Man seeks to reclaim faith after abuse

Print More

(Host) Not long ago an unusual letter appeared in the pages of the monthly Vermont Catholic Tribune.

The letter was written by 48-year-old-Neil Morrissette of St. Johnsbury.

As a child, Morrissette was abused by a Vermont priest.

In 2004 he took the church to court. Earlier this year he won a financial settlement from the diocese.

In his letter, Morrissette announced that he wants to return to the church.

VPR’s Steve Zind talked with Morrissette about his letter and his attempt to reclaim his faith.

(Zind) Morrissette’s family had long been parishioners at Saint Mary’s Church in Newport. He was 11 years old when he says he was sexually abused by the church’s priest, the Reverend George Paulin. Not surprisingly, the experience traumatized the young boy.

(Morrissette) "I was working at a theater. I would not go home at nighttime. I would stay under the candy counter."
(Zind) "You slept under the candy counter?"
(Morrissette) "Yes I did."
(Zind) "And no one ever came and said, what’s wrong?"
(Morrissette) "No."

(Zind) Morrissette says as he grew older he pushed away the memories of the abuse, and he made a promise to himself.

(Morrissette) "I remember telling myself I will never, ever tell anybody about this for the rest of my life."

(Zind) Morrissette says beyond the trauma of the abuse, he felt an enormous sense of loss. For generations his French-Canadian family has been rooted in the traditions and the community of the Catholic Church.

(Morrissette) "The one thing people haven’t realized is what I lost was the church. My family’s all Catholic. My meme and pepe, we used to go fishing and when I would get done fishing we would go to church. We’d never miss it. My grandfather would have fish smell all over him. It’s pretty hard, when you’re a young person to forget that kind of stuff."

(Zind) There are some details of his life Morrissette declines to talk about – like the problems he’s had as an adult. He simply says he’s done many things he’s not proud of.

Estranged from the Catholic Church, Morrissette still longed to be part of a religious community.

(Morrissette) "I went to many different churches but always having that heartache for the Catholic religion."

(Zind) When the news was full of revelations about child sexual abuse by priests, Morrissette paid no attention.

Then one day a few years ago he heard that Vermont’s Catholic diocese was urging people who had been abused to step forward – and 30 years of silence came to an end.

Morrissette contacted the diocese the following day. He won’t say what their response was, but his next step was to call a lawyer. He took the church to court and eventually received a settlement in excess of $100,000.

With that behind him, Morrissette was ready to close the breach between him and the church.

The only way to do that, he felt, was to meet with Bishop Salvatore Matano. Morrissette overcame his anxiety and picked up the phone.

(Morrissette) "I didn’t know how he was going to accept me after I called him, but he was so warm."
(Zind) "I think a lot of people would say, why were you nervous about calling the bishop? The bishop should have been the one who was nervous about getting the call from you’."
(Morrissette) "Both of us, I think were very nervous."

(Zind) Not long after the call, the two met for about an hour at the diocese offices in Burlington. For Morrissette it was another step toward reconciling with the church.

He says he understands that people are puzzled why, after all he’s been thorough, he isn’t angry.

Forgiveness is a word that Morrissette uses time and again. One of the reasons he wrote the letter to the Vermont Catholic Tribune is to show that it’s possible to forgive the church and even the priest who abused him.

H says he’s also forgiven himself for not coming forward earlier in hopes that by bringing attention to the problem, other children might have been spared.

(Morrissette) "The guilt that I felt for not saving other kids – that was probably the toughest part."

(Zind) Morrissette says even though he still hasn’t attended a Catholic Mass, he believes the day will eventually come when he fully returns to the church.

He’s been talking with a priest about it.

The priest is pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Newport. The same church where Morrissette was abused 37 years ago.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

Comments are closed.