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[whitespace] Alexandra Roberts
Photograph by Paul Myers

Cross Purposes: When Alexandra Roberts' friendship with a local Jesuit priest turned sexual, she says the church wanted her to sign a nondisclosure agreement but she refused.

Father Figure

In the controversy over child abuse by Catholic priests, one group is being overlooked--adult women

By Loren Stein

WHEN Alexandra Roberts talks about her 11-year friendship and sexual relationship with Father Fred Tollini of Santa Clara University, tears well up, and her voice grows shaky. Part of the pain comes from knowing that some will assume she's to blame for any entanglement with a man of the cloth. In the current controversy over sexual abuse by the clergy, the victims are children, not adults. For years, Roberts didn't think she'd been exploited. "I just thought it was an affair gone wrong," she says. But after a series of eye-opening events, she came to believe differently.

Roberts is among a growing number of adult women who are coming forward to charge priests or clergy members with sexual abuse and to demand that their cases be taken seriously. As the Catholic bishops struggle to control scandals over clergy sexual abuse of minors--including issuing a historic no-tolerance policy--women say their stories have been given short shrift. In these complex cases the priests were not pedophiles but heterosexual men who, the women say, broke their vow of celibacy and abused the power and trust placed in them.

"If he had been a doctor, a lawyer or a psychiatrist, he'd have his license pulled," says Roberts, now 51 and a divorced mother and grandmother working for a Silicon Valley tech firm. "I realized later that anything short of marriage with a priest is exploitation."

Chastity, Oh No

Four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women than with children, says A.W. Richard Sipe. Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and author of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, has studied celibacy and sexuality within the priesthood for more than 30 years. At any time, he says, 20 percent of priests in good standing are involved in sexual relationships with women. Moreover, he estimates only 2 percent of those vowed to celibacy achieve it.

Sex between clergy and women is a centuries-old phenomenon that crosses all denominations, says Sipe. These relationships range from dating to harassment to exploitation--often of married women who have come to clergy for counseling--to long-term relationships that are mutually agreeable. Regardless, says Sipe, "If a woman knows he's a priest, there's an essential power differential. Like a psychiatrist, a priest's primary responsibility is to his vow to his priesthood."

Priestly Coercion

In 1980, when 19-year-old Marlis Sender, a devout Catholic, sought help from her college chaplain in San Antonio, Texas, she was strung out on drugs and suicidal. The chaplain, she says, took her under his wing and gave her daily counseling sessions, encouraging her vulnerability. When she told him about a date-rape experience, "He said he'd show me not all men are like that and asked me to go to bed with him. At that moment, my whole world crashed," says Sender. "If I had said no, he would have abandoned me."

She slept with the priest, who was single and 30 years her senior, several times a week for six months at her home, she says. To have sex, he would get her drunk. She also started mainlining speed to "numb" herself. "I hoped I would die. It was awful," she says. Finally, she says, the chaplain thanked her for helping him confirm that he wasn't gay, refused to see her anymore and sent her away to a drug camp.

Altogether, the relationship spanned some five years, during which Sender says the chaplain isolated her from others, prevented her from getting help and "blackmailed" her when she was threatened with expulsion.

After watching the chaplain repeat the pattern with other women, Sender wrote a letter in 1991 to Archbishop Patrick Flores of the Archdiocese of San Antonio and asked him to take action. He never responded. Sender threatened to sue and settled out of court in 2000. Meanwhile, the chaplain had been moved from campus to a parish in the late 1980s.

"It took me years to do anything about it because it was so wounding and confusing," says Sender, who is currently a committee member of No More Secrets, a ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Oakland for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

Like Sender, many women seek out a priest's counseling when they are in the throes of a life crisis. They view the priest as trustworthy and sexually safe. When things go awry, women generally hold themselves accountable. "Women believe they're the temptress, the seductress, [and that] they're responsible, they're weak," says Terrie Light of Castro Valley, West Coast regional director of SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a 4,500-member national group. "They're working with horrible guilt that they caused this priest to sin."

Light escaped that particular brand of guilt. Raped, choked and threatened by a Bay Area priest when she was 8 years old, Light, now 50, says no one ever blamed her. The experience, of course, was devastating. "But there was no question in anyone's mind; I never had to convince people I wasn't at fault. But lots of victims, especially adult women, have a hard time convincing themselves of the same thing," she says.

"Women can lose their marriages, their families; they can kill themselves," says clergy abuse expert Gary Schoener, a psychologist and executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis. "They came to someone they believed was pure of heart. They didn't worry that he could be a con artist or interested in sex."

Priests and clergy members who enter into sexual relationships with women are plagued by own their demons, often caused by an inability to keep boundaries, say experts. "Priests are faced with the intimate lives of people, but they often don't have the capacity to withstand the emotional draw toward those people because of their own unaddressed needs," says psychotherapist Sipe. "They get tripped up."

