Survivors Network of
those Abused by Priests
in the News
Stories from Across the Nation
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
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
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
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."