The older we get, the clearer our perspectives on life become. This onset of clarity is wired in us. My theory is this: dormant genes of wisdom kick in at different times in people’s lives. Some people experience the jolt early on; some people never do. I like the Your Dictionary definition of wisdom: “the quality of being wise; power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity” (prone to evaluating information before making a decision).
The Reverend Tom Economus
I never referred to Rev. Tom Economus by any name other than Tom. Tom was my friend and colleague. He was also a Catholic priest ordained in the Community Catholic Church of Canada. Members of that church hold a simple vision of theology and spirituality based on the words and teachings of Jesus; church trappings and high titles were not important to Tom. His deep religious faith was matched only by his advocacy for people who had been sexually abused by Catholic clergy. Tom and I met in Los Angeles in 1995 at a conference for the clergy, survivors of clergy sexual abuse, survivor advocates, and attorneys who represented survivors.
At official functions, Tom dressed as the quintessential priest—with a white collar. I once took a flight with him to a conference, and we arrived at the terminal late. Before we checked in, Tom removed his collar and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. He explained that since we had little time to spare, it would be best if he didn’t wear his collar, otherwise he would be stopped along the way to the departure gate by people asking him to bless their flights. Tom was practical.
Tom lived a full forty-six years. While a complete and worthy biography is beyond the parameters of this post, his March 2002 obituary in the Los Angeles Times contains a condensed background of his accomplishments that accurately depicts the true sense of this man.
Economus founded the Chicago-based Survivors of Clergy Abuse Linkup 12 years ago to help victims confront the facts of their abuse and find counseling as well as legal help if desired.
The group has campaigned nationally to force the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations to develop responsible policies for identifying and removing clerical abusers from their positions.
He was outspoken in his criticism of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which has been besieged by child sexual abuse allegations in recent months.
The philosophical bent of this post was triggered by the confluence of a report in the Washington Post about clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania and by my working with Tom. The report, discussed below, stirred me into thinking about systemic institutional betrayals I’d fought against as an attorney on behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse in the 1990s. The fight was hard in the early years of allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests. The fight was hardest for those men and women who came forward attesting to their sexual abuse at the hands of clergy. My clients had been groomed by their perpetrators into acquiescing to unspeakable acts that wrought confusion and shame.
The harsh defense the Catholic church put forth for its accused priests was formidable. The church empowered its lawyers to use cruel tactics during litigation—such as saying victims had brought shame upon themselves and their families. It was common knowledge at that time that the church moved perpetrating priests around to different parishes in order to cover the tracks that impugned the worst on these men and their vile predilection for young boys and girls.
In my memoir, Derailed, I describe some of the nasty atmosphere manifested by the fierce battle between the law and religion:
The Los Angeles Times reported on the brave survivors I represented in the 1990s in suits against the Dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles. In those days religious institutions pushed back hard, and without an ounce of compassion, against allegations of abuse alleged against its clergy. Back then, in the face of my client’s descriptive testimony during his deposition about having been anally raped with an Easter candle by a Catholic priest, one attorney representing the Diocese of Los Angeles, in a mocking tone, labeled my client as a “fallen out Catholic” and “liar.” I learned about this incident in a press conference in 1981 after a case settled with the Los Angeles Diocese. Back then, it was approaching heresy, even for a Jew like myself, to report anything that countered the diocese, its defense, and its brutal Catholic defense attorneys. Not surprisingly, this story never made it to press.
My interest in representing victims of clergy sexual abuse was augmented by people who shared their wisdom about the complexities of the issues. Combining religion and sex in legal jurisprudence was like mixing oil and water—the two issues repelled throughout society, and cognitive dissonance set in hard. People as a whole were uncomfortable talking about sexual abuse by the clergy (of any religion), as was the press in its hesitancy to even infer that the church and its priestly agents could be responsible for the torment and abuse of children.
Tom mentored me on the historical and philosophical components of the church and taught me about how victims processed their regretful childhood experiences. Tom did not hesitate to tell people that he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse. In a 1995 interview for PBS’s Frontline, Tom spoke openly about his abuse—I can still hear his searing Chicago accent and see his sparkling eyes as he confessed to the world, without shame, his truth:
I was raised in a very Catholic Greek family in the North Side of Chicago—lived right next door to the Catholic Church most of my life. And had always wanted to become a priest ever since I was a little kid.
During the interview, Tom spoke about how his parents sent him to Sky Ranch for Boys in South Dakota, where he encountered his nemesis, Father Don Murray, a Catholic priest.
