FOR­GIVEN BUT NOT FOR­GOT­TEN

Af­ter priest abuse, Scran­ton wo­man finds heal­ing but seeks ac­count­abil­ity from church.

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SIN­GLE­TON STAFF WRITER

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.”

Dioce­san hear­ing

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.”

JAKE DANNA STEVENS / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

JAKE DANNA STEVENS / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

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