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Tom Economus, 46; Critic of Church

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.


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