Survivors Network of
those Abused by Priests
to do when your priest is accused of abuse
1) Remain open-minded.
The natural human instinct is to recoil from alleged horror, and to immediately
assume that the allegations are false. But the overwhelming majority of
abuse disclosures prove to be true.
In every case, the proper and Christian response is to remain open-minded.
2) Pray for all parties involved.
Every person involved deserves and needs prayerful support.
3) Let yourself feel whatever emotions arise.
You may feel angry, betrayed, confused, hurt, worried and sad. These are
all natural, "typical" responses to an allegation of sexual
abuse. None of these feelings are inappropriate or "bad." Don't
"kick yourself" for feeling any of these emotions.
4) Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common.
It's far more widespread than any of us would like to believe. Experts
estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 9 boys will be molested in their lifetimes.
5) Don't try to "guess" or figure out who the accuser is.
Abuse victims, like rape victims, need their privacy to recover from their
trauma. Openly speculating about who is alleging abuse is essentially
gossiping, and helps to create a hostile climate that will keep other
victims (even those abused by non-clerical perpetrators) from coming forward.
6) If you do know the victim(s), protect his/her confidentiality.
There are many good reasons why abuse victims are unable to publicly come
forward. Often, the person wants to keep his/her elderly parents or young
children from suffering too. Don't compound the pain he/she is in by disclosing
his/her identity to others.
7) Understand that abuse victims often have "troubled" backgrounds
(i.e. drug or alcohol problems, criminal backgrounds, etc.)
Instead of undermining the credibility of accusers, these difficulties
actually enhance their credibility. (When someone is physically hurt,
there are almost always clear signs of harm; so too with sexual abuse.
The harm is reflected largely in self-destructive behaviors. One might
be skeptical of a person who claimed to have been run over by a truck
but showed no bodily injury. Similarly, one might be skeptical of an alleged
molestation victim who always acted like a "model citizen.")
8) Don't allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers.
Stress to your fellow parishioners that there are many good reasons why
abuse victims disclose their victimization years after the crime. In most
instances, victims come forward when they are emotionally able to do so,
and feel capable of risking disbelief and rejection from precious loved
ones, including family members, church leaders, other authorities, and
fellow Catholics. Sometimes, they are psychologically able to do so only
after their perpetrator has died, moved or been accused by someone else.
Sometimes, they have been assured that their perpetrator would never be
around kids again, but have learned that this isn't the case.
(In other cases, it takes years before victims are able to understand
and/or acknowledge to themselves that they have been sexually violated.
This is a common defense mechanism.)
9) Ask your family members and friends if they were victimized.
Many times, abuse victims will continue to "keep the secret"
unless specifically invited to disclose their victimization by someone
they love and trust. Even raising this topic can be very uncomfortable.
But it must be done. It may be very awkward and your family members may
even act resentful at first. But soon they will remember that you really
care about them, and will see your question as a sign of that care.
10) Mention the accusation to former parishioners and parish staff
now living elsewhere.
They may have information that could prove the guilt or innocence
of the priest facing allegations. This is especially important because
sometimes abuse victims or their families move away after experiencing
11) Contact the police or prosecutors.
It's your duty as a citizen to call the proper civil authorities if you
have any information (even if it's "second hand" or vague) that
might help prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. It's your duty
as a Christian to help seek justice and protect others from harm. Remember:
abuse thrives in secrecy. Exposing a physical wound to fresh air, clean
water and sunlight can be healing. Exposing sexual crimes is also ultimately
healing. And remember that police and prosecutors are unbiased professionals
with the skills and experience needed to ascertain whether an allegation
is true or false.
12) Don't allow other parishioners to make disparaging comments about
those making the allegation.
Remember, the sexual abuse of children has terribly damaging effects.
As a Christian, you want to help prevent such victimization. And you want
anyone who is in pain to get help as soon as possible. Critical comments
about those who make allegations only discourage others who may have been
hurt. Such remarks prevent those who need help from reaching out and getting
it. Show your compassion for abuse victims. Tell your fellow parishioners
that hurtful comments are inappropriate. Remind them that they can defend
their priest without attacking his accuser.
13) Educate yourself and your family about sexual abuse.
There are many excellent books and resources on the subject. There are
also good books specifically about molestation by clerics (Jason Berry's
Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Frank Bruni & Elinor Burkett's Gospel
of Shame, and the Boston Globe's Betrayal). Check out the web site for
clergy abuse victims: SNAPnetwork.org
14) Support the accused priest PRIVATELY.
Calls, visits, letters, gifts, and prayers - all of these are appropriate
ways to express your love and concern for the accused priest. Public displays
of support, however, are not. They only intimidate others into keeping
silent. In fact, it is terribly hurtful to victims to see parishioners
openly rallying behind an accused priest. You may want to publicly defend
a priest, collect funds for the priest's defense, and take similar steps.
Please don't. Express your appreciation of the priest in a direct, quiet
ways. Even if the priest is innocent, somewhere in the parish is a young
girl being molested by a relative or a boy being abused by his coach or
youth leader. If these children see adults they love and respect publicly
rallying around accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report
their own victimization to their parents, the police, or other authorities.
They will be scared into remaining silent, and their horrific pain will
15) Don't be blinded by the pain you can see.
The trauma of the accused priest, and those who care about him, is obvious.
You can usually see it in his face, his posture, and his actions. But
please try to keep in mind the trauma of the accuser too. Because you
rarely see his/her pain directly, it's important to try and imagine it.
This helps you keep a balanced perspective.
16) Try to put yourself in the shoes of the alleged victim.
It's easy to identify with the priest. Most Catholics have met dozens
of priests and know them as warm and wonderful individuals. On the other
hand, few Catholics have met clergy abuse survivors. In the gospels, Jesus
calls us to identify with the hurting, the vulnerable, and the innocent,
the hurting. Try, as best you can, to imagine the shame, self-blame, confusion
and fear that afflict men and women who have been victimized by trusted
religious authority figures.
17) Use this painful time as an opportunity to protect your own family.
Talk with your children about "safe touch," the private parts
of their bodies, who is allowed to touch those parts, what to do if someone
else tries, and who to tell. Urge your sons and daughters to have similar
conversations with your grandchildren.
18) Turn your pain into helpful action.
In times of stress and trauma, doing something constructive can be very
beneficial. Volunteer your time or donate your funds to organizations
that help abused kids or work to stop molestation.
19) Keep in mind the fundamental choice you face.
On the one hand, at stake are the FEELINGS of a grown up. On the other
hand, at stake is the PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, SPIRITUAL AND
SEXUAL SAFETY of potentially many children. If one has to err in either
direction, the prudent and moral choice is to always err on the side of
protecting those who can't protect themselves: children. Remember too
that it's easier for an adult to repair his reputation than for a child
(or many children) to repair his/her psyche and life. Another way to look
at this: Being falsely accused of abuse is horrific. But actually being
abused, then being attacked or disbelieved is far worse.
20) Ask your pastor to bring in an outside expert or a therapist who
can lead a balanced discussion about sexual abuse.
Therapists understand and can answer the questions you and your fellow
parishioners are facing, and help you deal with the emotional impact of
this trauma too.
21) Urge your bishop, pastor and other diocesan or parish employees
these guidelines too.
For more information:
SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
David Clohessy 314 645 5915, 314 566 9790 cell, SNAPclohessy@aol.com
Barbara Dorris 314 862 7688, SNAPdorris@gmail.com