The Rev. Tom Economus:
Champion of clergy-abuse victims
By BROOKS EGERTON
Appeared in The Dallas Morning News, 03/25/2002
With the Catholic Church's pedophile priest scandal exploding afresh, one of the men most responsible for keeping it in the public eye has succumbed to cancer.
The Rev. Tom Economus died Saturday at his Chicago home, where he had spent the last decade running a support group for clergy-abuse victims of all faiths. As president of The Linkup, he also led efforts to expose perpetrators around the country and to demand accountability from religious leaders.
Father Economus, 46, frequently railed against the Vatican and the rest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, many of whose bishops have been implicated in cover-ups and several of whom have admitted sexual misconduct themselves. At least nine have quit because of such admissions since 1990 - most recently Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, who acknowledged this month that he molested a teenage seminarian in Missouri about 25 years ago.
A former altar boy who became a priest in the breakaway Independent Catholic Church, Father Economus was a survivor of clergy abuse himself and later of alcohol and drug abuse. A priest molested him for years at a Catholic boarding school, he told interviewers, and another sexually assaulted him when he sought counseling as a young man.
Five years ago, Father Economus correctly predicted that a civil trial in Texas would end with the largest clergy-abuse judgment in history. A jury concluded that the Catholic Diocese of Dallas conspired to cover up years of abuse by the Rev. Rudolph "Rudy" Kos and ordered it to pay 11 plaintiffs nearly $120 million in damages.
The diocese later negotiated the sum down to about $31 million, which remains one of the largest settlements of its kind. Nationally, Catholic dioceses have spent an estimated $1 billion settling abuse claims. Mr. Kos has since been removed from the priesthood and - unlike most other priests forced from their jobs here and elsewhere - sentenced to prison.
Sylvia Demarest, one of the lawyers who sued the Dallas diocese, remembered Father Economus as someone who "helped victims find a voice ... and each other."
"He was just unconventional enough to make the bishops worried about what he would do next," she said Sunday. "They had to pay attention to him."
The Rev. Gary Hayes, a Roman Catholic priest in rural Kentucky and acting president of The Linkup, vowed to continue Father Economus' pressure campaign. He noted that unprecedented recent news coverage in the northeastern United States had led to removals of priests, criminal referrals and calls for the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.
"Everything we've been saying for years is finally getting into print," Father Hayes said.
Services for Father Economus will be Monday at a funeral home in suburban Chicago. Survivors include his mother, two sisters and a brother, who suggested memorial donations to The Linkup.
The Rev. Tom Economus, a former altar boy who was sexually abused by a priest and became a fierce critic of the Roman Catholic Church and an advocate for other victims, died of cancer at his Chicago home Saturday. He was 46.
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.
"He was a perpetual lifeline for so many people who were victimized," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who said Economus was one of the earliest crusaders for the cause.
"Some of what he achieved you can see in the last three months," Clohessy added. "He kept the issue of abusive priests in the limelight even when it was the least politically popular."
Economus was raised as a Roman Catholic. He said he was sexually abused as a teenager when he was enrolled at Sky Ranch for Boys, a private school in South Dakota run by the Catholic Church.
He later entered a Catholic seminary, where officials knew of his earlier abuse experience but told him to keep silent.
"That was how I was supposed to rectify and reconcile what happened to me as a child with the Roman Catholic Church," he told talk-show host Larry King a few years ago. "That is why I left" the church, he said.
Despite the trauma he endured, he said he still found himself drawn to the priesthood as a vocation and joined the breakaway Independent Catholic Church.
Although many victims of clergy abuse give up their faith, "he showed by his own example that you can separate the trauma of your own abuse from religious faith," Clohessy said. "In that sense, he was a real inspiration to a lot of people."
Economus' group claimed more than 7,500 members. It monitored abuse cases nationwide and maintained a database of molestation charges and of priests who allegedly molested church members. The group also assisted in lawsuits, including one filed against the Dallas diocese that ended in a record judgment five years ago.
A jury ordered the Dallas diocese to pay $119 million to 10 men and the family of a suicide victim who were molested as altar boys by Father Rudolph Kos.
Sylvia Demarest, one of the lawyers in that case, told the Associated Press that Economus "helped victims find a voice ... and each other."
"He was just unconventional enough to make the bishops worry about what he would do next," she said. "They had to pay attention to him."
Economus once printed 25,000 bogus $1 bills bearing drawings of three bishops in "see no evil, speak no evil" poses and distributed them to church members across the country. The bills also bore the slogan "In God we only trust."
Members were asked to deposit the phony bills in collection plates to send a message to church officials.
"One priest called me and said 'I really don't appreciate this but I guess you have to do what you have to do,'" Economus told the Houston Chronicle in 1998.
Economus is survived by his mother, Shirley; grandmother, Dorothy Spradlin; two sisters; and a brother.
Today, March 23rd, 2002, Tom Economus, President of Linkup, a 12 year old national organization of support and service to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, died after a long and valiant battle with cancer.
