ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
In this part of the program we're going to hear the voices of just a few of the many thousands of victims of sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic church.
Mr. DAN FRONDORF(ph): My name is Dan Frondorf. I was abused when I was 17.
Ms. CHRISTY MILLER: My name is Christy Miller. I was abused when I was 13.
Ms. TERRY STUMP: I was abused on the school bus when I was 6 years old.
NORRIS: The issue of clergy sex abuse, whispered about for years, broke open five years ago this month. The Boston Globe revealed widespread abuse of children by priests and proof of a cover-up by the church.
SIEGEL: The scandal has shaken the foundations of the Catholic Church in America. NPR's Rachel Martin has been reporting on the aftermath five years later.
Tomorrow, we'll hear about the church's response to the crisis. Today, the victims, how bringing their dark secrets into the open has been cathartic and painful.
RACHEL MARTIN: This story began in Boston, which is for many the symbolic center of American Catholicism. But what started in Boston quickly spread as victims in other parts of the country found their collective voice. And now, five years later, many of those people are still speaking out.
Ms. MILLER: I battled the largest institution in the world and I'm OK. I've survived. I'm better. I'm stronger.
MARTIN: Christy Miller is a fiery red headed mother of two who works from home as a technology consultant. I sat down with her in the kitchen of her home in an upscale suburb of Cincinnati. Miller shows me handwritten letters from the priest who abused when she was in high school in the 1980s. She's taped the notes onto yellow poster board that she's used in press conferences and courtrooms.
Ms. MILLER: I kind of put these in date order. You know, you can see where it goes from a teacher relationship - here's one over here. Look, he writes on here - this was the envelope - Christy, Student. And he identifies himself as Father Tom, teacher.
MARTIN: But later, as the abuse became physical, the language changed. She points out notes signed Love, Father Tom. Or just Love, Tom. Miller didn't come to terms with her abuse until she was married with children. She didn't go public until she saw things unravel in Boston.
Ms. MILLER: When I first started dealing with this, I read everything I could get my hands on. Everything. I read every book. I read every news article. I would search the Web for hours and hours and hours and hours.
MARTIN: In 2003, she sued the archdiocese of Cincinnati and started a support group. She was part of a case that went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court but was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Miller then led an effort to change the law and suspend the statute, but that failed too. The whole thing was tough on her family. Her daughters had to leave Catholic school because of pressure from other kids and their parents.
Despite all this, Miller says she never looked back. No longer a victim, but a survivor.
Ms. MILLER: I may not have won, but I was brave enough. I had the courage to go and fight them and say what you're doing is wrong and I'm not going to allow you to get away with it anymore.
MARTIN: Five years after the scandal broke, many of the victims I spoke with echoed the same kind of defiance. Still, for others, the last five years have opened more wounds than they've healed.
Mr. CHRIS LUTHY: I think where I'm at right now is a very scary place.
MARTIN: Thirty-three-year-old Chris Luthy is a husband and a father, a recovering drug addict and a victim of clergy sexual abuse. And just a few months ago, he tried to kill himself.
Mr. LUTHY: And it's not easy. Every day that abuse just knocks on your door and says, well, how are you doing now, because you're a really miserable person.
MARTIN: It's the middle of the day and Luthy is at home in his sparsely furnished apartment in the west part of Cincinnati. He's in jeans and sneakers. He has salt and pepper hair spiked up in a stylishly haphazard kind of way. Luthy picks up a picture of his son, Matthew, off a shelf.
Mr. LUTHY: This particular one was his first year picture. He's my most perfect thing I've ever done in my life.
MARTIN: And while his son helps him look to the future, Luthy remains tethered to memories of the abuse.
Mr. LUTHY: We'd sit on his lap to eat dinner for Thanksgiving. Underneath the tablecloth he'd have his hands probing around your pants and trying to get into your pants. To this day, I wonder if that's why I don't like holidays. You know.
