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Why childhood victims stay silent about abuse for decades

It took Ann Fossler more than 25 years to reveal that she had been repeatedly molested when she was as young as 6 years old.

Fossler said she first confided in a counselor in the 1980s that a Buffalo Diocese Catholic priest who was a close family friend sexually abused her for several years and that she kept it secret because she feared her parents, who adored the priest and were devout Catholics, would be crushed by the revelation.

“Basically, he said, ‘I can listen, but there isn’t anything you can do about any of this because of the statute of limitations,’ ” said Fossler. “So, then, my decision becomes, do I blow up the family by coming out when there isn’t anything I can really do about this anyway?”

Fossler, 68, stayed silent for decades more.

She's making a statement in court now, though, joining more than 100 plaintiffs who have filed or will file lawsuits in Western New York under the Child Victims Act, alleging they were sexually abused as children.

Some of the abuse alleged dates back as far as 1948.

The statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse victims to file civil claims going forward changes to age 55, from age 23, under the Child Victims Act. The new law also includes a one-year look-back window that opened Wednesday and allows childhood abuse victims of any age to file claims that previously were time-barred.

Experts said it’s common for childhood victims of sexual abuse not to tell anyone about it for many years. A 2014 study out of Germany found that the average age for disclosing childhood sex abuse was 52. Another study last year showed that it took 24 years, on average, for childhood sex abuse victims to disclose the abuse to anyone.

Marci A. Hamilton, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on the effects of child sexual abuse, said children don’t understand sex and don’t have a framework of experience to distinguish a truly loving adult from someone who is taking advantage of them.

“These are people who don’t have life experience to help them through situations they just don’t understand and can’t possibly process,” said Hamilton, who founded and runs Child USA, a national think tank and child advocacy organization.

In addition, the trauma of the sex abuse often produces psychological and physical ailments in victims, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, thoughts of suicide and alcohol and drug abuse.

“The victims not only are confused, and they don’t really understand what has happened to them, but they also are now freighted with all of this baggage of new problems they didn’t have before,” Hamilton said. “For many of the victims, they have to get around all of these other problems before they can ever start getting to the point of dealing with the sex abuse. That’s why it takes so long.”

Dr. Thomas Gildea, a psychologist who runs a general practice in Newark, Del., said perpetrators of child sexual abuse often are highly adept at getting children not to talk.

“There’s a lot of manipulation of the child to try to get them to believe that somehow, even though this feels wrong, saying something about it is even worse,” said Gildea, who estimated a quarter of his adult clients over the past 25 years were sexually abused as children.

The abuse shatters their self-esteem and their trust in other people, he said.

“It takes people a long time to get strong enough to be able to trust that someone they tell is going to believe them,” he said. “And often the case is that they’re told no, this didn’t happen.”

Religion makes telling harder

The powerful force of religion in the lives of people abused by clergy often makes it even more difficult to come forward, especially to devout family members.

“What a lot of survivors are afraid of is that if their parents believe them, it’s going to be devastating to them, or that their parents are going to say, ‘That could never happen, a priest could never do that,’ ” said Gildea.

Fossler said she never told her parents. She waited to disclose the abuse to her siblings until after her mother’s death, and they reacted by minimizing what had happened, she said.

“I was heartbroken, frankly,” said Fossler.

Ann Fossler, on left, has accused Monsignor John M. Ryan of molesting her in the late 1950s when she was 6 to 11 years old. She was at a recent news conference held by James Bottlinger, on right, who accused the Rev. Michael Freeman of sexually abusing him. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Gildea said that’s the “nightmare” that many survivors fear.

Through the lies and manipulations of their perpetrators, abuse victims at an early age were taught not to talk about the abuse. So when their story is rejected or discounted, they often go back into silence very easily, said Gildea.

Like Fossler, Kevin Koscielniak, 55, couldn’t bear telling his parents he was molested in 1979 by a priest while on a weekend retreat in Amherst. They died without knowing, he said.

“Nobody ever knew. I buried it for almost 40 years,” said Koscielniak, who filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the Buffalo Diocese. The lawsuit alleges abuse by the Rev. James Burson, a member of the Eudist order. “My friends didn’t know. You learn to cope with what’s happened and fool the world.”

Burson resides in California. He and the Eudist order have not responded to multiple messages seeking comment.

Fossler's allegation

Fossler alleged in her lawsuit that Monsignor John M. Ryan, a former superintendent of Catholic schools, sexually abused her in the late 1950s, when she was a parishioner of Queen of Heaven Church in West Seneca.

Monsignor John Ryan. (Buffalo News file photo)

Ryan, 89, has been retired since 2001. He has acknowledged through a lawyer that he was friends with the former Ann Mahoney and the entire Mahoney family, but he denied molesting her. The lawyer, Rodney Personius, said Ryan also denied molesting an unnamed male plaintiff from Lockport who sued the diocese alleging sex abuse by Ryan in the 1980s.

Ryan served as superintendent of Catholic schools from 1975 to 1981, overseeing more than 42,000 students in about 150 elementary and high schools in eight counties at the time.

Bishop Richard J. Malone suspended Ryan from ministry in 2018 because of sex abuse allegations, but he announced July 26 that Ryan was returned to active ministry because a diocese review board was “unable to substantiate” the allegations from two accusers, including Fossler.

Attorney Jayne Conroy of Simmons Hanly Conroy in Manhattan said she's represented many victims who held off on disclosing their abuse until after their parents died because they didn't want to cause them pain.

Other victims don't want their own children or spouse to know what happened to them, said Conroy.

"There's a lot of shame about it. There's a lot of guilt on the part of the victim about it," she said.

Society hasn't been very receptive to stories of abuse, which has helped keep victims silent – although that appears to be changing in the #MeToo era, said Conroy.

"Twenty years ago, victims were blamed," she said. "It's not a friendlier environment to come forward, but it's not as hostile an environment as it was."

Do dollars motivate accusers?

Hamilton said she's often heard from people who believe childhood victims of abuse only come forward when they know money is on the table.

But in many of the states that have opened look-back windows, only a very small percentage of victims sued, she said.

"For many of these victims, these settlements aren't about winning the lottery. These settlements are about the fact that they were tragically harmed, their lives were destroyed, and this is the only way that we know of as a society to make them whole, if we can," said Hamilton. "It's really just fundamental fairness that you would shift the cost of the abuse from the victim who is suffering to the ones who caused it."

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