FORGIVEN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
After priest abuse, Scranton woman finds healing but seeks accountability from church.
Lindy Morelli insists she is neither victim nor survivor. What she is, she says, is a Roman Catholic laywoman living as a Carmelite in private vows in Scranton who has only grown stronger in her faith and in her love for the church despite everything.
She chose long ago to forgive the priest she says sexually assaulted her.
Just as she chose to forgive the church officials who more often than not responded with indifference, even hostility, to the pleadings of a young blind woman seeking desperately to heal.
And just as she chose not to be defined by what happened during those terrible days three decades ago or in the emotionally and spiritually trying years afterward.
‘I pray for the healing of the institution, and part of that is for people such as myself to stand up for what is right and say, “Look, we obviously are not done with this, are we?”’ Lindy Morelli, Lighthouse of Scranton founder
When a statewide grand jury released its report last summer detailing decades of child sexual abuse by clergy in the Diocese of Scranton and five other Pennsylvania dioceses, Morelli, now 54, recognized in many of the victims’ stories the things she experienced — the same blaming, the same stonewalling.
It is the policy of The Sunday Times not to identify victims of sexual assault, but Morelli agreed to the use of her name.
Her message to survivors is it’s possible to move past the hurt and find healing.
At the same time, she believes that while church leaders are trying to make better decisions, accountability within the institutional church continues to be a work in progress. From her perspective, trust is something the church still needs to earn — and not just from her.
“You can forgive, but there is a difference between forgiving and being at peace with what happened and not trusting. I trust Jesus. I trust God. I love the church and I believe in what the church teaches,” Morelli said as she sat in her office at Lighthouse of Scranton, the nonprofit ministry she founded and operates in West Scranton. “I pray for the healing of the institution, and part of that is for people such as myself to stand up for what is right and say, ‘Look, we obviously are not done with this, are we?’ ”
That the church is still learning from its mistakes became clear, Morelli said, when she recently inquired whether as an adult with a disability who suffered clergy abuse she would be eligible for compensation through the Diocese of Scranton’s Independent Survivors Compensation Program set up for minor victims.
Any money she received, she said, would go back into the Lighthouse ministry, which relies solely on donations in its mission to assist people in special need.
She learned the diocesan compensation program does not extend to “vulnerable adults” — a position she thinks is wrong — but Morelli said it’s what the fund representative who took her call suggested instead that truly floored her: Seek counseling.
Morelli, who has a master’s degree in counseling, called it a “ridiculous answer.”
“After all these years, after all this struggle, after all that people have been fighting for and after the grand jury report, to say to somebody in my position, ‘Go to counseling,’ it’s just kind of a dismissive thing,” she said.
Abused and conflicted
Morelli had known the Rev. Denis P. O’sullivan, S.M.A., for about two months when she visited Ireland with his sister, with whom she was friendly, and stayed at their family’s home in Cork in July 1988.
She met O’sullivan that May during a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, where she had been urged to connect with a group the priest was leading for companionship and assistance because of her disability.
She was 23 years old at the time and preparing to enter her final year of graduate school at Marywood College. She was also, she knows now, very naive and far too trusting of a man she said assured her he had only the purest of intentions.
Morelli said the inappropriate contact, which O’sullivan would repeatedly and forcefully deny to church officials both here and in Ireland, started the fourth day of her 12-day visit to Cork. That’s when, Morelli would later tell a diocesan arbitration panel, O’sullivan came into her bedroom and hugged her passionately.
It escalated from there. When she questioned his behavior, he would remind her that he was a priest and had “holy hands,” she testified. He told her if she was interested in becoming a nun, she needed to be experienced sexually and not try to avoid it.
“I don’t know if you want to say demonic, but the way he did certain things was awful,” she said in an interview, recounting how O’sullivan would press a crucifix to her lips as he touched her.
She told the priest’s sister and sister-in-law about his conduct but received no help from them.
The abuse culminated during their flight back to the United States when Morelli said O’sullivan committed what amounted to aggravated indecent assault.
Efforts to contact O’sullivan through his order, the Society of African Missions (SMA), were unsuccessful. The SMA did not respond to an email sent to its headquarters in Ireland inquiring about O’sullivan’s current status.
Confused, conflicted and wounded in body and soul, Morelli arrived home that August unsure of what to do next.
“Those things are damaging to the human spirit, and unless a person truly experiences a lot of divine grace — and those are the exact words I would use: divine grace — it can’t be overcome,” she said. “Spiritual abuse is very damaging.”
In September 1988, Morelli reported the assault to O’sullivan’s order, calling and then sending a letter to the SMA American Province in New Jersey. She finally spoke to someone by phone a month later.
