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Focus of Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis Should Remain on the Victims

By Peter E. Hutchins, Esq.
July 2, 2003

Much has been written and said over the past few months about the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church by columnists, commentators, lay Catholics and leaders of various local and national organizations promoting change in the Roman Catholic Church and its governance. Some of these comments have been constructive and helpful, others, perhaps inadvertently, self-serving and hurtful. All of this has led me to write this piece to urge my fellow Catholics, lay and clergy, to keep the focus of this continuing crisis where it belongs: The healing and vindication of the victim survivors of clergy abuse.

During the past year, I have had the honor and privilege of meeting and representing over 100 victims of clergy sexual abuse in New Hampshire. These people come from all walks of life, and like us, are sons, daughters, fathers and mothers. They are brothers, sisters, neighbors, fellow classmates and co-workers. While some remain religious, most have
lost their faith. Many are undergoing extensive psychotherapy and counseling, while others are struggling to cope with their painful memories alone. A few are suicidal, some very angry, and others simply searching for the answer to the question "why me?" Many have suffered addictions, underemployment, loss of educational opportunity, failed
relationships, intimacy problems, rejection of authority and, perhaps most devastating, a loss of faith and spirituality. Most, fortunately not all, of these people have endured decades of guilt, humiliation, and complete loss of self-esteem. They have carried a dreadful secret within them for years, afraid to tell even their loved ones for fear of how they would react.

The victimization and trauma they suffered as children is something they desperately hoped to avoid revisiting as an adult. They have tried to suppress or "forget" the memories. While some have succeeded, most have not. With the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston hitting the front pages and nightly news in 2001, to be followed shortly by the New Hampshire scandal in 2002, any success they previously had in keeping these
memories buried came to a quick and decisive end. They were forced, through no fault of their own, to confront their demons or else be destroyed by them once and for all.

For many, the simple act of coming forward with other victims during the past year to make their voices heard was the first time in their lives they were able to try to take control of a past that had been controlling them since childhood. They were finally able to fight back - to seek validation and vindication. For the first time, many have come to
realize that the sexual abuse they suffered was not their fault. They were children, and were subjected to the criminal conduct of depraved adults and the institutions that harbored them. At long last, while not able to erase the memory or change the past, they had a chance to expunge the feelings of guilt, humiliation and rejection that had tormented
them throughout their adult lives.

These 100 people are the most courageous clients I have ever represented in 20 years as a lawyer. They have given my vocation meaning, and have changed my life forever. They need and deserve all of our support and respect. While their suffering continues to serve as a catalyst for many positive reforms, we must not and cannot forget that the focus of
our efforts, work and prayers should be these victims.

The victims of clergy sex abuse could be your children, siblings or spouses. In most cases, you wouldn't know it if they were. Through their suffering, and now their courage and conviction, our churches and schools will be safer places for our children and grandchildren. That is a good thing. But when the acute "crisis" facing the church and some parochial schools eventually abates in the coming years and fades from the
media, the victims of clergy sex abuse, who made the positive reforms possible, will still be among us. Hopefully, most will have healed to a significant degree, or at least will have learned to better cope with their past and take control of their own future. Some, unfortunately, will never heal. All, it is my sincere hope, will have contributed to a
change in society; one in which it is not a bad thing to be a victim, only to be victimized.

With that in mind, I urge you to continue to offer your help and support. I would ask that you try to understand the suffering of these people, and their efforts to confront their pasts. If you see a protester carrying a picture of a child victim, perhaps one who has committed suicide, please don't shy away. If you hear a victim's story in the press, please don't conclude that you've heard enough, and wish the issue would simply go away so your life can go on without being reminded of the pain of others. Please don't begrudge the small financial settlements some victims may receive as part of an effort to compensate them for a lifetime of silent suffering. The victims, and often their parents, are simply trying in their own way to shed the label of "victim," and become survivors of heinous criminal acts that robbed them of their childhoods and haunted their adult lives. While their pain is common, their needs, fears and hopes are individual. While hearing the stories in the
press may be "unpleasant" to some of us, let's not forget that these people - through absolutely no fault of their own- have lived the horror every day of their lives.

This crisis has presented us all with an opportunity to act on our Christian beliefs, and to reach out to people, whose backgrounds are virtually identical to ours, and help make a difference in their lives. Please don't miss this opportunity, and let us never forget, when we see or hear from a victim / survivor of clergy sexual abuse, the fitting adage: There, but for the Grace of God go I.

Peter Hutchins is an attorney in Manchester, New Hampshire and former President of the New Hampshire Bar Association.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests