Women also allege abuse; Pedophile priests targeted girls, too; Girls among victims of priest molestation

02/25/2002 Boston Herald All Editions

Buried under the avalanche of accusations that Catholic priests have abused hundreds of Massachusetts boys over a half-century are an untold number of cases of female victims whose lives were also ripped apart by molesters in the clergy.

"There are thousands upon thousands of cases in which females were abused," said Gary Richard Schoener, a Minnesota psychologist and expert on clergy sexual abuse. "Finally there is some attention on this issue because there are far more priests who offend against girls and women than against boys."

While there is wide belief that pedophile priests target males - altar boys and the sons of single mothers are frequently preyed upon - some of the most notorious offenders in Massachusetts, including former Revs. John J. Geoghan and James R. Porter, have been accused of molesting children of both sexes.

Now, emboldened by news reports of the scandal enveloping the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, scores of women locally and nationally are coming forward to tell their harrowing tales of suffering at the hands of pedophile priests. Many are pressing suits against the church for abuse endured as little girls.

"I kept it buried," said Pam McLaughlin, 61, of Somerville, an advocate for elderly housing and a faithful churchgoer who says she was abused in the 1940s while attending St. Anthony's in Allston.

"But I have gotten sick realizing the magnitude of this scandal," she said.  "This abuse cannot simply be hidden away any longer."

McLaughlin said she and her cousins were sexually molested multiple times by the Rev. James T. McKeon, now deceased. When her family complained, she said, they were told to remain silent for "the good of the church."

McLaughlin says she gets chills looking at pictures of herself and her cousins posing with McKeon, and at one point the girls cut the priest's image from one of their group photos in the family album.

Schoener and other experts say the abuse of females is not publicized with the same intensity as that of males in part because victims are less likely to report the abuse or file a suit.

"The media has focused so heavily on males there has been a lot of outreach to boy victims, and in recent years we have had this unusual situation where men have come forward to report the abuse," Schoener said. "We have cases of priest pedophiles who prefer girls but we still know we only have a very small percentage of the victims that have come forward."

One suit involving a local woman - a 34-year-old Boston mother who claims she was first abused in 1976 while a second-grader at St. Ann's Parish in Dorchester by former priest Paul J. Mahan - is inching slowly through Suffolk Superior Court and illustrates the suffering that girl victims experience.

Mahan has been defrocked by the church and is believed to be living in Arlington, Va. At least one sexual abuse suit against him has been settled, and 13 more molestation suits are pending.

The woman, who requested anonymity, said the first incident she remembers is when Mahan allegedly put his hands up her white dress as she was posing for a picture on the rectory lawn after she made her first Holy Communion.

"He pushed his hand right up the back of my dress," she said. "He was smiling and he had these icy eyes. I ran right home and put on a pair of plaid bell-bottoms. I felt totally panicked. I don't even remember the rest of the day."

The woman said Mahan, who has refused to respond to requests for comment and recently disconnected his telephone, continued to abuse her sexually at least through the fifth grade.

After one incident where he allegedly rubbed his hands over her breasts and genitals in the St. Ann's elementary school stairwell, she ran into the girls' room and vomited, she said.

The woman was too fearful to tell her parents because Mahan was one of her father's closest friends and often came for dinner, she said. Instead, she told a nun - her second-grade teacher - who immediately told her to hold her tongue, she said.

"She was really mad," the woman recalled. "She told me never to say anything like that again and grabbed my arm and twisted it. I wasn't a dainty little thing, but she pulled me so hard my feet literally came right up off of the ground."

The idea that the woman tried as a frightened child to report Mahan and was scared into silence is one of the more infuriating aspects of her case, said her lawyer, Carmen Durso, who labels Mahan a "major perpetrator."

"Almost no kid has the gumption to even report abuse by priests, but these people made it very clear to her she had absolutely no place to go," Durso said.

The woman said she kept Mahan's abuse a secret for years as her life spiraled into a haze of alcohol abuse and psychological torment.

The woman has two children by different fathers, is unable to work, lives on disability income, suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and refuses to leave her apartment.

She says she has attempted suicide twice and has self-mutilated with such frequency that the razor slashes and cigarette burns on her arms remain clearly visible.

"I have been sewed up a bunch of times," she said. "I would tape bottle-caps between my sock and foot so the points would stick into my feet and I would bleed. I used to self-mutilate every day but now it's only about once a month, so that isn't too bad."

On top of the emotional scars suffered by female victims is the added stigmatizing - suggestions that the girls may be responsible for the abuse by enticing the priest into molesting them,- said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a national advocacy group.

Gloria DelBene of Plainville said she was molested 30 years ago by the Rev. Mario Pezzotti, a priest at the Xaverian Fathers Mission in Holliston.

"He was always around, and he always had his hands up my shirt down my pants, and would force my hands on him," she said.

The Rev. Francis Signorelli, the superior at the mission who worked with Pezzotti, said yesterday he did not know the DelBene family and could not confirm the accusation. "(Their name) doesn't ring a bell to me," he said.

Last week, the Herald reported that the order settled at least two sex abuse suits against Pezzotti, who has been a missionary in Brazil since the early 1970s.

DelBene said she has kept her abuse a secret since then.

"My mother was talking about the (priest scandal), saying, `Why are all these people coming forward after so many years?' " she said. "I said: `All right, I'm going to tell you what happened to me.' "

DelBene added that she doubted her mother would have listened to her at the time.

But Eleanor DelBene said she would have believed her daughter.

"I'm devastated," she said. "He was the family priest, coming over to all the holiday dinners. He used to sit in the back seat with her. None of us would have thought of looking to see if he was doing anything to her.

"My husband would have killed him," she said.

Maggie Mulvihill may be reached at mmulvihill@bostonheral.com.