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Toledo diocese orders limit on victim therapy

By DAVID YONKE - Toledo Blade
September 4, 2003

The local chapter of a national organization protested yesterday a new policy imposed by the Toledo diocese that limits the number of counseling sessions it will provide for sex-abuse victims unless an outside panel approves an extension.

"This is just another hoop for victims to jump through," said Claudia Vercellotti, co-coordinator of the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a news conference outside the downtown Catholic Center. "The diocese is holding itself out as an HMO."

She said only the victim's therapist is qualified to determine how long counseling should continue. "Victims cannot be put on a timeline to be healed," Ms. Vercellotti said.

The policy, detailed in letters mailed to about 15 local therapists July 16 and Aug. 29, sets a 25-session cap on each victim's treatment. Diocesan case manager Frank DiLallo said in the letters therapists must submit "progress letters" and "treatment plans" stating why more sessions are necessary before the diocese could authorize further payment.

Victims would be required to sign an agreement allowing their counselors to release the information, which then would be reviewed by an independent clinical advisory panel. That three-person panel of psychological experts is being formed, Mr. DiLallo said yesterday, contacted after SNAP's protest.

The progress letters will go directly to the independent panel and no diocesan officials will see them, Mr. DiLallo said.

That provision, however, did not assuage SNAP leaders.

"Victims are scared their confidentiality will be compromised," Ms. Vercellotti said.

Jon Schoonmaker, a Toledo SNAP co-coordinator, called the new policy "an absolute violation of my privacy."

Some victims are concerned that privileged information shared with therapists during counseling sessions could be revealed to the panel and possibly used against them by the diocese when a lawsuit comes to trial, Ms. Vercellotti said.

She said SNAP is urging victims not to sign the releases and said her organization has filed a complaint with the state board overseeing licensed therapists.

Ms. Vercellotti said the new policy goes against the spirit of the Dallas Charter, adopted by the U.S. bishops last year, which pledges to work toward regaining victims' trust.

"The first obligation of the church with regard to the victims," the charter states, "is for healing and reconciliation." It orders dioceses "to make a sincere commitment to [victims'] spiritual and emotional well-being," including making provision for counseling. It makes no reference to the number of sessions allowed.

Mr. DiLallo said the policy is modeled after one put in place by the Chicago archdiocese and recommended by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. He said that under the diocese's previous "open-ended" policy, some victims have undergone hundreds of counseling sessions.

Finances were not a factor in the policy, Mr. DiLallo said, adding that "this is not about the diocese's pocketbook."

The procedure is intended "to assure healing," he said, by having independent experts provide an objective opinion on the progress of each victim's therapy.

David Clohessy, national president of SNAP, said such limits are unrealistic.

"Any reputable independent therapist would scoff at the notion that any molestation victim can be healed in 25 sessions," Mr. Clohessy said yesterday. "If we have learned anything in the last year and a half, we have learned that the wounds are deep and long-lasting and that there is no quick fix for this kind of horrific betrayal."

Mr. DiLallo said he did not have an updated figure on how much the Toledo diocese has spent on counseling for victims and their families.

The latest figure was provided by the late Bishop James Hoffman in October when he said the diocese had spent nearly $470,000 on settlements, pastoral care, and legal fees between Jan. 1, 1981, and June 30, 2002. About one-third of that was for counseling expenses, the diocese said.

Thirteen sex-abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Toledo diocese since the national scandal broke in Boston in January, 2001, and are pending in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

Since May, 2002, six Toledo diocesan priests have been removed from ministry over allegations of sexual abuse involving minors; one was subsequently reinstated.

Three priests remain on leaves of absence pending investigations.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests