entered family counseling. The therapist asked the mother of four, then 48, to explore her own formative years.

That included looking through photos – including one of a little girl, standing with a young, handsome priest. Suddenly, and with a force that nearly took her breath away, moments started flooding back into her mind. A malaise of guilt and fear and confusion – it was like becoming that 8-year-old girl again, she says – took hold of her.

“I was in a state, not knowing what to do,” Ianni says. "But I wanted to find other victims, other survivors, I knew that.”

After nearly two years of delays, a church panel finally judged Ianni’s accusations credible. But in their first letter of apology, they used vague and euphemistic language, she says.

“The first letter of apology I got – I still have it – what it said was, ‘We're sorry for the experience you had with a priest in our diocese,’” she says. She immediately sent it back. 

“I think the church has failed in this, because they’ll say, oh this happened to you, and they use the term 'inappropriate behavior’ or other euphemisms,” she says. “And someone actually said to me, the priest was just ‘overly affectionate.’ These are sexual crimes. And so I think that, to give victims justice, you first need to acknowledge what happened to them.”

In their second letter, the church officially apologized for the sexual abuse she experienced, and at the hands of Reinecke. They also published an announcement in the Arlington Herald. Even more gratifying, the church announced its findings of the former chancellor's abuse in every Sunday bulletin in churches throughout the diocese.

“That’s what I wanted, and so for me, that was my justice,” says Ianni, who also received a small cash settlement. “And quite honestly, if they had simply done those three things right away, I’d probably still be Catholic.”

“I’m not sure how much I trust God yet, if that makes sense,” she says. “But I would like to.” Church officials never addressed her anxieties about hell, however. “I definitely miss God, and I’m trying to figure out a way to get back there.”

But the journey she’s taken since those memories of her abuse came flooding back 12 years ago has changed her pretty profoundly, she says.

She’s no longer so meek, and she’s become an active leader in a different community, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization Norris also joined.

Ianni has been on the front lines of pressuring church officials to be more transparent. And she has found a sense of meaning as she shares her own story of survival, within a new community that embraces her, without conditions or judgments.

“It’s almost like the Catholic Church created what I am right now,” says Ianni. “And in a way, I’m not sorry for that.”

Correction: Christa Brown was one of 14 people advocates say the Southern Baptist Study group should consult.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.