The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
SNAP Press Release
For immediate release: Thursday, Nov. 12
For more information: David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP National Director (314) 566 9790 cell, Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP Outreach Director (314) 862 7688
Clergy sex abuse victims seek bishop's help
They want him to “reign in” backers of accused priest
A group of clergy sex abuse victims is asking Superior’s Catholic bishop to ‘reign in’ supporters of a recently suspended priest who fathered a child and is accused of molesting a girl.
The organization, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is writing Bishop Peter Christensen about Fr. Henry Willenborg, who was ousted last month as pastor of Our Lady of the Lake parish in Ashland, Wisconsin. Christensen removed Willenborg after the New York Times reported Willenborg had had a long term sexual relationship with a woman who sought counseling from him. Willenborg fathered a child by her, after having urged her to have an abortion, and then essentially ignored that child for years.
The boy, now 22, is gravely ill with cancer. His mother was also recently diagnosed with cancer. The Times said that Willenborg’s church supervisors have been “tight-fisted” with payments for the boy’s upbringing but also prodded her to sign a “gag order” to keep quiet about the priest’s sexual misconduct.
In response to the news coverage, SNAP says that some of Willenborg’s parishioners, SNAP says, have “downplayed or mischaracterized his actions and suggested partial guilt or improper motives by the woman he sexually exploited” on blogs, in letters to newspapers and other media reports.
Those remarks, the group feels, “will discourage others who have been molested or sexually exploited from coming forward, speaking up, getting help, calling police, exposing predators, getting help, protecting others, and beginning to heal.”
“Willenborg’s vocal backers are clearly in pain and we sympathize with them,” said Barbara Dorris of SNAP. “But they can and should support their priest in ways that don’t intimidate victims and witnesses.”
Right now, Dorris said, one or two teenagers in Willenborg’s parish are likely being molested by their fathers, teachers or coaches.
“Those kids are pondering whether they should speak up,” she argued, “but may well opt to stay silent because they’ve seen adults at church immediately and vehemently rally around an accused predator.”
“We believe you have a duty to help teach your flock about the appropriate ways to respond when a priest is accused,” said SNAP’s letter. The way Catholics react to such allegations, SNAP says, “either exacerbates or ameliorates the pain of those who’ve been wounded.”
The self help group has on its website a guide for Catholics entitled “What to do when your priest is accused.” It gives 21 suggestions for ways parishioners can support an accused cleric without hurting kids or adults.
SNAP’s letter, sent today by fax and e mail, is below:
Dear Bishop Christensen:
Our hearts ache for the Pat Bond, who was exploited by Fr. Henry Willenborg, and their son, Nathan, whom he continues to neglect. Nathan is gravely ill with cancer, and Pat has been recently diagnosed with cancer as well. Willenborg’s supervisors have been tight-fisted with Nathan’s upbringing. But we especially worry about them because some of Willenborg’s parishioners have downplayed or mischaracterized his actions and suggested partial guilt or improper motives by the woman he sexually exploited.
We in SNAP have heard from hundreds of women who were sexually exploited by priests when they were vulnerable but technically, in the eyes of the law, above the age of consent. These "relationships" can never truly be "consensual."
A highly educated, allegedly celibate man who holds the revered title Catholic priest cannot ever have truly equal, healthy sex (whether once or repeatedly) with a congregant.
There is an inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It is much like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship, where any sexual contact is expressly forbidden. And for good reason: because it almost always results in devastation, with individuals and with congregations. It's the duty of church officials to help congregants understand this, instead of concealing this abuse and minimizing its damage.
This is especially true in Catholicism. Catholics have been raised since birth to believe priests are God's representatives on earth, can forgive our sins, can turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Priests always hold an exalted position, and when they have any sexual involvement with parishioners, it is always morally wrong and psychologically harmful.
But in any religious setting, there is an inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It's the clergy's obligation to honor this and refrain from misusing their power and authority and exploiting a parishioner's trust and vulnerability.
Again, it is the responsibility of church officials to help congregants understand this.
We believe you have another duty: to help teach your flock about the appropriate ways to respond when a priest is accused. The way Catholics react to such allegations either exacerbates or ameliorates the pain of those who’ve been wounded. Teach them that harsh public comments about victims and alleged victims will discourage others who have been molested or sexually exploited from coming forward, speaking up, getting help, calling police, exposing predators, protecting others, and beginning to heal.
(We have on our website, SNAPnetwork.org, 21 suggestions for ways congregants can help support an accused cleric while not hurting vulnerable kids or already wounded adults.)
You have considerable resources: a diocesan web site, a diocesan newspaper, dozens of weekly parish bulletins and employees and volunteers. Use these resources to create and foster a healthy climate that welcomes, not punishes, those who report clergy sex crimes. To passively sit back, and let others spread scurrilous rumors or malign victims or accusers, is to essentially endorse such unChristian behavior.
Bishop Christensen, as you must already know, it takes tremendous courage for a survivor of sex abuse to come forward. They do not need to be re-victimized and re-abused by anyone. This family (and all abuse victims) have been through enough.
Please make another trip to Willenborg’s parish. Please reign in some of his backers who have downplayed or mischaracterized his actions and suggested partial guilt or improper motives by the women he sexually exploited on blogs, in letters to newspapers and other media reports.
We believe you have a duty to help teach your flock about the appropriate ways to respond when a priest is accused. Please take action now.
David Clohessy, National Director, SNAP, 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis, MO 63143 (314 566 9790)
Barbara Blaine, President, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, PO Box 6416, Chicago IL 60680 (312 399 4747)
Barbara Dorris, Outreach Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, 6245 Westminster, St. Louis MO 63130 ( 314 862 7688)
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests