March 26, 2007 12:00 PM

It was just like the old days. TV news anchor Thomas Roberts was back home in Maryland in the fall of 2004 when he and big sister Patsy jumped in the car to pick up pizza for dinner. But after some banter about their high school days, the conversation turned serious that afternoon. Thomas pulled the car to the side of the road and started crying. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he told Patsy.

Mustering his courage, Roberts revealed a truth he had held secret for nearly two decades. Over a period of three years, he told his sister, he had been sexually abused by the chaplain of his Roman Catholic high school, a man whose counsel he had sought during his parents’ divorce. “I thought I’d go to my grave with this secret,” he says today, still visibly shaken by the memories. In 2005 Roberts, now 34 and an anchor for CNN Headline News, pressed criminal charges against his abuser, Rev. Jerome Toohey Jr., who pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse and served 10 months in prison. Today Roberts is telling the world in a broadcast with CNN’s Anderson Cooper titled Sins of the Father (the show will air again March 19; CNN and PEOPLE are owned by parent company Time Warner). “What happened to me was a selfish and disgusting thing to do to a kid,” says Roberts.

Why did Roberts, a successful journalist now in a long-term relationship with another man, wait so long to reveal his sexual abuse? As his case illustrates, though the church sex scandal no longer makes headlines, it is far from over. So many new victims have come forward that nearly a dozen states are crafting new legislation to help them find justice. In 2003 California declared a onetime-only suspension of its 10-year statute of limitations for civil sex abuse cases—and 800 victims, many of them middle-aged, sued alleged abusers. In Maryland, where a victim of childhood abuse must sue before turning 25, a similar proposal is pending. Says Richard Loewenstein, a trauma psychiatrist at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health System: “It can take years for people to sort out what’s been done to them.”

Roberts knows all too well. Growing up in an upper-middle-class Catholic family, he was an altar boy and attended a parochial school. When his mother, Michelle, introduced him to Toohey, known as Father Jeff, the priest’s charisma wowed him. “He was like a religious celebrity,” recalls Roberts. With Toohey’s help, Roberts landed a spot at Calvert Hall College High School, a Baltimore boys’ school that had already once refused him. When Michelle and her husband, Rob, divorced in 1987, Michelle again suggested her son, troubled by the news, seek Father Jeff’s help. “Tell Tommy to pack a bag and a toothbrush,” Roberts recalls the priest telling his mom before their first meeting at Toohey’s home. Thomas, then 14, tearfully opened up about his home life. As bedtime neared, Roberts recalls the priest saying, “You can stay in the guest room—or some people like to stay here with me.”

Roberts opted for the guest room. But on subsequent visits he ended up in the priest’s bed. “It was very methodical,” recalls Roberts of the priest’s gradual advances (see box). “He tested the boundaries.” After the abuse began, Thomas didn’t know where to turn. “No one is going to believe a 14-year-old kid over Father Jeff,” he recalls thinking. “So I decided, ‘This has got to end.'” On Nov. 1, 1987, he swallowed a bottle of his mom’s muscle relaxants. “I just wanted to fade away,” he says. His sister Patsy found Roberts and called a paramedic for help. Toohey comforted the boy—and molested him for another two years.

Nearly 15 years passed before Roberts, with support from a therapist, finally told his family about the abuse; he then reported it to the Baltimore archdiocese in June 2005. In court, Toohey apologized to the Roberts family, but the words came too late for Michelle. “I entrusted my children with you,” she recalls telling him. Roberts, however, is eager to move on. “I feel like I’ve walked through a ring of fire,” says the broadcaster, an avid skier who lives with his partner in Atlanta. “Being on this side feels so much better.”

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