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National Advocacy Group Helps Victims 'Break Their Silence'

The network, which has grown since the church scandal broke, helps those abused by priests share their pain and take the next step.

February 22, 2003

By Larry B. Stammer
LA Times Staff Writer

It is early evening and, as happens every week in the small second-floor office, the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church is about to take on a human face.

Among those filing in on a recent night are a financial advisor, an aircraft mechanic, a registered nurse and a retired Catholic school teacher on disability. They have one thing in common. All of them say they were molested by priests when they were children or adolescents.

Brought together by a nationwide victims' advocacy group, they are about to share stories with one another and a visiting reporter.

Groups such as this one have been formed across the country by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. The group was founded in 1988 but has gained most of its prominence, and many of its members, as a result of the scandal that has roiled the church for the last year and a half. Two years ago, the group had nine chapters nationally; now it has 44 chapters and claims 4,500 members.

The organization is best known publicly for its news conferences, testimony before state legislatures, and confrontations with the nation's Catholic bishops. But among those who have been victims of sexual abuse, the private side of the organization -- the support groups -- are the main draw.

"The groups are where most victims, for the very first time, meet other victims. It's where they break their silence," said David Clohessy, the group's national director. "They are what gives victims the strength and courage to take those crucial next steps: going to the diocese, police, prosecutors, civil attorneys, legislators and journalists."

"This is the very heart of [the group] itself," said Mary Grant, the group's western states director. "This is where we could talk to someone who understood our vocabulary of pain."

*

The 10 people are seated in as much of a circle as the rectangular office allows. There is an awkward silence after the leader invites someone to speak. But soon, the stories -- sometimes raw and disturbing, sometimes hopeful -- well up.

Francisco Malo, 31, an aircraft mechanic, is a veteran of Desert Storm. He says he was abused as a 14-year-old at St. Joseph's Church in Hawthorne by a priest who has since died.

"I was an altar boy, and he was really fond of altar boys. He'd invite a handful of us up to his room," Malo tells the other members of the group.

"I guess he'd tempt us up there with M&Ms. He'd have this big thing of M&Ms. This big gun collection. He also had a big liquor cabinet on the side of the wall. He'd invite us up there, separate us in his rooms. He had three bedrooms. He'd molest ... me in the bedroom. When it wasn't in the rectory, it would be as we were dressing up in our altar boy [vestments] in the sacristy, right behind the altar.

"I remember he'd always tell us not to ever say anything because, A, my parents would stop loving me; B, God would stop loving me; and, C, he would kick us out of the school, me and my brother, because he was paying for our tuition and my parents couldn't afford the tuition.

"I guess the only reason I came out, well about a year ago ... this whole thing in Boston was happening, I had kept it in 17 years. I never told anyone."

Psychiatrist Visits

Armida, 39, was abused when she was 16 or 17 years old. She has long black hair. She's wearing a black sweater with red teddy bears and hearts.

"I see the psychiatrist once every three or four months, and I stroll in yesterday thinking: 'I've got great news. I've lost 11 pounds. I'm going to a gym regularly. Life's great.' Doctor says: 'You look wonderful, you look happy; tell me about your life.' Work's great. Kids are great. Social life. Friends. No love life, but that's OK. I'm all right with that.

"And I'm trying to feel real good about myself. I'm starting to think, 'Wow, I'm going to pass with flying colors here and I'm going to walk. See ya later doc. See you in three or four months.' "

"Then he throws me that ... curveball: 'So what's going on with this church thing?' Swoosh! I got thrown through the glass."

She pauses and composes herself. "And I hate the doctor for asking me, almost. Simply that question, it shouldn't provoke so much of a reaction from me. I grabbed the tissue box because the tears start coming. He tries to calm me down and tells me: 'Let's not let your progress go down the toilet. Just hang in there. Just hold on, and you'll be OK,' and all that.

"It would mean so much to me to have any perpetrator just admit that what they did was wrong. It doesn't wipe away all the pain. It doesn't take away or lessen the wrongdoing, but at least it's an acknowledgment so you feel some kind of vindication. But it's me against him. He's saying he didn't do it. He looks good to everybody else, but I know exactly what he is."

Blaming Herself

Mary Ferrell speaks. She has long, straight, graying hair. She's 55, and a registered nurse.

She was 7 or 8 when she was molested by a priest who has since died. A civil claim has been filed. She said she knows she shouldn't blame herself. But she still feels shame.

"We somehow realized that what happened was wrong, and we were there. It makes you complicit. And because it is the priest, the reverend, the most highly thought of person in the church, and you're a kid, you must have screwed up. But the shame is still there, to a lessening degree, being here talking about it. Just the shame over what happened, over recalling it, it is still very distasteful.

"I've known all my life what happened, but I thought I had dealt with it until ... I started having panic attacks, a myriad of things, and this last year....

"Sometimes I wish I didn't have this level of discovery, but it gives you kind of a commitment once you've come forward, to help others. That's why I came forward.

"I just wanted you to know where it affects still, definitely, my life. I have no sense of trust in almost anyone. I'd like that to be different, but so far it's not."

Friend of the Family

Lee Bashforth, 33, is a financial planner, married, with no children. He was 7 when he was first molested, he says.

The priest who allegedly molested him, who is now under criminal investigation, had been a friend of the family.

"I can't drive in a car without it coming back to me. He often abused me when we were in the car and also taught me how to drive, so that's something that there's a big connection there. Something we all take for granted like driving a car is something that can be really uncomfortable.

"I have my good days and my bad days like everybody else. I suffer from panic attacks pretty regularly. Lately, I've been having a lot of nightmares, waking up at night and yelling.

"A close friend of mine from high school told me just yesterday that he asked his girlfriend to marry him. It wasn't long after the initial announcement that it set in that his girlfriend is a devout Catholic, and that wedding is going to be in a Catholic church. I have a wedding coming up that my wife and I are invited to. We can't attend the wedding together because I can't physically go into the church."


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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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