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Brianna McClane/MEDILL

Rick Springer holds a photo of himself at a church service before he was molested by a priest.

Almost every cabbie has a story; here's one of self-redemption

by Brianna McClane
June 08, 2010

Filing process for sexual abuse allegations

- The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review receives and reviews sexual abuse allegations of children.

-  The allegations are formalized through meeting with the director or assistant director of the office. A representative of the Office of Assistance Ministry is also present during the meeting including a person to provide support if the accuser desires.

-  These allegations can be a part of the healing process or may be used to collaborate other allegations and to protect other children. Individuals are encouraged to come forward no matter how it has been.

-  If the accused priest or deacon is alive, then a separate meeting will be scheduled by the office to present the allegation for response. The information concerning the allegation will be presented to a review board appointed by the Cardinal to determine if it should be recommended to the Archbishop.

-  If the accused is deceased, the allegation will be placed in the file of the accused. 

When you climb into Rick Springer’s taxicab in Chicago, you meet a friendly man with a raspy voice. The usual light conversation that occurs between rider and driver can turn serious if Springer, 72, hands his passenger a pamphlet.

The pamphlet is from the organization Bishop Accountability, which compiles data concerning sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Springer, who was abused by a priest, is one of the cause’s greatest advocates.   

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the abuse and how it’s affected my life.”

Springer’s parents’ divorce in 1945 left him devastated, but after attending Mass with a friend in his Rogers Park neighborhood, he thought he had found a way to bring his family back together.

“I was looking, trying to find something to hold onto, a surrogate family,” he said; “something to help me.”

His faith turned into devotion when he attended a Catholic boarding school. At 14, he entered a seminary with the goal of becoming a priest.

The summer of 1952, after his first year of seminary, he returned home to Rogers Park and encountered difficulties for a young man seeking priesthood.

“All I can think about is girls, and that’s wrong,” he explained. “In the Catholic Church, even the slightest impure thought is a moral sin.”

A priest in the neighborhood promised to help him and invited him to the rectory. The priest offered to give him a physical exam to determine if he was a viable candidate for priesthood.

“I felt like I was on the ceiling, watching what was happening,” Springer said. “I was powerless to stop, I knew it was wrong, but he was a priest.”

Returning to seminary weeks later, he told the priest over his grade what had happened to him. The priest consulted with another and they determined the act was not against canon law.

Springer began to lose interest in his studies and a priest at the seminary suggested he find another profession to pursue. He returned to Rogers Park, burying the memory of what had happened to him. He turned to alcohol and became “an around the clock drinker.”

“I drank my life away,” he said. “You might say I got my Ph.D. in alcohol”

In 1981, Springer made the decision to seek help for alcoholism.

“I couldn’t go down any farther,” he said. “There’s a saying in AA where you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You’re at a point where nobody wants anything to do with you anymore.”

Sober but still struggling, Springer went from job to job. In 1983, he was delivering pizzas in Evanston when he said he suddenly remembered what had happened that day in the rectory. He compared it to an end-of-life experience, with the memory flashing before his eyes.

“You say to yourself, ‘That’s what was wrong. That in a nutshell is why my life is such a mess.’ It was such a revelation,” Springer said. “And I thought, ‘I can really move on from here.’”

The moment, Springer said, arose from a difficult emotional time in his life. He realized the abuse had been holding him back for years.

“I really thought I was on my way to a great recovery, my life was going to turn around at this point,” he said. “But it didn’t. For a good long time, at times it got worse. I was an emotional trainwreck.”

What Springer experienced, according to a psychiatrist, is not unusual. Many people suppress horrific memories, Carole Lieberman said.

“Memories can be repressed and remembered years later because they are pushed down into the unconscious mind,” Lieberman said. “It's the way the mind tries to protect itself from being overwhelmed by psychological pain.”

The realization gave Springer an understanding of his past behavior and his lost interest in Catholicism. Alcoholics Anonymous taught him about a different approach to faith, Springer said.

“It opened my eyes to a different spirituality,” he said, “a different path to God that I didn’t need some kind of rituals or a very fancy church to be able to pray to God.”

Lieberman has worked with numerous patients who were abused by priests and said that religious views often change after an experience such as this.

“Sexual abuse by a priest destroys the victim's spiritual commitment because the victim feels so betrayed and can't help but question all he believed in before the abuse,” she said.

Springer began therapy after his realization and only stopped after learning about support groups for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. He became a member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He leads a support group for other survivors and joins other SNAP members when they pass out literature outside of churches, demanding action on the abuse.

“It takes me out of me,” he said. “It takes me out of my self-pity.”

There were four steps that Springer said he had to take to overcome what had happened to him. He had to get sober, remember, meet other abuse survivors and help them.

His volunteer work is noticed by SNAP President Barbara Blaine.

“He could have chosen to stay trapped in shame, secrecy, self-blame and hopelessness,” Blaine said. “Instead, he's decided to do all he can to help heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable.” 

Springer said, “It took a long time for me to move from victim to survivor. And I still fall into the victim mode sometimes.”

“I get into a funk, I beat myself up but I realize, I can’t stay in that hole. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got other survivors who I can help get out of their hole and get on with their lives.”