Fitzgerald's accuser tells her story of pastor's alleged abuse

An interview with sex abuse survivor Gail Peloquin Howard

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Gail Howard graduated from Ascension School in 1961 and Trinity High School in 1965. Recently she went public in accusing former Ascension pastor Monsignor John Fitzgerald of sexually assaulting her in the Ascension rectory. The incident took place in 1964 when she was 17.

Fitzgerald, now deceased, was pastor of the south Oak Park parish from 1951 to 1973.

In consideration of her mother, Dorothie Peloquin Cahill, who worked at the rectory for many years, Howard said she did not speak of the incident until 2002, when she met with the Voice of the Faithful, Bridgeport, Connecticut chapter (using an alias), and did not report the incident to the Archdiocese of Chicago until 2005, when she met with them in person.

While attending the annual conference of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), she appeared at a press conference July 31 outside the Archdiocese's Chancery Office, 835 N. Rush St., and, for the first time, made her accusation fully public.

Her statement to the archdiocese details the sexual assault and the circumstances surrounding it. (See sidebar.)

She spent years in therapy, initially paid for by Fitzgerald (who recommended her first therapist and paid for the first year) and more recently by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Howard and her husband and family lived on the East Coast for many years, where she worked for several colleges and universities as an English teacher and administrator, retiring recently from an administration position at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, where they have lived since 1990.

After Ascension's current pastor, Rev. Larry McNally, notified parishioners about the accusation in the parish bulletin on Aug. 10 (after he was notified by the Archdiocese), we asked Howard for an interview. 

In 2002 you came forward using an alias. What motivated you to deal with this issue publicly? 

Like thousands of people, we read what was going on in Boston [regarding sexual abuse by priests], and we said to ourselves, "You mean I'm not the only one?" It's such a deep part of this experience to think that you were the only one, that this was something that made no sense at all. The only way you could make sense of it was to think that you'd done something to deserve it. It wouldn't happen to anybody else. It was your fault. It was something you did. It was beyond even something you did. It was who you were finally. You deserved this kind of treatment.

So you had to take it all on yourself in order to make sense of it. Did therapy finally help you work through that? 

Yes. It was a very long journey. When I first went to therapy, as I said in my statement to the Archdiocese, I didn't mention the incident at all because I didn't think that was why I was in therapy. I didn't know what was wrong. I used to joke about the fact that I didn't need to wear a watch because I could tell what time it was by how fast my thoughts were spinning. That is a symptom of depression. As one of my students once said, it's like you're racing in neutral.

When I began to have serious problems with schoolwork and walling myself off from my friends, all I knew was that I was having all of this anxiety. And since I had persuaded myself that this incident wasn't that big a deal – I was trying to shrink it – I didn't connect the two, the symptoms with the incident. Growing up in an alcoholic family, denial becomes a real skill.

So when I finally mentioned it to the therapist [after a year], I remember his jaw dropping. I thought: Oh great, now I'm going to have to deal with him on this. You're so deep in the construction of the hiding place you found for yourself, you don't want to talk about it. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it.

But I did continue in therapy and that was helpful for me, very helpful. 

Ironically, with the therapist Msgr. Fitzgerald had recommended.

It's like once you've been abused, you're owned by that experience. So it would never have occurred to me to say, "Well, I'm never talking to him again." You thought it was your fault and you just went on in that Catholic world where everything – from your reason for existing to where you went to basketball games – was all the same. You didn't go to the YMCA 'cause there were Protestants. It was that self-contained. That was the world. So to try to come forward and say, "This is what happened" … as my therapist now says, "It's fine that you saved your breath because nobody would have believed you."

Then around 2002, the Boston sex abuse scandal peaked?

It suddenly just hit. There were all kinds of cases in Boston, not one or two but everywhere. And the first thing I felt was fury. Rage. So angry that I had been just snookered, first of all, that I had trusted the Catholic Church, and then that this was going on all over the place, that there were untold numbers of people who had had this kind of suffering. 

I assume you don't have anything to do with the Catholic Church at this point? 

That's correct. I had to go to Ascension for my mother's wedding [she remarried in the 1980s] to Ed Cahill. She was wonderfully happy in that marriage. They were together for 13 years. He died maybe eight years before she died in 2003.

But it was a real downer to set foot in that church.

Were you treated respectfully by the Archdiocese when you gave your report in 2005?

Yes. I had written a statement, which I brought with me. They took my statement and told me my statement was credible. They believed me, but they weren't going to put his name on the Archdiocesan website [listing abusers] because he was dead and wasn't there to defend himself.

I was just glad I had completed this act of coming forward and confronting the church. But as the years passed, I realized that this truth was never going to come out. I guess I cared that the truth is out there, and I also care if there are other victims – and there usually are – it might help other victims to hear the story. 

Do you see any sign that the church is getting any better about this issue? 

