NORTH ANDOVER — It came without warning, a subconscious flash flood washing up images from a forgotten childhood. Painful details Kristen Merrill unwittingly suppressed for decades made their return. She thought she was dreaming.
The distinct wallpaper in the rectory kitchen. The green linoleum counter top and a red tin filled with cookies her grandmother made. Her yellow blouse.
And there stood the man she knew simply then as Father Paul, a popular priest at St. Michael Church who years later would marry her to a young Coast Guardsman.
But in this dream Father Paul drew uncomfortably close. Then he left the room as if nothing even happened. Merrill went to her therapist to describe the breakthrough in the making.
"He said, 'That wasn't a dream,'" said Merrill. "'That's a flashback.'"
"Everything started flooding back in all at once."
It took more than 30 years for Merrill, now 44, to realize what she and attorney Mitchell Garabedian believe to be the ugly truth: that the Rev. Paul Finegan sexually abused her as a young teenager in the late 1970s while she worked part-time at St. Michael Church.
Merrill said the abuse never went beyond kissing and fondling. But she said it occurred at least a dozen times while she was in the seventh and eighth grade at North Andover Middle School.
It began when she was 13 and lasted for a year and a half. She believes it helped launch her on a life path filled with even more abuse.
To Garabedian, who grew up in Methuen, Merrill is a hero, albeit one of more than 700 he's represented in the last decade and a half. Like so many of his clients, Garabedian said, Merrill is attempting to take hold of her pain by speaking out.
"She is protecting children, making the public aware of immoral activity, and being a voice in the wilderness for many sexual abuse victims," said Garabedian. "It takes heroes like Kristen to correct the moral compass (of the church)."
Finegan was assigned to St. Michael for 12 years beginning in 1975. He was defrocked in 2006 amid allegations of sexual abuse. Attempts to reach Finegan were unsuccessful. He did not answer the door at his Southern New Hampshire home.
But while Garabedian was spearheading the legal fight against alleged pedophile priests more than a decade ago — and in the process unravelling a scandal that continues to rock the Roman Catholic Church to this day — Merrill said all the headlines and outrage simply didn't register with her.
"I couldn't deal with it," said Merrill.
These days, for the first time, Merrill is dealing with it. She said she filed a police report implicating Finegan last year and is awaiting a decision on a claim with the Archdiocese that could award her upwards of $75,000.
Kelly Lynch, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said in an e-mail that the Archdiocese would not comment specifically on the allegations against Finegan or on Merrill's pending claim.
"Through the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach, the Archdiocese continues to reach out to those who have been harmed by the tragic reality of clergy sexual abuse in order to provide pastoral help and counseling services to survivors and their families," Lynch wrote. "For those who have been sexually abused by members of the clergy, the Archdiocese again apologizes for the suffering they have endured. We continue to hold them in our thoughts and prayers."
Garabedian said money will only serve as proof for Merrill that the church is at fault. He said the criminal statute of limitations regarding her allegations passed years ago.
Merrill said this is the first time she's told her entire story to anyone other than her therapist. And while sharing it won't result in criminal charges for Finegan, she said it just may be enough to help someone else battling similar demons.
"For me there's no closure and there can't be any," said Merrill. "I just want someone to know that if they can get a leg up and try to heal a little bit faster than I have, then go for it."
'From his lips to God's ears'
Merrill, whose maiden name is Warwick, said she and her twin sister Karen grew up at St. Michael. They were the youngest in what she described as a "typical North Andover family" that included older brother David Jr., father and insurance man David Sr., and mother Elaine, a nurse.
They all went to Mass every Sunday. Merrill's grandparents also worked at the church. Her grandfather was a maintenance worker and performed odd jobs while her mother cooked in the rectory.
Merrill went to Thomson Elementary School and then North Andover Middle School. At age 13, she began working at the church rectory, answering phones after school on Wednesdays and on Sundays.
One Wednesday, Merrill said she was doing homework in the kitchen by the phone when Finegan came downstairs. He entered the kitchen, looked out the window and took three of her grandmother's cookies from the tin on the counter before placing them on the table in front of her, she said.
Merrill said Finegan then put his hands on her shoulders before slipping them under her blouse.
"Like very nonchalant," said Merrill. "He leaned in and whispered, 'Doesn't that feel better?' Then he picked up his cookies and walked upstairs."
"I just sat there and cried," said Merrill.
No one was there to hear Merrill or ask her why she was upset. She remembers looking at the clock on the wall and trying to collect herself before her brother came to pick her up.
She never thought to tell anyone.
"Oh, God no," said Merrill. "I originally thought it was my fault."
Merrill said she went over it again and again in her head — maybe she was sitting the wrong way or had done something else to deserve what Finegan did to her?
She soon started doing her homework in other rooms of the rectory.
"But he would always find me, wherever I was," said Merrill.
Garabedian said Merrill's initial feelings of guilt are typical for victims of clergy abuse. Eventually, she said the questions and misplaced blame subsided, buried in the back of her mind.
