Handling of Abuse Complaint Disillusions a Catholic

He broke his silence a decade ago. But when Bob Sheridan told officials at the venerable Delbarton School here that he had been sexually abused by a monk as a teenager, he said, they did not investigate the allegations or report them to church officials.

Mr. Sheridan stuck by his alma mater, raising money for the school and serving for several years as a lacrosse coach. Last June, when the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops enacted a new ”zero tolerance” policy toward abuse by priests and promised to comfort victims who came forward in the future, Mr. Sheridan said, he felt it was a new day.

But when he approached Delbarton officials in July, asking them to notify the authorities about the abuse and to give him a financial settlement, in part, to help pay for psychological counseling that he said he needed because of the abuse, the response, he said, was anything but comforting.

He said representatives of the Benedictine order that runs the boys’ school questioned the truthfulness of his charges and deflected the request for a settlement, saying it was unreasonable to ask for money from monks who take a vow of poverty.

School officials say that they are investigating the complaint and that Mr. Sheridan may have thought that their effort to verify his allegations was insensitive.

But the experience has left him disillusioned. ”No one said to me, ‘How can we help you, Bob?’ ” said Mr. Sheridan, 39. ”No one said, ‘How can we help you get this guy?’ I felt like my own people let me down.”

Though the bishops set out clear-cut guidelines for handling abuse allegations with speed and sensitivity, the process can still be difficult and cold, even in a setting as close-knit as the Delbarton School, which has 500 students in grades 7 through 12.

Unlike many Catholics with complaints of abuse by members of the clergy, Mr. Sheridan did not have to face a diocesan bureaucracy. On the other hand, he did have to face a religious order without the dioceses’ experience in handling such cases, and with more limited resources to compensate victims. In addition, the religious orders are independent of the dioceses and so are technically exempt from the bishops’ new policy, though the orders’ umbrella organization agreed in August to recommend similar nonbinding measures.

Delbarton officials said that they wanted to help Mr. Sheridan. ”The message we have tried to send is that we’re here to help you with the healing process,” said the Rev. Elias R. Lorenzo, a spokesman for the school and St. Mary’s Abbey, the monastic community that sponsors it.

Father Lorenzo admitted that the school had erred by not investigating Mr. Sheridan’s allegations earlier or reporting them to church officials, actions the school has taken this year. Since the July meeting with Mr. Sheridan, the school said, it has formed a board to review sexual abuse allegations, and one of its first cases was Mr. Sheridan’s.

Father Lorenzo also conceded that the process of talking about money with abuse victims could seem harsh. Mr. Sheridan, at the advice of a lawyer, asked the school for $600,000 at the meeting. The abbot at St. Mary’s, the Rev. Thomas J. Confroy, wrote Mr. Sheridan a check from his personal account for $2,370 — not as a settlement, the school later said, but to help Mr. Sheridan, who is now unemployed, with expenses. Mr. Sheridan refused the check.

Father Lorenzo said the school, which has a $7 million endowment, is open to discussing a settlement if it finds the allegations valid. But he said it would be subject to approval by several authorities in the school community, including lawyers and a financial board of lay people. ”That process can seem cold and alienating, which is what the victim may be reacting to,” Father Lorenzo said.

That process has been particularly upsetting for Mr. Sheridan, one of only 46 members of Delbarton’s Hall of Honor for service to the school. As an alumnus, he was a chairman of one of its fund-raising committees.

An affable six-footer with the solid build and aching knees of a former athlete, Mr. Sheridan, who lives in Morristown, is known around Delbarton as one of the Sheridan boys, along with his brothers, Kevin, Brian and Michael. They attended the school in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Michael was killed in an accident as a teenager, and the school presents an award each year in his name.

Mr. Sheridan was a captain of the school’s lacrosse and soccer teams while a student and remained active in sports after graduation, mixing his day job as a salesman with stints coaching or refereeing lacrosse.

He said he remained loyal to Delbarton in spite of his abuse. ”I guess I just didn’t want one person to ruin all that I had there,” he said.

Over time, however, he found himself growing increasingly short-tempered and anxious. Mr. Sheridan, who is single, said he had difficulties in relationships. He was increasingly depressed. He first attributed those feelings to grief over his brother’s death. But last year, he said, a therapist diagnosed chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the abuse.

”I kept this bottled up inside me for so long,” Mr. Sheridan said.

He said he was molested by Robert Flavin, a monk at Delbarton who took religious vows as a deacon under the name Brother Malachy. Mr. Flavin, who left the Benedictines at his own request in 1987 and now lives in Pennsylvania, did not respond to several telephone calls and two letters over the past month requesting comment.

Mr. Sheridan said that in 1978, when he was a Delbarton student, the monk, claiming to be seeking information for another student, gave him a written list of questions ranging from the mundane, like where to go for a first date, to the sexual, about thoughts on masturbation, for example. Mr. Sheridan said he thought they were inappropriate and did not answer.

”He kept asking me, ‘When are you going to turn 18, when are you going to turn 18?’ ” Mr. Sheridan said. ”He said he wanted to take me out for a beer.”

Mr. Sheridan said that on Dec. 28, 1981, five months after he turned 18, he visited the school after he graduated. He said Brother Malachy invited him to the abbey to lend him some history books. The monk left Mr. Sheridan in the abbey’s cafeteria and said he was going to get the books.

When he returned, Mr. Sheridan said, the monk’s pants were around his ankles. He said Brother Malachy was touching himself and urged Mr. Sheridan to grope him. As a stunned Mr. Sheridan turned to leave, Brother Malachy forced his hand down inside the seat of the teenager’s pants and groped him, he said.

After 10 years of secrecy, Mr. Sheridan said, he saw Mr. Flavin, who had left the school by that time, at a homecoming event. A few weeks later he told school officials his account of abuse and asked for confidentiality, and school officials agreed.

But Delbarton officials now say it was a mistake for them not to inform officials at the Diocese of Paterson, where Mr. Flavin worked after leaving Delbarton; he was a volunteer at the Church of the Redeemer in Randolph. Delbarton officials said they recently tried to contact him, but received no response.

”If there is any mistake that was made when it was first learned, it was not informing the diocese,” Father Lorenzo said, adding that the school believed that it was Mr. Sheridan’s responsibility to inform prosecutors because he was an adult at the time he said the incident occurred. ”However, the abbot acquiesced to the demands of the victim, who insisted on complete confidentiality.”

Mr. Sheridan said that he was unsure of his next move. Too much time has passed to pursue criminal charges. But he remains more than a little disappointed in his school.

”There’s three things that they teach you at Delbarton,” he said. ”Integrity, respect and service to the community. Where’s the integrity here? Where’s the respect for me as a victim? I just want them to live up to the ideals that they taught me.”

Handling of Abuse Complaint Disillusions a Catholic
Published: September 29, 2002
New York Times