Over the years, outraged survivors have come forward about their abuse by perpetrators from many mainline religious denominations. In the early stages of building Linkup and the Survivors Movement, many victims were vulnerable, fragmented individuals who looked to their respective churches for guidance, healing, spirituality and compassion. They were often turned away when requesting that these religious institutions make things right over past abuses. The Linkup, especially in the voice of Tom Economus, supported many of these victims. Tom was incredibly generous with his time and encouragement to the victim/survivor movement.
Tom is survived by his Mother, Shirley Economus, Grandmother, Dorothy Spradlin, Sisters, Debbie Scherer and Margie (Edward) Dimmerling, and Brother, David (Karla) Economus. Nieces, Katie, Karlie, Alexis and Amber. Nephews, Cory, Jason, Craig, Andres and Bradley, and by hundreds of victim/survivors, and many in the helping professions, who called him friend.
Services were held on Monday at the Oehler Funeral Home from 1:00pm-9:00pm 555 Lee Street, DesPlaines, Illinois 847-824-5155. A private burial was held on Tuesday.
Tom's family asks that in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to Linkup.
Fr. Gary Hayes, President of The Survivors of Clergy Abuse Linkup, Inc.
Something happened in 1982 at the parish for which I was employed as Director of Religious Education. We weren't sure what "it" was, but we knew something was wrong, something was not right. Young teenagers were talking about getting alcohol and even pot up at the rectory. Some were receiving gifts from Father. Teens were spending a lot of time at the rectory in Father's room. There were parties on the weekends with lots of beer bottles in the trash. They were spending time at Father's cottage.
The parish staff, including the pastor confronted the associate pastor, but of course nothing was wrong. The parish staff, including the pastor, held meetings with various archdiocesan officials, but of course Father had a challenging personality, this had gone on for many years. "Grin and bear it," said one, and another, "We really don't see any evidence here."
Then the inevitable happened, an incident with a 13 year old, and other chi]dren as witnesses. It was named. It was spoken. There was no turning back.
Out of this terribly confusing and horrific experience grew VOCAL, which two years later became LINKUP. The leadership had started with the mother of one of the victims, and then later, and for these past 10 years, with Tom Economus.
As many of you know, the struggle to grow and maintain this organization has been very challenging to say the least. Over the years, outraged survivors have come forward about their abuse by perpetrators from many mainline religious denominations. In the early stages of building LINKUP and the Survivors Movement, many victims were vulnerable, fragmented individuals who looked to their respective churches for guidance, healing, spirituality and compassion. They were often turned away when requesting that these religious institutions make things right over past abuses. The LINKUP, especially in the voice of Tom Economus, whose life we honor today, supported many of these victims. Tom was incredibly generous with his time and encouragement to the victim/survivor movement.
In the early days of his leadership, both Nancy Briggs and I served to temper Tom in his zeal. As we all know, Tom had a way with words, some of which could not be printed. Needless to say, Tom was passionate about his work and about supporting the victims.
Over these years many who knew Tom had personally observed him grow from victim/survivor to thriver. He was resilient in his efforts to heal and move beyond to the possibilities that were set before him both personally and professionally in this ministry.
In these past several weeks we have asked over and over again, why, why, why will this vibrant life be cut short?! When abuse has come to the forefront on the pages of our newspapers and commentators across the country, why does this life that has spoken out on our behalf time and time again, have to pass the torch to others?
The only thing I can say about this is what I see today versus that time of the first LINKUP Conference near]y 12 years ago. Then, when the press entered the conference room, they had to stay and photograph from the back of the room, as many victims were afraid to be seen for fear of reprisals from their church, their community, and even their family. Today, after Linking up with so many victim/survivors and their families and friends, people are speaking out in front of those cameras. People are taking a stand.
In a recent poll by a news program in Chicago 77% of those polled said the Catholic Church is not doing enough to respond correctly to this issue. In today's press we see it posted week after week. We know what "it" is and "if' must be dealt with. Today we know its name is abuse, and it is abuse in the most soul taking way.
Our call to the churches is that we know what "it" is, and "it" must STOP! We call on the religious denominations everywhere to take ownership of their clergy to foster recruiting standards, to set a zero tolerance on abuse, and to set policy to deal with abuse accusations. Further, these policy making boards must include victim/survivors, and they must comply with local reporting laws.
So, we can console ourselves in Tom's passing with the thought that the work of LINKUP and SNAP, the Survivors Network, and other local support groups around the world have indeed worked at what they set out to do....to linkup and make victims and their families know that they are not alone. The abuse is not their fault, but the fault of a faulty system that breeds untruth, and cover up.
We can console ourselves that the message of LINKUP that Tom carried as leader these past many years has been heard, AND THERE IS NO TURNING BACK Victims are more than ever before supported to come forward. It is now a part of our acceptance within the culture. We will more often than not refrain from hiding it. It is out there, it happened, it will be dealt with. THE VICTIM/SURVIVORS VOICE HAS GROWN STRONG.
At this time I am reminded of the powerful words of Nelson Mandela:
"It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us." (The light to me is the victim/survivors truth.) "You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure wound you."
"You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. It is not just in some ofus; it's in everyone."
"And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
Thank you Tom for serving with this type of leadership in support of victim/survivors around the world. You will be missed.
Marilyn Steffel, Linkup Vice-President, delivered at his wake, March 25, 2002.