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For victims of abuse by clergy, secrecy can be 'toxic'

by Sara Stefanini, Staff Writer
The Gazette, Maryland

July 6, 2005

Although she wasn't sure what the response would be, Elizabeth Eisenhaur felt an obligation to start a support group for survivors of clergy abuse.

As the group reaches its one-year anniversary this month, Eisenhaur says the demand for such a group is "definitely" there.

"Sure there's a need," agrees Wayne Dorough, who co-chairs the meetings with Eisenhaur. "If there's just one person [at the meeting], there's a need."

Attendance at the meetings has gone up and down, they say. A few times no one has shown up, other times they have had as many as eight. Some visitors come back for more meetings, others come only once.

The challenge with drawing people to the meetings is that "the constituency who we are appealing to is one that has been hurt," says Mark Serrano, a member of one of the sponsoring groups, who also runs his own support group in Virginia. "These people need incentive to come forward."

Still, the response has been enough to make the group's sponsors reserve the room in Gaithersburg library for another year.

The support group is co-sponsored by the county chapter of Voice of the Faithful and the Washington regional chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, two nonprofits dedicated to supporting abuse victims.

Eisenhaur, a VOTF member, and Dorough, a SNAP member, lead the discussion, though both say they prefer to keep quiet, listen, and let visitors talk.

At first, the support meetings were based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, which focuses on self-help and anonymity.

The sponsors have since found that it's better not to ask questions and to let visitors talk freely and take the conversation wherever they want it to go, said Eisenhaur, of Rockville.

The group still maintains a "subtle application" of the 12-step program, she added, and continues to guarantee the anonymity.

The group refers to people who have been abused as "survivors," instead of "victims," because, "It has a more positive approach," Eisenhaur said.

Because they often have recurring "crises of emotions," the word "seems to give them a strength of identity, that they're moving forward."

But the group doesn't pretend to have the power to heal abuse victims, she said. Their goal is to give victims a chance to talk about their experiences with others in similar situations, and to provide resources, such as phone numbers to call in crisis situations or the names of therapists.

"We're able to provide a direction for them, but we're just part of the puzzle," said Eisenhaur, adding that she keeps in touch with victims for at least a month after they visit the support group, by talking to them over e-mail, the telephone or coffee. "I think what's so important for these people we meet is the connection is there for a lifetime."

"We're there to listen," said Dorough, of Glen Burnie. "... More than healing, I consider [the support group] a stepping stone to then go on to the next level."

Dorough and Serrano, of Leesburg, Va., were both sexually abused when they were younger -- Serrano by a clergyman and Dorough by a neighbor.

Eisenhaur and Suzanne Morse, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based VOTF, say they are not surprised by the widespread need for support groups focusing on victims of clergy abuse, especially after a study released in 2004 revealed the high numbers of abuse cases.

According to the study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 4,392 clergymen, mostly priests, were accused of sexually abusing 10,667 people between 1960 and 2002.

VOTF, which was founded in 2002 after reports about sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston became public, believes that because many cases are unreported, "those numbers are under represented," Morse said. "It's likely that for every one, there's four to seven unreported cases."

Abuse by members of clergy stands out from abuse by others because clergymen often play the role of God and are especially well-respected, said Serrano, a member of SNAP's board of directors. "That can have a devastating impact to a person's spiritual life."

All the people who have attended the group meetings in Gaithersburg were abused many years earlier, Eisenhaur said. The person she remembers who had most recently suffered abuse was abused 15 years earlier.

That time gap is not uncommon, Morse said.

"In our work, you find that survivors take years to come forth with their abuse," she said. "... A lot of survivors were young or teens, so it's not surprising."

At first when people are abused, they usually feel embarrassed about it, Dorough said. Then they worry it could damage their reputation or jeopardize their job.

Dorough said he decided to talk about his abuse three years ago, after reading a New York Times article about a man who had also been sexually abused. He found he could relate to the man's story.

Dorough joined SNAP soon after.

"Hopefully I can help someone else by sharing my story," he said.

Serrano, instead, said he signed a confidentiality agreement with the church, and was not allowed to talk about his abuse until after the 2002 scandal in Boston.

"Secrecy is toxic," he said. "Because I couldn't talk about it, I was not able to heal."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests