The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

The SNAP Viewpoint

Questions and Answers with David Clohessy
SNAP Executive Director

April 2002

(Note: These remarks are the personal opinions of Mr. Clohessy, and not necessarily the official views of the SNAP Organization.)

1. What is SNAP and what is your involvement with the organization? SNAP has the word "survivors" in it - does this imply that some victims of child abuse by priests do not survive the experience?

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests ( is a self-help group that supports people who have been victimized by clergy, and helps them try to pick up the pieces of their lives, heal and move forward. We also try to cooperate with the news media and provide reliable information when we can, as a way to help ourselves recover and prevent future abuse.

Like most people, my life largely revolves around my family and my full time job. But in my "off hours," I've had the honor of being SNAP's national director for the past decade.

Unfortunately, some men and women do not survive childhood sexual abuse. While every victim's experience is tragic, the stories of those who commit suicide as a result of abuse are among the most heart wrenching. Recent articles by Stan Finger of the Wichita Eagle, for example, chronicle the trauma of Janet and Horace Patterson, whose son Eric was molested by a priest. Many of us in the survivors movement consider ourselves fortunate to have endured our victimization and remained alive and sane. Some have not been so lucky.

2. Some parishioners in St. Louis and elsewhere have described the recent torrent of revelations about pedophile priests as "pack journalism" and a "witch hunt." Why are so many stories about abuse all coming out now?

It saddens me when a few misguided parishioners "shoot the messenger" and attack the news media for simply doing its job. The flood of stories emerging in recent weeks is attributable, we believe, to three factors:

First, some survivors feel hopeful. When survivors are heard and validated in the courts and the media as we have been in Boston, we gain the strength and courage to come forward to heal ourselves and protect others.

Second, some survivors feel desperate. For a decade, bishops have reassured us that they take abuse allegations seriously, investigate them thoroughly, remove suspected priests, and no longer reassign molesters. The revelations of the past few weeks prove that these reassurances were largely untrue. So, despite the risks of further pain, some survivors are now "going public" because they feel compelled to do whatever they can to make sure no other child suffers as they did.

Third, as Martin Luther King said, "No lie lives forever." A tidal wave of stories is splashing across the news media now largely because a huge "back log" of frustrated, fearful survivors can no longer keep suffering in secrecy, silence and shame.

Sexual abuse is probably the most underreported crime in the nation, due to the severity and duration of the trauma. Most victims will never seek help or make there experience public. For those who do, the time between the abuse and disclosure can be anywhere between ten to twenty years-sometimes longer.

3. How would you describe SNAP's relationship with the Catholic Church - adversarial or cooperative? How has the news media responded to SNAP over the history of the organization?

Our relationship with the Catholic laity has never been better. More parishioners express sympathy towards us and believe we were truly abused. More of them understand that our experiences are not "isolated incidents" caused by "a few bad apples," but rather widespread hurts caused by bishops who lack the will to effectively root out pedophiles and punish those who cover up the crimes.

Our relationship with the Catholic hierarchy is not what it could be.

At the local level, for ten years St. Louis has had the nation's largest local support group for clergy abuse survivors. Not once during that time has a single church official called, written or asked to meet with us. (Once years ago, we asked to address a group of local priests, but were denied.)

At the national level, the same is essentially true. In the 12 years history of SNAP, no body of bishops has ever voluntarily asked for our input or agreed to sit down with us, except when pressured to do so. That, in our view, simply reaffirms our skepticism about most bishops' commitment to substantive reforms.

4. At a time when Catholic school teachers are joining unions and complaining about low pay, parents of Catholic school children are shocked to find out how much money has been used in "settlements" in abuse cases. In 1992, Jason Berry, a winner of the Catholic Press Award, estimated that $400 million had been paid out to keep cases quiet in the previous decade. How much money has been paid out by the Church in the decade since Berry's study? Does SNAP have any estimates?

We're aware of estimates ranging from $400 million to $1.3 billion. As an all-volunteer support group, we lack the resources to accurately monitor such settlements. And unfortunately, the group that could most easily track this spending, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has refused to do so.

5. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough said he is uncomfortable with "settlements" that quiet victims of abuse by priests. Has SNAP lobbied for laws to end what some see as "hush money" to cover up felonious behavior? Some states require that such settlements be reported to legal authorities - what is the situation in Missouri and Illinois?