MARTIN: Luthy was part of the same lawsuit Christy Miller filed, but instead of being empowered, he ended up feeling victimized all over again. Luthy has been in and out of therapy for alcohol and drug abuse for more than a decade and has refused to go to group counseling for the sex abuse. But on this night he's taking a big step, sitting down with other victims for the first time.
Ms. MILLER: Dan and I welcome you to the Cincinnati/Dayton area SNAP meeting.
MARTIN: This is the monthly support group led by Christy Miller and Dan Frondorf.
Mr. FRONDORF: We'll go around the room, and if everybody would introduce themselves and if they would care to tell a little bit about themselves.
MARTIN: Green wall-to-wall carpet covers the floors and artificial plants decorate the coffee table. It feels like a stage set or the fake living room on a TV talk show, but the people sitting here and the stories they tell are very real.
Mr. FRONDORF: I thought in 1983 I was the only one.
Ms. MILLER: I can remember the first time. It was, well, aren't you going to give me a kiss for my birthday.
Unidentified Man #1: I pushed him back and clothed myself again and ran out; got sick, threw up outside.
Ms. STUMP: I felt like God had come down out of the heavens and raped me. Literally. And I never broached the subject with anybody. I never said a word until I was 50 years old.
MARTIN: That's Dan Frondorf, Christy Miller, Bruce Gering(ph), Pat Stackler(ph), and Terry Stump, some of the dozen or so people here tonight. To this day, they're struggling with a lot of issues, including their relationship with the Catholic Church. Some still call themselves Catholic but won't set foot in a church.
Chris Luthy explains to the group how he's left organized religion altogether.
Mr. LUTHY: I hope that I can deal with it eventually the way that I need to for my child's sake. My baby was just baptized into the Catholic Church. I wasn't there.
MARTIN: In this group, Michael Vanderburgh is the exception. He's actually found his faith in God and church reinvigorated. Dressed in a tie-dye t-shirt, Vanderburgh leans forward in his chair when it's his turn to talk.
Mr. MICHAEL VANDERBURGH: The cycle of abuse is a terrible thing and, you know, we're the privileged ones that can break the cycle. And I think that there are certain responsibilities that go along with that, that we just don't walk away from it.
MARTIN: Vanderburgh sits on the lay committee on clergy abuse for the archdiocese of Cincinnati and he attends these meetings to try to build bridges between the church and survivors. But his words are unsettling for many here like Chris Ward. She's with a national group of Catholics called Voice of the Faithful. The U.S. bishops approved a number of reforms in 2002, like stricter background checks for clergy, a national audit system and a pledge for more transparency. Even so, Ward tells Vanderburgh she feels like these are hollow promises.
Ms. CHRIS WARD: Five years into this, nothing has changed other than pieces of paper that are not followed.
MARTIN: Vanderburgh expects to hear this kind of frustration, but he made a decision a few years ago. The priest who abused him may have taken his innocence but he wouldn't take his faith.
Mr. VANDERBURGH: This is our church, and this is our responsibility to yell and to scream and to do whatever we have to do to protect ourselves and protect our families and protect our communities.
MARTIN: According to SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, there are a couple thousand of these lawsuits pending against the Catholic church. And attorneys I spoke with who specialize in these cases say they get calls from new victims every week. Some seek solace through the courts, others like Vanderburgh find it in the church. But no matter who the victim is or how much they've healed in the past five years, they all say that there are days when it feels like one step forward, two steps back. And people like Chris Luthy are just trying to keep moving.
Ms. LUTHY: It's a roller coaster, you know, and you can only handle 24 hours at a time. At the end of the day, you have to hang up your coat and say, OK, I did my best today. Tomorrow's another day and you shed your skin. You're anew again. I think that's a baptism of sorts.
MARTIN: The road to that kind of rebirth is still a long one for Luthy and other victims, but he says at least now he knows he's not alone.
Rachel Martin, NPR News.
NORRIS: Tomorrow on the program, how the church has responded to the clergy abuse crisis. You can find some information about that right now at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.