I think they have a long way to go. I've been active with SNAP, on and off. Now that I'm retired, coming forward was one of the things I wanted to do, when I have the psychological energy to do it. Over the years I have talked to a number of people who have not come forward with their stories. I would hope every time someone brings their story forward, that others who haven't come forward would feel safe in doing so because I don't think you really get it that you are not the only one until you're face to face with other survivors. I don't think it sinks in. You don't even know that it hasn't sunk in until it finally does when you're in the company of other survivors.

Your mother worked for Fitzgerald after the incident. She said he was difficult to work with. You weren't tempted to tell her then?

No. I moved from thinking that absolutely the sky would fall if I revealed what happened, to realizing that it wouldn't fall and I wasn't alone, to realizing that no good would come from telling my mother. My mother had been through so much [with an alcoholic first husband]. I'm a mother now and I know that you feel responsible for everything that happens to your kids even if logic tells you you're not. And that just would have been one more thing for her to feel was out of control in that time. So I just waited. I told my older brother Phil on the day of my mother's funeral. 

So Fitzgerald was highly respected, but apparently had this secret side. How do you make sense of that? 

Well, secrets were very easy to keep in the Catholic Church. If you read up on these cases, it's often the priest who is the most popular and most respected who turns out to be the abuser. [Fitzgerald] doesn't fit the super-gregarious, charismatic, youth-oriented profile, the one that has showed up the most. Those are the folks who get so much unlimited access to vulnerable children. [Fitzgerald] was seen as kind of an august figure. So imagine my surprise.

Would changing celibacy improve the culture?

Yes, but as we know, this has come up in other religions where people are married. I think it's more about access to children and vulnerable adults and the absolute blind obedience where people just never, never question what's going on, and the church kind of thinking they have the right to do whatever they want. When no one ever questions, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It was very easy for corruption to exist in the church and we don't know how many centuries it went on.

Do you still have a lot of anger about all of this? 

I get angry when I hear the stories from other victims. It's impossible not to get angry when you hear about horrible, horrible, horrible stories that make mine look minor.

It wasn't a minor incident. It completely changed the way I saw the world. I could never feel safe again. It just destroyed my understanding of how the world is put together.

But other people survived years of sexual slavery. I know some people, it's a wonder they're walking around. Go to a SNAP conference and you see men and women wearing lanyards with pictures of young boys and girls. Those are the suicides. They go to SNAP for support and solace because their kid didn't make it.

Did you get out of Oak Park as soon as you could after high school?

I went off to college. I had a horrible time. I went to St. Xavier on the South Side. They were good enough to give me a scholarship and in those days when you got a scholarship, you really got a scholarship. My mom didn't have dime one. If you could figure out a way to go to college, great, but there was nothing she could do. I went there for a year. I had a lot of trouble. Then I went to the University of Illinois for a semester and a half and finally just bailed out in the middle of the semester. Then I went back to work at the Catholic School Board [in Chicago]. I had worked a couple of summers there. They were kind enough to take me on. Then I got married and we moved to Washington D.C. and then from there to Massachusetts.

Everyone here is shocked about the accusation, as was I. Everything I had heard about him was positive. But at this point, probably no one is completely surprised either. 

At this point, no. I think if I had come out with this in 2002, it would have been: "That's ridiculous. She must be crazy." And if I had tried to come out with it after it happened, they would have said, "Oh, that poor family. The father's a drunk and now the daughter's delusional." That would have been a non-event.

So this was the right time.

I think so. I wanted the truth to be out there, but also I'm hoping people come to the conclusion that there are all kinds of people who have not come out yet. There was a grand jury in Philadelphia a couple of years ago that found 37 priests who were credibly accused who had not been kicked out of their jobs. So it's not just that there are past victims. It's that there are current victims. That's the burning building. You're not hearing reports from young people for the same reasons you didn't hear from me.

You'd have to be a pretty precocious kid to stand up for themselves to that extent.

Some are able to and some aren't. I know people who were able to go to their parents right away, and that's fabulous, but they were still very damaged by it. Their parents went to the so-called authorities, the church, and were promised that this wouldn't happen again and that they'd keep a better eye on Father, and they didn't. Then you think, well, if nothing's happening to Father, then he must be OK and I'm the problem. The biggest thing SNAP's trying to do today is alert the world to the fact that the abuse is not over. The bishops run child-abuse machines for decades without anyone even knowing about it. OK, now people know about it, but it has to still be going on. It's an emergency. It's something that the whole society should care about.

I'm impressed with Father McNally [who notified the parish]. I think things have changed, but not voluntarily at the bishop level. And the fact that there has been a lot of change doesn't mean we're done.  

Gail Howard Statement

To learn more about SNAP or to report information about an abuse incident, call 312-399-4747 or visit www.snapnetwork.org.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

17 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Kate Bochte from Geneva, Illinois  

Posted: August 22nd, 2014 9:44 PM

Thank you, Gail, for bravely exposing the truth. Please ignore the ignorant and cruel comments on this forum. Many Catholics cannot handle the truth and, sadly, resort to insults, killing the messenger, and pouring salt into the wounds of those who have already suffered great trauma. It should surprise no one that hundreds of victims have succumbed to suicide given how some in the Church, including employees, still react - defending the perpetrator and attacking the wounded. Stay strong, Gail!

