Two women who were sexually abused by the Rev. John J. Gallagher in the 1970s are speaking publicly — for the first time — about their childhood trauma with the hope of empowering other survivors and themselves.

The women, one who chooses to be named and another who does not, are among 11 people — 10 women and a man — represented by Boston Attorney Mitchell Garabedian in a joint lawsuit against the Catholic Church resolved earlier this year with a $1.4 million settlement.

In conversations with The Eagle-Tribune last Thursday and Friday, the victims described sexual abuse that happened to them and others when Gallagher was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in Lawrence and the associated parish school from 1972 to 1979. 

They also described the aftermath: sadness, anger, fear — the gamut of emotions — and alienation from their church.

“He taught us terror,” said the unnamed victim, who estimates Gallagher abused her hundreds of times from when she was 9 until she graduated from middle school.

The Eagle-Tribune does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.

The second victim, 56-year-old Christina Condon of Methuen, said “not a day goes by” — even decades later — that she doesn’t think of her abuse, which occurred when she was 10 and Gallagher was coaching the St. Mary’s swim team.

“When I went to that swim lesson I was one 10-year-old,” she said Friday. “The next day I was another.”

Garabedian contacted the newspaper last week with the news of the settlement. The attorney, who is known for representing victims in clergy sexual abuse cases, said Gallagher’s predatory behavior was talked about among students, parents and church officials, but he was never reprimanded.

During mediation victims were allowed to tell church representatives about Gallagher’s destructive behavior. They emphasized their suspicions that hundreds more boys and girls were assaulted in the gym and cafeteria at St. Mary’s, the swimming pool of the Lawrence Reform School and the Lawrence YMCA. Gallagher also was assigned to Merrimack College in 1969 and 1970.

The response from church officials was disappointing, they said.

“We’re sorry for what you experienced.’ That’s what the church’s response was to us,” the unnamed victim said Thursday. “It wasn’t easy to speak up, and then get that response with no real remorse.”

However, she said, “It was healing for me to say my piece. It’s beneficial. It provides validation.”

She said she has lived with anger for more than 40 years, much of which has roots in the evening of her eighth-grade graduation Mass.

Despite telling a nun and a priest about Gallagher’s abuse weeks earlier, she said, the priest was chosen to deliver a commencement speech about “being a good person.”

“The supervisors of Father Gallagher and of Catholic priests have a lot to learn from clergy sexual abuse victims about human decency and protecting children,” Garabedian said.

Condon, who was born and raised in Lawrence, said demanding accountability from church leaders means breaking decades of silence.

She was assaulted under the guise of swim instruction, she said, and believes that was the circumstance for hundreds of other girls Gallagher coached.

“I knew it was wrong, the way he touched me,” she said. “I only went once. It happened the first time, and I didn’t have to go back again after telling my mom I didn’t want to be there.”

Condon remembers telling her mother that she watched Gallagher take other young girls into a room — unsure of what happened behind closed doors — but she fearfully refrained from mentioning her own experience of being touched.

“We would talk about him, us girls, we called him ‘Father McFeely,’” she said. “We would joke about it. That’s what you do when you’re so young; when you’re traumatized.”

Condon said she never learned to swim and to this day cringes at the smell of chlorine.

She changed that afternoon, she said.

“I became very cautious. I just wanted to do good. I didn’t want to get in trouble,” she explained. “I wasn’t a carefree kid anymore. I felt like I had done something wrong, and I don’t think that’s unusual (among victims).”

The final words she spoke to Gallagher haunt the other victim.

“The last thing I ever said to him was ‘amen,’ when I had to go up (to the altar) during that graduation Mass,” she said. “And that still enrages me. I get worked up thinking about it today.”

She said the pastor, nuns and school leadership who knew about the assaults and did not intervene are as responsible as Gallagher.

“He had the keys to everything. He was trusted. And he was confident enough to do these things to kids pretty out in the open,” she said. “I remember that he had the keys to the vending machine. He would take a couple girls down and open it up. You’d have Cokes and chips before he abused you.”

Both women say the abuse steered them away from the church and their sense of faith.

“I was raised Catholic. I had known many good priests. But now, I found myself with distrust and anger toward this one,” Condon said. “I continued going to church and being around priests and nuns, but once I was done with school, I didn’t actively go to church anymore.”

And both say speaking out has come with a sense of power.

“It takes a lot of courage, it really does,” Condon said. “It takes a fortitude. But if someone has gone through this, they’re safe to reach out for help. If you stay silent, you’re giving that power to your abuser. And that’s not something I’m going to do anymore.”

He died in 2006. He was 86 years old.

 

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