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