If any prosecutor or public official feels discomfort with quiet settlements, we hope they will convey their concerns to Archbishop Rigali and other church officials who routinely insist that abuse survivors sign gag orders (which are actually not legally enforceable) in order to receive funds for desperately needed therapy. It might be more constructive, however, for McCullough and his colleagues to publicly urge crime victims to disclose our experiences to prosecutors. Unlike City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and district attorneys across the country, McCullough has shown no particular interest in investigating sexual abuse by priests, which we find troubling.

Joyce, to her credit, at least asked for and attended a meeting with Archbishop Rigali, which she publicly discussed both before and afterwards. In comments to the Post Dispatch, she
emphatically encouraged those hurt by abusive priests to contact her. (All too often, we tend to approach church officials first, which is no surprise since most abuse survivors come from very devout Catholic families.) No other Missouri or Illinois prosecutors have taken even these "baby steps."

Some survivors have begun resisting church pressure to sign gag orders. But it must be remembered that many survivors who settle do so only after having been worn down by aggressive church legal tactics, long delays, high medical and therapy bills, and pressing needs to try as best they can to move on with their lives.

Our primary mission in SNAP is to provide healing and support for men and women sexually victimized by clergy. We consider working with the media to expose the depth and breadth of this scandal as part of our healing process.

But in some states, SNAP members have gone beyond this mission, and lobbied for more "survivor-friendly" laws, especially those that would extend the criminal or civil statute of limitations. (That would enable more perpetrators to be brought to justice over longer periods of time).

6. In the current crisis of the Church, Pope John Paul II has pronounced that pedophilia cases involving priests will be tried by a panel of priests in secret. What is SNAP's position on this stance by the highest authority in the Catholic Church?

We were very disappointed by the Pontiff's recent decision to extend the already pervasive secrecy that surrounds the handling of priest pedophilia cases. SNAP has long advocated full disclosure by church officials, so that confidence in church leadership can be restored and so that lay Catholics have sufficient information to protect themselves.

We were equally disappointed when the Pontiff's chief spokesman blamed the pedophilia crisis on gay priests.

And we have been pained over the Vatican's insensitive handling of abuse allegations by nine very credible former seminarians against one of the most powerful priests in Rome, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado (as detailed extensively in the National Catholic Reporter and the Hartford Courant). Pope John Paul II has praised Maciel, who heads the Legion of Christ, a wealthy religious order known for its theological conservatism and loyalty to the pope.

7. In the settlement reached by the Church in the case of John Scorfina and the Rev. Larry Valentine, the St. Louis Archdiocese is accused of breaking its end of the deal by allowing Valentine to continue to be in proximity of children. Isn't the settlement payout tantamount to an admission that Valentine is an offender? How can Archbishop Rigali, with a case such as this, continue to assert that "the safety of our young people is and must be our highest priority?"

The Valentine case clearly shows the huge gap between what Archbishop Rigali promises and what he delivers. At least five accusers have publicly come forward, three of whom sued and settled for $20,000 each. Yet church officials maintain Valentine's innocence. They could be safe and reopen their "investigation" (which, by the way, did not include interviewing the accusers). They could move Valentine to a "desk job" or a position with less access to kids. They could publicly ask parishioners to come forward with information that might indicate Valentine's innocence or guilt. They could ask a third party to investigate. They could publicly explain what has led them to conclude Valentine is innocent.

But sadly, archdiocesan officials have taken none of these steps. So John Scarfino courageously overcame his fear and shame, eloquently expressed his concern for other kids at risk, took a legal gamble and violated his "gag order." At an emotional news conference, John and his mother begged Archbishop Rigali to remove Valentine. Rigali has not even offered a response, other than issuing a vague statement about standing behind his priest. In the meantime, the Scarfino family and others remain hurting and confused. And children, in our view, remain at risk.

8. Many Church parishioners in Boston are calling for Cardinal Bernard Law to resign his position because of the priest abuse scandals there. Does SNAP take a position in his resignation? When should there be calls for resignations of top Church officials as more scandals are revealed?

Our organization has not taken a formal stand on whether or not Cardinal Law should resign. (Remember, we are first and foremost a support group, not an advocacy group. So we strive to be a comforting place for all hurting abuse survivors, liberal or conservative, former Catholics and still-loyal Catholics.) But virtually all of our members are convinced Law has caused untold suffering by knowingly retaining and 'recycling' literally dozens of abusive priests over 18 years while focusing largely on "damage control."

The Cardinal's handling of this crisis however, is essentially "par for the course" among America's bishops. What makes Boston unique is that Law's dissembling has been made public, thanks to a judge's ruling to unseal 10,000 pages of previously confidential church documents.

Continued on Next Page

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests