Colleen Garbarini has to make a plan before entering a grocery store: the mask can’t stay on too long. She knows the mask is there to protect her and others, but the feeling of it covering her face stirs deep emotions four decades in the making. At one point, she had to abandon her cart in a store as the oppressive feeling overtook her.
“The longer I had it on the more anxiety I had, which turned into a panic attack,” Garbarni said as she described the feeling. The mask takes her back to when she was a little girl and her abuser tried to quiet her when other people were nearby.
“There were times I was with him, and we could hear voices outside the room, and he would cover my mouth and tell me to be quiet,” she recalled.
Just as other daily minutia throughout her life has, the mask, now a central part of everyone’s day-to-day life, reminds her of still-healing emotional wounds.
“The whole idea of wearing a mask is very triggering,” she said. “I have had to work through and continue to work through in therapy that I’m not back in 1980. I’m 49 years old and the mask is for my safety, and I’m not being held down and I’m not having my mouth covered. Any of that stuff can be triggered by the mask.”
Garbarini, who grew up in Schenectady’s Catholic community in the 1970s and 1980s, in April joined thousands of other New Yorkers who have filed lawsuits, many against the Catholic Church, over allegations of child sexual abuse under the state’s Child Victims Act law. Last year the law opened the door to child abuse civil claims that previously were barred by statutes of limitation. She named Brother Clement Murphy, who worked at Notre Dame Bishop Gibbons, as her abuser. Murphy has appeared on multiple lists of credibly-accused child abusers in the clergy, including one maintained by the Albany Diocese, and as many as 10 suits have named Murphy as an abuser.
When the first round of child victim suits was filed in August 2019, Garbarini picked up a newspaper and read allegations disturbingly similar to her own experience as a child when she saw that a woman accused Murphy of sexually abusing her as a young girl.
“Seeing in the newspaper that somebody over a decade before me was abused and it was talked about and nothing was done about it at that point,” she said, crying as she recounted the moment she decided to come forward. “It infuriates me if it was a common thing they talked about; he sat on the frickin’ playground.”
Even as the child abuse law neared passage, Garbarini did not plan on coming forward, she said.
“I didn’t want to be public, I didn’t want to be whatever, then I read that in the newspaper, and I lost my damn mind,” she said. “Honestly, the anger and rage pushed me to move to the next step. When I saw it in black and white and someone else said it, it was like, oh my God.”
Garbarini’s story reflects the long and painful journeys of each of the thousands of child sexual abuse survivors who have stepped forward with allegations of sex abuse since the new law went into effect, some allegations dating to the 1950s. State lawmakers extended the filing window to August 14, and cases are gradually winding their way through the pandemic-hobbled court system. A local attorney handling hundreds of child abuse claims said the clergy abuse suits are moving more slowly than cases filed against school districts and other entities as the clergy lawyers track down scores of insurance policies.
The cases are a complex brew of decades-old allegations, painful traumatic experiences, grindingly-slow institutions and an international sexual abuse scandal that has shamed the Catholic Church.
Garbarini has spent years in therapy coming to terms with the reality of the abuse she experienced and everyday she struggles with both small and big manifestations of her trauma. She said she has frequent nightmares involving her abuser and has battled fluctuating levels of anxiety throughout her life; demanding male voices and the “Our Father” prayer can also trigger her trauma. Some days are good while others are a struggle, she said.
Now 49, Garbarini, the oldest of 11 children, was born in Kingston and moved to Schenectady around age 5. Her family started attending Mount Carmel Church in Schenectady before switching to St. Paul the Apostle Church in the Woodlawn part of the city, where she attended the primary school in a squat building behind the simple stone church and its pitched slate roof. She graduated from Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School in 1989 and studied special education in college, starting a 24-year career at Northern Rivers, first teaching a self-contained special education classroom and eventually overseeing the positive behavior intervention program for the School at Northeast in Schenectady.
After she had her two children and watched as they grew into adolescence, frightening memories and flashbacks, long repressed, took her back to the abuse of her childhood, she said. She said the early onset of the traumatic memories shook her and were initially difficult to process. At the time, around 12 years ago, she was seeing a spiritual director at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna, working on marriage difficulties. She started to discuss the childhood memories, gradually recovering a fuller recollection and understanding of what had happened to her in childhood. Garbarini said over a decade ago she named Murphy as her abuser to the counselor and recorded it in an email.
“I knew that my abuse was real, there was no way with the memories I was having it wasn’t,” she said. “Memories that come up as a child, you start to question them. In the beginning I questioned them… but then they just kept coming.”
She said Murphy would set up a chair on the playground outside the primary school, and kids would sit on his lap. She said that is where the grooming started. She remembered he sat down next to her while in church and put his hands on her. She said he befriended her family and at least once visited her home for dinner. She recalled stepping outside the residence he had at Bishop Gibbons and getting picked up to go home.
She said sometimes after he abused her, he would ask her to kneel and pray for forgiveness with him: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
“I have other memories, at some point I was where he lived, and I don’t know why I was invited there, why I was allowed to go there, but I was there,” she said.
Everyone experiences childhood trauma differently overtime and people often develop coping techniques to manage that trauma, said Thomas Murphy, a trauma therapist and professor at The College of Saint Rose.
In some cases, those strategies might include substance abuse; in some cases, a victim of childhood abuse might repress the memories or disassociate themselves in other ways, sometimes breaking from reality entirely. “Nobody wants to go back into their pain, so we do whatever we can to make it more manageable,” he said.