Merrill said she never showed any outward signs of a problem. That would only trigger questions, she thought. And if she told what had happened, her grandmother would lose her job.
"No one could know," said Merrill. "And nobody would believe me. Who's going to believe me? A 13-year-old and a priest. Everything goes from his lips to God's ears."
'What I did, I did'
Garabedian said Merrill's story is far from unique. He said Finegan abused children both before and after she began working at the rectory in the late 1970s.
According to documents provided by Garabedian, Finegan was accused of sexually abusing two girls in 1980 by one of the victim's sister, according to an affidavit signed in July 2003. The allegations are eerily similar to those made by Merrill.
Paul J. Finegan, 65, was born in Lowell. He spent two years at Merrimack College before joining St. John's Seminary in the late 1960s, according to Garabedian's documents.
Finegan was ordained in 1970 and his first assignment was at St. Ann in Gloucester. Five years later he was reassigned to St. Michael, where he served from 1975 to 1987.
The Archdiocese's decision to transfer Finegan that year to St. Margaret in Lowell was controversial. Hundreds of parishioners signed a petition in hopes he would be allowed to stay. One called him a "priest's priest."
In a letter dated May 26, 1987, Cardinal Bernard Law officially reassigned Finegan, offering no reason other than that the move had been recommended by the Archdiocese Personnel Board.
Finegan went on to serve at St. Margaret for five years. He was transferred to St. Bernadette in Randolph in 1999. Then, on February 1, 2002, he abruptly resigned in a brief letter to Cardinal Law.
"What I did, I did," wrote Finegan. "I bear you no ill will."
'Why say anything?'
Merrill was the mother of two young boys and in the midst of her second marriage by the time the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted eight years ago.
Merrill said her memory is spotty when thinking back much further than that.
When she meets old high school friends, they'll mention classmates and she simply can't remember who they are. It's the same thing with her twin sister. Merrill said Karen once described to her a pair of matching dresses their grandmother sewed for them as children.
"I would rather remember that dress," said Merrill. "I want to remember something good about my life and not something horrible."
Merrill attributes the blank spaces to the abuse she endured at St. Michael. But she said Finegan was not the only person to take advantage of her when she was younger.
After graduating with the North Andover High School Class of 1983, Merrill, at her parents' suggestion, enrolled at St. Leo College, now Saint Leo University, in Florida.
The school was run by Franciscan monks. Hoping to become a museum curator one day, Merrill studied art management and nearly made the dean's list her freshman year.
But then as a sophomore, Merrill said, she was raped by a classmate. Once again, she never thought to tell anyone. Her grades suffered as a result, and by Christmas, she came home for good.
"Again, no one's going to believe me," said Merrill. "Why say anything?"
Not long after coming home, Merrill, then 19, met her first husband. They planned a wedding just months later, in October 1985. Merrill's mother insisted that Finegan preside over the ceremony.
She protested at first, but Merrill said it was no use arguing with her strong-willed mother.
Today, Merrill recalls as a teenager how Finegan would tell her that one day they'd get married, that he'd leave the church once she grew older and then it would be OK to kiss her and touch her.
"I think the manipulation is sometimes worse," said Merrill. "It's more the head games."
The newlyweds moved to California, but within two years she was home again and a divorce was in the works.
'It's like an open wound still'
Merrill said she always kept the pain on the inside. Over time, her long-time struggles with eating disorders grew worse and she began cutting herself. When the cutting got out of control two years ago is when she finally decided to enter therapy.
She was assigned to a therapist in Chelmsford and arrived with a smile on her face.
"I walked in the door and I said, 'I'm nuts and you need to help me,'" said Merrill. "Outside I'm fine. And on the inside I'm like watching the Twin Towers coming down."
With the help of her therapist, Merrill gradually began uncovering her past — two divorces and other failed relationships, and the abuse and pain she had been hiding from.
When it came time to talk about her first marriage, Merrill said it was the image of Finegan presiding over her wedding that brought the suppressed memories at St. Michael to the surface.
Garabedian said such epiphanies are not unusual for victims of sex abuse.
Late last year, he said, a man two weeks shy of his 80th birthday walked into his office and told Garabedian he had been molested by a priest when he was just 6 years old.
"He's been carrying it around for 74 years," said Garabedian.
Although she doesn't consider it a victory to uncover so much pain, Merrill said her therapist eventually convinced her last summer to contact Garabedian and go public with her story.
It's an ongoing healing process for Merrill, one she admits probably will never end.
The pain returns every time she hears or reads about the growing clergy sex scandal in Europe, and about new cases coming to light in the United States.
"It hurts when you see stuff like this going on," said Merrill. "It's like an open wound still, and it's just being opened again and again."
Merrill believes the extent of the problem is far worse than many are willing to acknowledge, both in Europe and America. Looking back, she said no one should feel the way she did for so long.
"That's absolutely wrong," said Merrill. "And I think that hurts more than anything."