State Rep. Tom Burch speaks publicly about his sexual abuse by a priest

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJune 7, 2012 

Rep Tom Burch, D-Louisville. Feb. 16, 2007. Handout Photo

FRANKFORT — One of Kentucky's longest-serving state lawmakers and strongest advocates for children has publicly acknowledged that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest while in junior high school.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, disclosed the abuse in a letter to the editor that was published May 30 in the Herald-Leader.

The letter championed the plight of the country's nuns and condemned the Vatican for trying to impose more control over the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which counts more than 50,000 nuns as members. In April, Pope Benedict XVI ordered a retooling of the group because it had not been more vocal against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination.

In his letter, Burch, 80, said nuns have been a constant, loving and positive presence in his life.

"I was never sexually abused by a nun, but I was sexually abused by a priest," Burch wrote.

In an interview this week, Burch said he has privately told many people about the abuse, including Catholic church leaders, but has never spoken publicly about it until now.

"I think that as political leaders, it's important that we do talk about these things," Burch said. "It's not something that you want to talk about so much, but it also shouldn't be a secret. Parents need to be more aware of what is going on and how to protect their children."

He declined to name the priest, who he said is dead, or give the name of the parish where he attended church at the time of the abuse.

"There is no good that can come from it," Burch said.

Burch said the abuse happened in the 1940s when he was in the sixth and seventh grades.

His home life was made turbulent and violent by an alcoholic father, he said, and money was always tight. He was a vulnerable child, and the priest knew it, Burch said.

"It was so subtle," he said of the abuse. "It was like a seduction."

The priest would buy him ice cream and would come to his house. In the 1940s, when a priest visited your home, it was an honor, he said.

Burch was invited to spend the night with the priest, who was an assistant pastor in his parish. The room next door was the pastor's.

"I don't know how he didn't know what was going on," Burch said.

The abuse went on for about 18 to 24 months, he said.

One day, the priest stopped in Burch's seventh-grade classroom and asked to pull him out of class. His teacher, Sister Phillip, must have suspected what was going on, Burch said.

"She told him, 'He can't leave,'" Burch said.

The priest's attention moved to another boy in the class, he said.

Burch said he didn't understand at the time what had happened to him. Questioning a priest or the church in the 1940s and '50s was unheard of, he said.

So for the next two decades, Burch said, he put the abuse out of his mind.

He was too busy trying to survive. He had to quit school to help support his mother and younger siblings. He joined the Navy and then eventually got a job at Louisville's General Electric plant.

It wasn't until he was 39 and a young legislator in Frankfort in the 1970s that he fully realized what had happened to him. Burch was first elected to the legislature in 1972.

"I was driving up to Frankfort one day, and it just hit me. It just all popped in my head," Burch said.

He was angry and embarrassed.

"I was hugely teed off," he said. "For the longest time, I carried that anger with me."

The anger and empathy for victims of abuse pushed him to repeatedly sponsor legislation to protect children and women over the years.

In the late 1980s, Burch pushed a comprehensive sex education bill through the General Assembly. If he had known more about sexual abuse in his early teens, he may have been able to stop the abuse, he said.

In 1994, Burch helped sponsor bills that overhauled how sexual abuse was investigated and prosecuted.

And as longtime chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, Burch's fingerprints are on nearly every major piece of legislation dealing with child abuse over the past 30 years.

His experience with physical abuse by his father and sexual abuse by the priest gives him a perspective that few legislators have, he said.

"I've been able to affect legislation that protects both women and children," Burch said. "I think God wanted me here."

Burch said he has never wanted to sue the Catholic Church.

In response to questions from the Herald-Leader, the Archdiocese of Louisville released a statement saying that it could not release any information about alleged abuse without the permission of the victim.

Over the past decade, the archdiocese has stepped up its sexual abuse treatment and prevention efforts, the church said in its statement.

"Our prayers are with Representative Burch and his family," the statement said. "We encourage him to contact the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Louisville."

Burch said he did eventually go to counseling, which the Catholic Church paid for.

"There were seven people in the group," Burch said. "I knew five of the priests who had molested those people."

They were priests that he respected. "I would have bet my life on those guys," he said.

Most of the people in his therapy group were much younger than he was and experienced abuse in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"It happens to all socioeconomic levels," Burch said.

Burch said he eventually visited the grave of the priest who abused him and forgave him. And he realized that what happened to him was not his fault.

"It was like a cross was lifted off my shoulders because I was carrying his guilt," Burch said.

He still attends church and counts many priests, former priests and nuns as his friends. He said he never lost faith in God, but is a frequent critic of the church and many of its doctrines.

"I still have faith in the church," Burch said. "But not always the people who run it."

Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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