Trauma experienced in childhood, especially sexual abuse at the hands of someone in a position of authority – in the case of clergy members, godly authority – can be particularly complex and difficult to process, Murphy said.
He said the traumatic memories are not processed in a coherent way, leading people to relive rather than remember the traumas long after the experience has occurred. That trauma still resides in the body and manifests as anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and more. Professional therapeutic approaches aim to give the victim a space to remember their trauma and replace the negative associations with those memories – “It was my fault” – with a constructive association – “The abuse was out of my control, and I can recover.”
“Traumatic memory doesn’t get translated into long-term memory, it’s experienced. We hold trauma in our body that we haven’t processed,” he said. “In their adult minds they know it wasn’t their fault, but in their body it’s still their fault…. You should be able to understand the trauma is no longer happening, which you know in your intellectual brain, but you don’t know in your lizard brain.”
Asked about Garbarini’s reaction to wearing a facemask for an extended period of time, Murphy said it follows logically that her mind and body are connecting that feeling to the traumatic abuse.
“Whoever was hurting her didn’t put a facemask on her, but that facemask comes to represent the trauma,” he said. “The association of that facemask to whatever happened in childhood is probably causing flashbacks to those experiences…. Who knows what single event might cause those flashbacks?”
Cynthia LaFave – a Guilderland attorney working on hundreds of child victims act cases, including clergy cases in the Albany, Syracuse and Ogdensburg dioceses, but not Garbarini’s suit – said the clergy cases have moved more slowly than others, noting the church lawyers needed time to track down individual insurance policies that would apply to the different claims. She said in some instances the inability to get into offices during the pandemic was causing delays. She said some cases will be resolved through mediation while others may go to trial, though state courts are not initiating new trials at this time.
LaFave said the clergy cases will boil down to the plaintiffs’ ability to demonstrate that the diocese did not protect the children in their care, especially when leaders allowed known predators to have access to children. In the interview process, LaFave and her colleagues use interview techniques informed by therapeutic practices in an effort to get as many details as possible from clients while minimizing additional harm. The testimony of abuse survivors, she said, will serve as some of the most compelling evidence in the cases.
“I can’t tell you how many times they (potential clients) say I don’t have any proof, and I say. ‘Yes, yes you do, because when you tell your story that is proof, that is exactly what the jury is going to listen to,’” she said.
A pair of diocesan positions have been established to liaison with abuse survivors and a task force continues to review diocesan policies and practices, said Albany Diocese spokesperson Mary DeTurris Poust in response to questions about how the diocese is handling the abuse cases while attempting to support survivors.
The diocese — which stretches north into the Adirondacks, west toward Utica and south toward Kingston — is currently handling 240 child abuse lawsuits, Poust said, adding that a “significant number of those cases involve institutions independent from the Diocese or involved members of religious orders not under diocesan jurisdiction.”
The diocese consents to victims using pseudonyms, maintains their confidentiality and maintains a standing offer to claimants and their attorneys for counseling services when it tries to minimize further harm to abuse survivors, Poust said.
“We respect the serious and uniqueness of every person’s story and wish to accompany anyone who wishes our assistance on the path toward healing,” Poust said.
But to Garbarini the words and statements of the Albany Diocese fall far short and continue to frustrate her – a symbol of the pervasive hypocrisy she sees in the church.
“I’m tired of hearing the diocese say how supportive they are,” she said. “Because it’s a freaking lie.”
Garbarini’s lawsuit claims that Brother Clement Murphy sexually abused her from around 1978 to 1981, when she was about 8 years old.
At least 10 plaintiffs have named Bishop Gibbons in their suits, alleging abuse at the hands of Murphy and Brother James Vincent Hanney, who worked at the school as a teacher and counselor in the 1970s.
In one of the first suits filed after the new law took effect, a Schenectady woman using the pseudonym M.D. claimed Murphy abused her beginning when she was just seven years old in the mid-1960s, citing St. Paul’s Church and the school as sites of the abuse. That suit also claims the Albany diocese should have been aware of Murphy’s alleged abuses because “numerous parishioners and students talked openly about the fact that Brother Murphy had sexually abused others before M.D. was abused.” M.D. further alleged she had reported the alleged abuse to both a nun and a priest but received no support.
“Despite the report, not only did (the nun) fail to do anything to prevent M.D. from continuing to be sexually abused by Brother Murphy, but (the nun) continued to send M.D. to Brother Murphy,” according to the original complaint.
Murphy also appears on a list of clergy found by the Albany Diocese to have been credibly accused of abuse while in the clergy; he was added to the list in 2019. Two earlier claims against Murphy were settled as part of a bankruptcy case of The Christian Brothers’ Institute, of which he was a member.
“Prior to the sexual abuse of plaintiff, defendant(s) learned or should have learned that the perpetrator was not fit to work with children,” Garbarini’s lawyers argue in her complaint.
The stress of the lawsuit has brought on new emotional challenges, Garbarini said, with a spike in flashbacks and nightmares. She started a new form of therapy in the past year, known as EMDR, working with a specialist. “Therapeutically, the belief is that the more I disclose the more stuff that will emerge,” she said.
She said she also feels empowered and part of something bigger than herself – her own “me too.”
“This institution needs to have some accountability for hiding it,” she said. “I’m tired of being quiet.”