“They were extremely indifferent and sort of blew me off and said, ‘Oh, it was just your imagination,’ ” she said. “I felt like I was going to disintegrate right on the spot.”
Between graduate school and other things going on in her life, including preparations to take her private vows in May 1989, Morelli set the matter aside.
She didn’t pick it up again until 1991, when she sought assistance from the Archdiocese of New York before reaching out to the Diocese of Scranton and then-bishop James C. Timlin. While the bishop’s office seemed sympathetic, Morelli said, she was told it was outside of the diocese’s jurisdiction. She kept pushing.
By 1993, although still “really injured and damaged” by her experience, Morelli said she had forgiven O’sullivan, accepting that he was a troubled person and had his own brokenness. More difficult for her was her inability to get anyone in the church to seriously address the assault and her concerns about the priest.
“I was getting madder and madder and more sick because I couldn’t get anywhere,” she said, explaining that as a devoted Catholic she considered O’sullivan’s actions nothing short of sacrilege.
“I can’t even explain what it was doing to me. I was upset because I thought: What if he’s out there perpetrating another crime? It was on my conscience,” she said. “Those were the things that were bothering me more than anything else, honestly, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
A lawyer friend suggested a different approach — he wrote to the diocese on her behalf. Not long after, she said, Timlin contacted her and offered to hold a hearing with both her and O’sullivan, who was stationed in Africa at the time but planning a visit to the United States.
On July 13, 1993, she and the priest testified before three arbiters at an extra-judicial, non-canonical investigative hearing at the Chancery Building in Scranton.
In his testimony, O’sullivan acknowledged hugging Morelli and kissing her goodnight on occasion and conceded there may have been instances of physical closeness with caressing that went beyond unintentional touching. He categorically denied sexually assaulting her.
The panel concluded in its findings that there had been “inappropriate physical contact” between O’sullivan and Morelli, although the arbiters said it was unclear whether such contact would constitute an offense under civil or canon law. The panel recommended the priest apologize to Morelli and be admonished by his superior.
Most importantly, in Morelli’s view, the arbiters recommended that O’sullivan’s provincial superior in Ireland arrange for the priest to undergo a clinical evaluation, which would be used “to implement an ongoing program of assistance … concerning appropriate displays of affection.”
The church then let her down again, Morelli said.
Casting aside bitterness
A few months after the hearing, Morelli received a short, handwritten letter from O’sullivan in which he apologized for his “improper behavior” toward her and asked for her forgiveness.
Morelli said another thing she was supposed to receive was confirmation that the SMA followed through on the recommendation to have O’sullivan evaluated. When she hadn’t heard anything by July 1995, she contacted the diocese and was told she would have an answer in a couple of weeks.
No one got back to her. “By that time, I was like, forget it. I had done everything I could do. This is not on my conscience anymore. I’m going to get on with my life, which I did,” she said.
She worked at casting aside the lingering baggage from the assault, the emotional hook it had on her, and she let go of her bitterness as she tried to see what had happened to her and the actions of church officials through what she called “eyes of Christ-like love.”
“I went through a lot of healing, and I experienced a lot of peace,” she said.
In 2002, with the church moving toward more transparency with respect to clergy abuse, Morelli decided to contact O’sullivan’s new Irish superior about the priest’s status.
The response was not wholly to her liking — she learned O’sullivan was still in active ministry — but the superior confirmed the priest completed a clinical evaluation eight years earlier and had availed himself to ongoing counseling and spiritual direction.
In what Morelli called an “extremely satisfying” culmination to her healing process, the SMA superior also brought her to Ireland for a mass of reconciliation at Knock, where she had the chance to pray with O’sullivan’s sister and members of his order.
Morelli said while she bears the Diocese of Scranton no ill will, she nonetheless believes diocesan officials had an obligation to follow up with O’sullivan’s order, instead of leaving her hanging for nearly a decade until she took the initiative to revisit the issue.
“I never got the feeling that anyone in this diocese at the time was concerned about my well-being whatsoever,” she said. “There was not one single person, no priest, nobody, that I could turn to at the time. There was nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Taking a stand
Morelli, who has been blind since birth, said no amount of money can compensate for the suffering of an individual who is sexually abused as a child.
However, that doesn’t make the abuse of a vulnerable adult, which she characterized as someone susceptible to predatory behavior because of a mental or physical disability or other special circumstance, any less egregious, she said.
That was her mindset when she asked about the diocesan compensation program with the intention — and she repeatedly emphasized the point — that any money she received would be used solely to support her Lighthouse ministry.