Friar Tuck from OP  

Posted: August 19th, 2014 11:38 AM

Helen, what are you talking about?

Helen  

Posted: August 19th, 2014 10:22 AM

I dont believe her. Either way, I hope she finds some comfort with herself here and now. I too was born a republican.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 18th, 2014 11:29 PM

@ Dave watch the first scene from Monte Pythons movie " The meaning of Life" you will humm the song "Every sperm is sacred" for weeks. There is a difference between perversion and potency. As for your question - you choose "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely"

Ray Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 18th, 2014 7:30 AM

Remember the time! Fifty years ago people raised as "good Catholics" did not question priests and nuns, because they were "special" As a non-catholic married at Ascension during that time I had opportunities to meet the good father in question. As I remember he loved the trappings, the authority and the honor that his position bestowed on him. My personal opinion was that he was a 'windbag' and these revelations sadden me but are not shocking. The good fathers Bernie White, John Pritchard and others at Ascension suffered for their pastors dalliances and they were victims as well. My wife, the good catholic, would never allow herself to believe that such things could happen. When you are trained from birth to honor the man because of the position he holds - bad things can and often do happen.

judge not  

Posted: August 17th, 2014 6:44 PM

Guilty unless proven innocent doesn't work even against the Catholic Church. Not sure what happened but clearly this girl was troubled by more than this incident. I feel for this woman but it's wrong to bring these accusations 50 years later against a man who can not defend himself.

Ad Lib  

Posted: August 17th, 2014 5:26 PM

Breaking News from 1964.

parent  

Posted: August 16th, 2014 10:11 PM

Sadly the insensitivity of some of the comments made here makes it only too clear why it is so hard for victims to come forward. Gail is to be commended for coming forward. Her candid description of the emotional journey that was necessary to make it possible to openly discuss the abuse clearly demonstrates that the abuse is not only physical but also emotional. Her story provides light to others who are still suffering. Thank you, Gail, for coming forward.

B from OP  

Posted: August 16th, 2014 9:34 AM

While I agree that everyone has a right to defend themselves, based on the information shared, it seems like a very credible account of what happened. Of course there will be supporters and skeptics. I don't suspect any minds will be changed on this forum, but I do suspect a high potential of hurtful comments. WJ, this may be one where you disable the comment board. Just a thought...

Greg  

Posted: August 16th, 2014 7:33 AM

It would seem to me that IF this really happened and she suffered what she did, that she wouldnt have gone to a catholic college, and then yet come and work at a catholic employer. Scratching head.

Brandon  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 5:38 PM

Let's not forget Larry Reuter. Whatever happened to him? Why no follow up?

Carol O 'Connor Ford from Lagrange  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 5:27 PM

Gail...you certainly learned the Catholic virtue of courage...bravery in the face of pain, fear, or intimidation. I am deeply saddened by the lifetime of suffering you endured. I believe you...and pray you find a lasting peace.

Brian  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 5:26 PM

Did she try to get money for her claim? This would seem a relevant fact. The article does not say. What does the dead guy say? Oops..nothing. What do his relatives say? Again the article does not say.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 4:55 PM

Brian- it's not fair to comment when you haven't read or understood this report, implying she was just "saying anything after 50 years", when he's not alive to defend himself. He paid for her first year of therapy, dude, and further therapy paid by the Archdiocese. They know, and we know she didn't just disclose the abuse when he couldn't defend himself. This abuse is a serious subject and you're carelessly belittling it with ignorant flippant bs.

DPierre from Mattapoisett, MA  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 4:30 PM

What about the fact that Msgr. Fitzgerald is *dead* and no longer around to defend himself? Fitzgerald is now plastered in the media as a child molester without a shred of due process.

Brian  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 4:19 PM

Interesting story. What you don't mention is that no one else apparently accused this man. I guess you can say anything now 50 years later as he is dead and unable to defend himself. Seem fair to me.

Judy Block-Jones from Marthasville, Missouri  

Posted: August 15th, 2014 3:10 PM

Thank you Gail Howard for sharing your painful story of being sexually abused by Msgr John Fitzgerald. You are to be commended for letting the secret be known and therefore helping others to know that they are not alone. And yes, you are right. Sadly the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are still not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called "zero tolerance" policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don't have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their power and the institution rather than protecting innocent children. As Gail knows, it takes a ton of courage to come forward and take action about being sexually abused. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is extremely rare that a child predator has only one victim. Some have many. So let's hope that anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed by Fitzgerald, will find the courage to come forward and contact law enforcement, no matter how long ago it happened or even if he is dead. Many of his victims are most likely still alive and suffering. Silence is not an option, it only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others Judy Jones,SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

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