Victims' Group Uses Spotlight to Seek
Changes in Law
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN, THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 10,
For more than 10 years, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by
Priests was little more than a loose support group of men and women
who gathered in one another's homes to share tears, traumatic memories
and legal advice.
Their stories rarely made it beyond their living rooms, and members
say they grew used to being ignored or rebuffed by the Roman Catholic
Church, the news media and in many cases even their friends and
All that changed when the sexual abuse scandal engulfed the church,
giving the organization, known as SNAP, a news media platform it
had never known. Now SNAP is trying to channel the attention and
outrage into a lobbying effort to change the nation's laws on child
In 21 cities in the United States and Canada yesterday, members
of SNAP stood at the chancery doors of 21 Roman Catholic dioceses
and urged bishops to push for legislation to make it harder for
abusers to escape prosecution.
For years SNAP has looked to the bishops to stop abusive priests.
Group members picketed churches and the hotels where the bishops
held meetings. They petitioned for face-to-face sessions.
Now they are no longer looking to the church for the change, said
Phil Saviano, director of SNAP's New England chapter. "We are
putting our faith in the legislators and the prosecutors,"
Mr. Saviano said.
The group wants the bishops to join in lobbying for legislation
to make it mandatory for clergy members to report suspected abuse.
It also wants the bishops to help eliminate or extend statutes of
limitations that in many states have protected the church and its
priests from prosecution for abuses of years ago.
"It's time for action, not words," said Daniel Dugo,
outside the chancery of the Archdiocese of Brooklyn. Mr. Dugo said
he had been victimized by a priest at a church in Greenpoint. "If
they are serious about protecting children then they should join
us in this effort."
Standing in a light rain outside the gates of the Archdiocese of
Washington, Lee White of Arlington, Va., said he had been sexually
abused at 14 by his parish priest in Newport, R.I.
"The psychology of the abuse is such that the damage is not
realized until later in life," Mr. White said. "In Rhode
Island, the church lobbied against extending the statute of limitations
for these cases. If they can lobby against it, they can lobby for
The nation's Catholic bishops are to meet in June in Dallas and
are expected to try to hammer out a policy on child sexual abuse
that all of them would be required to follow. Yesterday, SNAP said
that until the laws could be changed, bishops should agree to "stop
hiding behind" statutes of limitations and other laws that
protect abusers, open their files on abusive priests to prosecutors
and lift the confidentiality agreements silencing victims who have
reached settlements with dioceses.
But some SNAP members said they had stopped expecting any significant
progress from the bishops.
"A national policy would be helpful, but I don't have a lot
of confidence that they're going to be able to reach a national
policy any time soon, and who knows what the provisions will be
and how effective they'll be," said Mr. Saviano, the SNAP organizer
in New England. "Certainly the bishops have known this is a
problem since 1985, and so many years have gone by and it seems
that they're still grappling with the basic elements."
Last week, after meeting with SNAP members, Cardinal Francis E.
George of Chicago said he would agree to support extending the statute
of limitations on child sexual abuse cases if the change applied
to all abusers, not just priests.
Yesterday, SNAP members tried to deliver letters at the 21 chancery
offices asking the bishops to join Cardinal George in pushing for
legal remedies. David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, said group
members in St. Louis handed their letter directly to Archbishop
Justin F. Rigali, who said he would consider the demands.
In Washington, SNAP members gave their letter to a receptionist
because Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick was out of town. In Worcester,
Mass., the group presented its letter to the vicar who heads the
pastoral care committee.
In Brooklyn, the locked chancery doors had a placard saying "Holy
Day Closed." Yesterday was Ascension Day, which commemorates
Jesus' return to heaven 40 days after his resurrection.
Until now, few priests accused of child abuse have been charged
with crimes, often because the cases fell outside the statutes of
limitations. Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer, said that among the
1,200 priests she says have been accused of sexual abuse against
minors, only 120 have faced criminal charges, and fewer than 80
served time in prison.
The abuse scandal has already prompted some legislatures to close
the legal loopholes that allow offenders to avoid prosecution.
The Connecticut Legislature passed a bill this week extending the
statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes against children.
The bill would also outlaw confidential out-of-court settlements
that forbid victims to speak to the police. But the State Senate
struck down a provision that would have required clergy members
to report accusations, because some Catholic lawmakers said it would
have obligated priests to violate the secrecy of the confessional.
In Massachusetts, however, the governor signed just such a mandatory
reporting provision into law last week after four years of controversy.
Nassau County in New York voted last week to require religious groups
to report accusations of abuse to the authorities. In Albany, state
legislators are considering doing the same.
Meanwhile, SNAP organizers, all volunteers, say their phone lines
are jammed with calls from victims. The group has no office and
no paid staff.
Mr. Saviano said he first contacted SNAP for help five years ago.
Now he says he has no time for his job as a technical writer because
he spends 10 hours a day on the phone with victims and the news
Last week's meeting of the New England chapter, at a library in
Natick, Mass., drew 25 people, Mr. Saviano said. He said they were
considering splitting the group. It has too many people, he said,
to really serve as a support group for victims.
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