And so it was in my going to Sky Ranch for Boys, in what my family had hoped would be a good, solid education for myself, that I was molested by this priest. It went on for three and a half years. And the molestation began initially with just touching and feeling. And he’d have a drink with me, and I got to smoke cigarettes with him—that was a very cool thing to do when you’re a 12, 13, 14 year old kid. And there was something wonderful about him as well. He was very charismatic. And I believed him when he said that he loved me. I believed him when he said that he was going to take care of me, and that I would have a future with the Church, or with him, or wherever I wanted to go.
Tom never got to confront Murray about the abuse. In 1975, Murray was piloting a private plane that crashed.
He was an out-of-control alcoholic. From what I’ve seen of those reports from the FAA, he piloted that plane into the ground. It was almost like a suicide mission. And he killed himself and two other young men. My brother—he was mangled, thrown from the plane—was the only survivor.
Tom publicly gave graphic descriptions of the mental manipulation Murray used and the acts the priest perpetrated on him. When he was 17 years-old, years of abuse culminated in Tom’s being raped by Murray in a hotel room. Tom told Frontline that
I didn’t have access to anyone to tell anyone—although I don’t think I would have told anyone anyway. Many times when I had threatened to expose him, he would tell me, “I have legal guardianship over you. Who are the people going to believe—you or me?” And so I was manipulated into silence for seventeen years.
The common wisdom in the 1990s was to wait for the storm to pass, leaving victims such as Tom as hollowed-out people who lost their trust of mankind and spirituality. I learned from Tom and my clients that victims of clergy sexual abuse were left vulnerable to deep desperation, which sometimes found them ending up involved in drug abuse, intimate partner violence, and suicide.
Spotlight on the Darkness
Spotlight, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture, accurately depicts the conflicting worlds of victims of clergy sexual abuse by showing the systematic betrayals of society’s looking away from reality versus the media’s successes at shedding light on the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of the tragic scourge.
In 1997, Tom introduced me to Richard Sipe, whose research on the pervasiveness of sexual abuse by priests and the hierarch’s cover-up of the abuse of children in the Boston Diocese is discussed in the movie. According to an article by Radio Boston, Sipe, who died in August 2018 and “was a psychotherapist and a former priest, was an indispensable aid to the Boston Globe Spotlight Team that exposed a pattern of sex abuse and secrecy within the Catholic Church in 2002.” Richard had an encyclopedic database in his brain of the scope and nature of clergy sexual abuse, and his mentoring encouraged me to pursue cases on behalf of victims.
Upon accepting the Academy Award for Spotlight, producer Michael Sugar said, “This film gave a voice to survivors and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.” This well-documented movie dramatically illustrates the systemic institutional failure of the Catholic Church to act in a way that was beneficial to victims. Instead the church flipped the script to focus on victims as perpetrators of “lies” against the church for some imagined contempt the church never has identified.
The Justice Department Steps Up
Tom did not live to see the reckoning of the Catholic Church—judgment for which he worked so hard. Tom and many other crusaders for survivors would never have imagined a future Pope Francis acknowledging publicly that the unceasing sexual abuse scandal had rocked the Catholic Church. Speaking of young people, Pope Francis said, “They are outraged by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them.” The pope’s words are a sign of a change of direction for the Church in terms of repentance, but they do not carry much substance.
The Justice Department’s intervention in the Pennsylvania clergy sexual abuse scandal is noteworthy. Until its investigation was announced in October 2018, only states had been involved in fact finding about the real nature of the cover-up. According to the Washington Post,
the [18-month] investigation was sparked by a scathing report from a state grand jury in August that found more than 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up. The lengthy report identified about 1,000 children who were victims but concluded there were probably thousands more.
The focus of the government’s investigation seeks documentation that covers several substantive topics:
- Evidence of church personnel taking children across state lines for purposes of sexual abuse, [a violation of the 1910 Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act].
- Evidence of [church] personnel sending sexual material about children electronically.
- Evidence that church officials reassigned suspected predators or used church resources to further or conceal such conduct.
My sense is that Tom is watching, from on high, the fruits of his wisdom along with the thousands of abuse victims who are being vindicated by an erosion of the church’s and society’s systemic institutional betrayals of clergy sexual abuse victims/survivors.
Tom Economus is best described as a man of wisdom who had a tenacious drive to see change and to move the cause forward although faced with mammoth adversity. Tom was a pragmatist bar none. When I asked why he wore both a cross and a Star of David around his neck, he looked at me with sparking eyes, gave his trademark youthful chortle, and said, “Mark, nothing is for certain—I’m covering both options.” With that we ran to the boarding gate and made our flight just in time.
Photo credit: bishopaccountability.org
 Formerly The Old Catholic Church of Canada