HARRISBURG, Pa. – It took 50 years, until the release of a landmark research report, for the sisters of Mary Robb Jackson and Cynthia Carr Gardner to realize that the pastor in the Pittsburgh-area suburb where she lived as a child had been abused, both of them, a few years apart.
The sisters of’ the discovery during a long-distance telephone conversation between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — added them to the case of brothers and sisters mentioned in the statement of the grand jury report on sexual abuse of children by clergy within six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.
The nearly 900-page report, released Aug. 14 after a two-year investigation, cited at least two dozen sets of brothers and sisters victimized by the clergy under the scores of abuse cases documented going back to the 1940’s. Two of the cases went to five brothers and sisters.
Clergy often won the trust of the parents, before going on to molest brothers and sisters, sometimes in a house while the parents were present, sometimes on a trip with the children, the report said. The priests then know to put that trust into the lever against children, who were afraid to say no to an authority figure trusted by their parents.
The predator priests often warned their victims to keep quiet. That and shame often kept the victim calm and aware of their siblings’ trauma for years; some spoke up more quickly.
Jackson did eventually complain to her mother, a devout Roman Catholic, the Rev. Lawrence O’connell’s abuse, which included groping and kissing, while they carried out office duties in the parish of St. Gabriel house practically next door as part of an after-school-work. Her mother immediately put an end to the after-school job, Jackson said.
Jackson went to the university, and the mother died suddenly. O’connell soon invited Gardner — who was 11 or 12 at the time and lived with their father — by her the afternoon to do office tasks in the parish house, and went on to molest her, Gardner said.
Jackson, at the university, never knew that O’connell had invited Gardner in, ” she said. Neither Jackson, nor her mother had said nothing to the other members of the family about O’connell, and neither Gardner nor her father had all reason to refuse a job offer from a man who had donated gifts to the girls, including trips to the Ice Capades and the circus.
“Was it calculated? I don’t understand that kind of mentality. But, if it was, that is just pure evil,” Gardner, now 63, said. “That is pure evil calculation, if you make use of a family who had a horrific life event, and you prey on the younger version of the brother or sister.”
O’connell died in 1986.
Child abuse cases where the victims are brothers and sisters more often when the predator is a part of an organized religion, said Ben Andreozzi, a lawyer who represented victims of the Catholic priests and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach now serving a long prison sentence.
“Parents sometimes unconsciously legitimize the perpetrator to the children,” Andreozzi said. “In other words, the parents will bring them into the house, they will break bread with the religious figure and hold religious figure to the children as someone who they can trust. And that religious figure who is, as a possibility to get access to the children.”
In one case described in the report, five brothers and sisters — brothers and sisters were allegedly the victim in the 1970’s by a seminarian, and three of them by a priest in the St. Brigid in Meadville in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“The survivors said that they were poor, dysfunctional, and dependent on the diocese for their mother’s employment in the St. Brigid parish,” the grand jury report said. “In addition, the parents were friends with the addicts and the family would often invite them to engage in drinking parties.”
After the parents were drunk and confused, the perpetrators would molest or rape of the children in the house, and threatened them against telling their parents, the report said.
In another case, two brothers testified that a priest at the Mother of Sorrows school in Murrysville in the west of Pennsylvania molested them in the beginning of the 1980s in their rooms while praying before going to bed and on trips the family invited the priest.
The parents discovered what was going on when one of the boys shouted at the priest, but the boys were otherwise afraid to say anything, because their parents found the priest so much, the report said.
The report cites other critics who are now adults — including a woman in 2004, a lawsuit — which is to say that they had performed sexual acts on O’connell as a girls.
Gardner, who lives in Massachusetts, cried her sister, in a suburb of Pittsburgh when she realized O’connell was in the report. In that conversation, they discovered they’d both been abused by O’connell, although Gardner thought she had said years earlier.
“She told me that she was haunted by it when we finally had the conversation about it,” said Jackson, now 70.
In the parish house, Gardner tried to fend off O’connell’s hands groping and reject his invitations to go somewhere private. She walked out for good after he forced a kiss on her, ” she said.
The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent. Gardner decided to speak publicly to add her voice to the others, the victim of O’connell, ” she said.
Jackson — who had quietly reported her own story to the Pittsburgh Diocese after hearing of the 2004 lawsuit — decided to speak publicly now out of anger that O’connell had targeted her younger sister.
“That is what makes me so sad and so angry,” Jackson said. “I’ve never known.”
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