Fearful of losing the support of the church, priests have a "temptation to double," Sipe says. The priesthood gives them prestige, employment, medical care and a guaranteed community. "The social pressure to keep his position going is very strong. On another level, how does he take care of his sexuality? Celibacy is a mode of coming to terms with one's sexuality. If a priest can't do that, [he] can establish a secret life with one person who understands him and comforts him, and have that alongside his ministerial work."

According to Joyce Seelen, a Denver attorney who has handled scores of clergy sexual-misconduct cases, priests fall prey to "transference," which occurs in all kinds of counseling relationships. The difference is that priests, unlike therapists, aren't trained to see it, she says. A woman in emotional pain begins adoring her priest, who seems to have all the answers to life's questions.

"Think how seductive that is to have someone finally see what an incredible man you are," she says. "It's very powerful, and it gets out of control a lot."

"Priests, like other people, fall in love, get crushes," says Dr. Thomas Plante, professor and chair of the psychology department at Santa Clara University, who has treated priests as well as victims in his practice. "But it's another thing entirely to hop in bed with [a woman]. Women expect priests to be well behaved, to be ethical and moral people. It's not so much a legal breach as a breach of their vow and ethical principle of integrity."

Breaking Up Is Hard

Alexandra Roberts has had nightmares of priests trying to kill her. She's suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She feels she was deceived and exploited by Father Frederick Tollini, who told her, she says, that he wanted to leave the priesthood to marry her. (Father Tollini declined to be interviewed.)

Roberts first met Father Tollini, a Jesuit and associate professor of theater history and directing at Santa Clara University, when she was 37 and he was 54. Roberts is not a Catholic and was not seeking help from the priest. What they both found in each other, she says, was a soul mate. Tollini encouraged her to share her secrets. Roberts says she thought, "What a luxury, having a male friend I can trust, who won't hit on me, who I can really talk to."

The majority of their 11-year relationship was platonic, although she says he called it "the world's longest foreplay." After a decade, the relationship became overtly sexual, a change that she says he instigated. He also took her to family events, baptized her daughter's baby, wrote her love letters and she held his hand before emergency surgery. "His feelings were inappropriate, mine were inappropriate, but they were there," she says. "I fell in love with the man. It wasn't a plotting scheme. ... He said he would love me forever."

In May 1999, Roberts says Tollini was coerced by the church to get intensive therapy at St. Louis Consultation Center, an outpatient program for survivors and offenders. In a matter of weeks, she says, the priest turned cold and cruel toward her. He wrote her a goodbye letter. Roberts was so upset she got into a car accident.

After a baffling long-distance episode where Tollini called the police and had Roberts admitted to the hospital against her will because he feared she was suicidal (she says she wasn't) and an emotional joint session with her therapist, Roberts decided to take the matter to Father Thomas Smolich, head of the California Province of the Jesuits. Over the course of three meetings in 2000 and 2001, she asked for a letter of apology from Tollini to her family and reimbursement for the car accident, hospital bills, lost work and therapy.

Ultimately, Roberts says, Smolich offered her $11,000. He asked that she sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbade her from going public with her story or Tollini's name and shielded the Jesuits from further liability. "He acknowledged that damage was done," says Roberts, who refused to take the money--except reimbursement for medical bills--or sign the agreement.

While agreeing that the meetings took place, Father Smolich says the nondisclosure agreement was standard issue. He also says Roberts accepted reimbursement for therapy. "Let's be honest here," he says. "The relationship was inappropriate. It should not have taken the turn that it did, the sexual component. Given that, it was appropriate to break it off. It was a very complicated relationship. Fred had not known Alexandra in his priestly role, but that doesn't make it right. Obviously, I'm not an expert in these things, but Alexandra is carrying a lot of pain from this, and I feel bad for her."

Tollini willingly agreed to counseling and treatment and continues to receive follow-up care, he says, and there have been no reports of inappropriate behavior since. Tollini is still teaching at Santa Clara University.

"It's about the imbalance and abuse of power," says Roberts, now a member of SNAP. "He used the priesthood to ingratiate his way into my life and used it as his cover and exit. He exploited his position. Several times I tried to pull out, and he would always come back. He wouldn't let me break it off."

No Apologies

According to Terrie Light, priests in California are not held to any professional or legal standards--nor are they defrocked--for sexual misconduct with an adult. Adds A.W. Richard Sipe: "Even when [the sexual misbehavior] is known, as long as it doesn't cause a scandal it doesn't merit a great deal of attention from superiors or bishops. It's tolerated."

"The church's impulse is to help offending priests--offer them compassion, forgiveness, therapy and medical treatment, which is part of the issue," says Thomas Plante. "When someone in the family screws up, you don't necessarily cut them off at the knees."

But women who have sued priests for sexual abuse might not have brought charges if church elders had taken their claims seriously and treated them with respect, says attorney Joyce Seelen.

"Uniformly, these women do not want to sue," she says. "They are some of the most decent people I've ever met. They love their church. ... If [the offenders and their superiors] just said I'm sorry, I wouldn't have a practice, which would be fine with me. But they never say I'm sorry. Never."

To contact Loren Stein: [email protected]

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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