Abuse victims seek to heal themselves, church

DANBURY — Joseph Cann Sr. soon will be ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church — a special office that gives him limited priestly duties while allowing him to remain a married father of two.

When Cann stands to deliver his first homily in June, it will fall two days before the 2016 date that his 28-year-old son, Joseph Jr., died of an overdose, after telling the family he had been sexually abused by their parish priests.

“I’m trying to have some mercy, hard as it is,” Cann says about the priest in question, who the Bridgeport Diocese has removed from ministry. “I am trying to turn the other cheek.”

While Cann’s story may seem like enough of a challenge on its own, there is more to his mission than his own family’s battle to reconcile with a church where bishops at times seem unwilling or unable to stop the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests.

Cann is part of a survivors’ ministry of 20 men and women in Fairfield County convened by Bishop Frank Caggiano, who have become a national model for outreach to Catholics suffering the pain of sexual abuse’s lingering shame.

The group’s members, who blame neither God nor their faith for the crimes of Catholic clergy, say their mission is nothing less than healing the church, one wounded parishioner at a time.

Their plan is not to proselytize but to preach about the gratitude that came out of their anger and the hope that came out of their despair.

“I knew there were wars and crime in the world, but I didn’t understand how someone could get satisfaction out of making someone cry,” said Peggy Fry, a Trumbull native, whose parish priest sexually abused her for a year when she was 16. “I had no hope whatsoever.”

Fry said it wasn’t until Caggiano invited her to a 2015 survivor’s listening session that she turned the corner on a lifetime of struggle to have her voice heard by the church.

“It’s such an embarrassment and it’s so shameful that to get those words out for the first time is monumental,” said Fry, a member of the diocesan survivors’ group, who speaks at parishes as part of a larger outreach. “I understand that people could be sitting right in front of me who are just petrified and horrified to open their mouth, so our hope is that when people hear us, they see that we are not 100 percent healed but we are on our journey — we are well on our journey.”

Survivors can decide for themselves on Sunday during a special 2 p.m. healing Mass at St. Joseph Church in downtown Danbury that was organized by the survivors’ group.

Caggiano will celebrate, but all ears will be on David Dandrea, 67, a lifelong parishioner at St. Roch in Greenwich, where he was abused by the parish priest when he was 13.

Telling their stories

“My mother never told my father, because if she did, we would have had a dead priest and my father would be in jail,” said Dandrea, a member of the diocesan survivors’ group, who will give his witness at the special Sunday Mass. “I have never changed my dedication to the Catholic Church or to God, because this was not the religion’s fault — it was that man’s fault.”

Observers and Catholic church officials say if there is another large group of survivors working with an American bishop to plan liturgical programs and arrange outreach meetings for sexual abuse victims, they aren’t aware of it.

“The only other diocese that is actively involved with survivors like that is Los Angeles, but not on the level like they are involved in Bridgeport,” said Drew Dillingham, coordinator for resources and special projects at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. “I think it would be beneficial if we had that in other dioceses as well.”

The leader of the nation’s oldest support group for people wounded by abuse agreed.

“Some survivors never want to be involved in the church again, but for those who do this kind of effort can be so powerful,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

The survivors’ group, which has been featured in the diocesan newspaper and on the diocesan website for the past several years, has only recently begun a push to get the word out to a wider audience.

The group’s emergence comes at a time of an “all-out battle against the abuse of minors” in the words of Pope Francis last month, about a clerical sexual abuse scandal that continues to make headlines internationally, nationally and in Connecticut.

Late last month, for example, a top Cardinal in a high-profile case in Australia was convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, the Associated Press reported.

That followed a disturbing report in August that the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up the abuse of 1,000 children over seven decades.

In late March, 10 priests were added the Bridgeport Diocese’s list of credibly accused priests, just days after the diocese paid $3.5 million to five people who claimed they had been sexually abused by priests when they were children.

Caggiano on Tuesday said more is at stake for Catholic leadership here and across the country than ending the scourge of clergy sexual abuse.

“People are growing impatient and I don’t blame them because there is never an excuse for a coverup and there is never an excuse for not telling the truth,” Caggiano said. “What we need is leaders with a new skill set — part of which is humility and part of which is connecting with people in their ordinary lives and collaborating with them.”

Peter Philipp agrees.

“When Bishop Caggiano invited us to that listening session in 2015, it was the first time I think in the country or in the world that the church listened to us,” said Philipp, who was sexually abused as a teenager for two years by a priest who taught at Notre Dame High School in Fairfield. “It was the first time anybody really asked me what happened.”

This is personal

A common thread in many survivors’ stories is how hard it is for children to tell a trusted adult about a priest’s sexual abuse.

Philipp said he didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the depths of his violation, and when he did as an adult after decades of therapy, he didn’t want to break his father’s heart.

Part of the problem is that the priest abuser in some cases was a family friend, or at least a charismatic figure who the youth imagined would always be given the benefit of the doubt.

Another part of the problem is that once trust breaks and innocence is gone, trauma truly takes control.

“You know, if somebody comes in and steals something from your home, they say that is personal,” said Fry, whose abuser has been removed from ministry and is listed on the diocesan website among 38 credibly accused clergy. “But you have no idea what personal is (until) you are personally and physically violated.”

Fran Cann thinks every day about her son, Joseph Jr., whose she said was abusing drugs to deal with the pain he held inside him for 17 years before telling her he was abused by the parish priest in Danbury.

“One day we were fighting and I said ‘I’m having a bad day,’ and he said ‘Well I’m having a bad life. Father John molested me.’”

At the time her son told her, he was 27, and her husband, Joseph Sr., was already in formation to be a deacon.

Through the tears and the anger, the Canns found solace in the reception of Caggiano. While the abuse complaint was being filed, Caggiano invited the family to meetings with the survivors’ group. Joseph Jr. attended one meeting and said he never wanted another kid to have to go through what he went through.

Today the Canns each believe they carry their son’s spirit with them when they talk to other survivors.

“We just try to help other people find hope that they are not alone,” said Fran Cann.

Her son’s abuser was removed from ministry in 2016 and is listed on the diocesan website among the credibly accused clergy.

Caggiano said survivors such as the Canns are the embodiment of redemptive suffering.

“Whether suffering is inevitable because of old age or disease or it is inflicted on you because of crime or sin, there is always a choice to make whatever you can of it to draw meaning out of it,” Caggiano said. “These survivors I have met have gone through great suffering, but they have drawn meaning and purpose in large part by trying to be of help to others.”

Because of that, Caggiano said, survivors hold a key to healing in the church that he doesn’t have.

“Someone who has survived this evil can reach out in a way that I cannot,” Caggiano said. “Sometimes it makes it easier to carry our own burden when we are helping other people carry theirs.”

By Rob Ryser | Danbury News Times