In a statement, the diocese said its program is open to individuals who allege they were sexually abused as a minor by a diocesan bishop, priest or deacon, a member of a religious order serving within the diocese or a lay person working within a diocese-sponsored facility or ministry.
In Morelli’s case, she was 23 at the time of the abuse, her abuser had no connection to the diocese and the abuse happened in Ireland and on an international flight, the diocese said.
Although Morelli said she can accept the argument that her assault did not happen within the diocese or involve a priest associated with the diocese, it doesn’t change the fact that she is a faithful member of the diocese who suffered harm because of the inaction of diocesan officials.
Morelli said it’s not just about “my little story and what I went through.” The larger point is the diocese “out of graciousness and goodness” should consider compensation for vulnerable adults who have been victimized if not all victims of clergy abuse, she said.
“We all have problems, and God knows, I’m not judging, but I don’t see how I could be a Christ-like person if I didn’t open my mouth at this point,” she said. ”I don’t see how I could live with myself morally because it’s wrong.”
The Diocese of Erie, which launched its Independent Survivors’ Reparation Program last month, will consider claims from vulnerable adults — and more.
Not only does the diocese recognize adults who are physically or cognitively impaired and unable to protect themselves as vulnerable and give them the same protections as minors, eligibility for the compensation program does not turn on survivor’s status as a child, vulnerable adult or unimpaired adult at the time of the abuse, spokeswoman Anne-marie Welsh said.
Just as secular law prohibits the use of physical force to engage in sexual relations with an unimpaired adult, “so too does the policy and the compensation program,” Welsh said in an email.
“The Diocese of Erie invites any individual who seeks compensation for sexual abuse related to the diocese in any way to file a claim with the fund, which will be carefully assessed by the independent fund administrators on an individualized basis,” she said.
The Washington, D.C., law firm of Kenneth R. Feinberg is administering the compensation programs for five dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Scranton and Erie. Of those, the Diocese of Erie is the only one so far that is not limiting eligibility to individuals who were abused as children, said Camille Biros, the firm’s business manager.
“None of the other programs have done anything like that,” she said.
Gratitude and forgiveness
In its statement, the Diocese of Scranton said its “Policy for Response to Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors,” adopted in 2015, covers vulnerable adults as well as children. Under the policy, the abuse of an individual “who habitually lacks reason” — an adult with a developmental disability, for example — is afforded the same protections as a minor.
“Our written policies and procedures are routinely reviewed, refined and strengthened,” the diocese said.
Although more dioceses are shaping policies regarding “vulnerable adults,” one challenge has been determining exactly what the term means, said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Child and Youth Protection.
“There isn’t any one standard definition … so it runs the spectrum of definitions and interpretations,” he said.
Some dioceses, like Erie, include cognitive or physical disabilities; others, like Scranton, limit it to mental disabilities; still others defer to the language covering “dependent adult” in their respective state’s civil law, he said. Some dioceses haven’t addressed it at all.
In a broader sense, Nojadera said, the landscape shows the church must deal with the realities of abuse in general, requiring dioceses to consider practices and policies that go well beyond the USCCB’S Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Dioceses are approaching the issue in different ways, with some already setting up separate boards to deal with “adult to adult-type situations,” he said. While those situations are not addressed in the charter, the applicability “in terms of investigating and carrying out justice and so forth, attending to victims and survivors, needs to be done.”
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Nojadera said.
Morelli said she is grateful to the church and leaders such as Timlin for the things they have done for her, but it doesn’t mean she can’t or shouldn’t be critical of what she considers shortcomings in the institutional response to clergy abuse. The church should do whatever it takes to assist victims, and each one of them should be treated with the greatest respect, she said.
As someone who experienced something in her life that ultimately made her stronger in faith and spirit, she said she has an opportunity to be a blessing for others.
“The attitude of being forgiving and grateful is the right attitude. It is the attitude I have, and it is the attitude I will continue to have,” she said. “If I didn’t choose to have that attitude of gratitude and forgiveness and wanting to be a blessing, it would have ruined my life. I would be the one continuing to suffer. As a Christian, that is the right attitude to have.”
Lindy Morelli, founder of the nonprofit ministry Lighthouse of Scranton in West Scranton, says she was sexually assaulted by a priest during a trip to Ireland in 1988. Morelli is a Roman Catholic laywoman living as a Carmelite in private vows.
As an adult with a disability who suffered clergy abuse, Lindy Morelli — who is blind — is not eligible for compensation through the Diocese of Scranton’s Independent Survivors Compensation Program set up for minor victims.