The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

The SNAP Viewpoint

Part 2


9. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan, a past seminarian himself, recently wrote that the Church has difficulty facing the sex abuse problems of priests because "the problem is systemic." Do you agree? Are these not isolated problems - a few bad apples spoiling the barrel?

Twenty years ago, one might have viewed this as a problem involving "a few bad apples." Now, no reasonable person can believe this.

A decade ago, Jason Berry wrote in his award-winning book Lead Us Not Into Temptation, "The failure of the Catholic hierarchy to nurture a healthy clergy cannot be rationalized a as the result of sin in the world, or as many conservatives contend, of a church divided by theological dissent. The corruption of ecclesiastical culture is part of a psychological and sexual crisis that has been building for years. The faithful have every right to demand that this situation, made all the more disgraceful by Rome's silence, be changed." His predictions about this crisis exploding have sadly come true.

Horrigan is correct - this is a deeply-rooted systemic flaw in the governance of the church, which will not be remedied by pious statements, carefully crafted apologies, or the removal of a handful of offenders.

10. Some experts say that the percentage of priests who are pedophiles may be as high as 8 percent, and as many as 40 percent may be homosexual. Experts take great pains to explain that homosexuals are no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals. Nevertheless, many parishioners are asking why so many of the abuse cases seem to be men with boys - not girls. Has SNAP studied this situation or does it have any answers from the organization's experience with victims of abuse?

Roughly half of our 3,600 members are women. We hear more about boys being molested for at least three reasons.

-- Men tend to direct their anger outward (and file lawsuits, for example), while women tend to direct anger inward (and litigation, of course, generates media coverage.)
-- Women deal with their pain in more private ways--such as therapy/support groups.
-- Male/male sex is more salacious and therefore attracts more attention.

The availability of boys is also a variable. In years past, parents of a 13 year old boy gladly allowed their child to travel or "sleep over" with a priest, but would not have permitted a girl to do so.

We believe that two factors - an insistence on celibacy, which many priests do not adhere to, and a disproportionate percentage of gay priests - contribute to culture of silence and secrecy. When priest are forbidden to engage in any sexual activity whatsoever, then many priests inevitably have something to hide. And in that atmosphere, it becomes less likely that an individual priest will report sexual misconduct by one of his peers.

11. The Post ran an article in its coverage that praised the Belleville Diocese for being much more open and decisive than the St. Louis Archdiocese in dealing with cases of sexual abuse by priests. Does SNAP find this to be true? Is there a model diocese in the U.S. when it comes to handling these tragedies?

The Belleville diocese is far from ideal, from the perspective of most survivors. Yet compared with others, it has been slightly more aggressive in removing abusers. In the early to mid 90s, it removed more than 10% of its priests because of abuse allegations. Each time, it was publicly announced. And only one, Fr. Daniel Friedman, was restored to ministry. (Sadly, he has since been sued for abusing a woman during counseling sessions.)

(Although the St. Louis Archdiocese is five times larger, during that same time span, no priest on this side of the river was voluntarily removed by archdiocesan officials because of abuse allegations, unless a lawsuit was filed and publicized.)

Sadly, there is no "model" diocese that we've seen. Some have more thorough and enlightened formal abuse policies than others. But these documents are virtually useless and have little or no bearing on how survivors or offenders are actually dealt with day to day.

12. A number of journalists in this area, including this writer, recall being campers at Camp Ondessonk in the Belleville Diocese in the 1960s. We recall veteran campers at that time warning us to "stay away" from camp director, the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen. But it took years until allegations about Vonnahmen surfaced and he was relieved of his duties. Why do sex abuse allegations take so long to surface? Is the Church doing a better job screening clergy who take positions involving children? Is SNAP satisfied with the way the Vonnahmen case was handled by Belleville?

Reports of abuse take many years because of the severity of the trauma and the high and valued social position of the offender. Those two factors virtually ensure that reports may take years, if it all, to surface.

Sometimes, survivors do not understand they have been harmed. (Remember, we are talking about children who often lack the context and/or vocabulary to comprehend that a crime is being perpetrated against them.) Sometimes, as a coping mechanism, survivors repress. deny or minimize the experiences. ("Sure, Father Jack tried to put his mouth on my penis a couple of times, but I fought him off.") Only after long bouts of depression, struggles with addictions, many failed relationships or years of therapy do some survivors finally realize they've been victimized and are still hurt by the trauma.

In addition, many survivors who did disclose their abuse years ago were not believed by parents, church leaders or criminal authorities. Thankfully, some of these brave men and women are now coming forward a second time. We pray they get the healing, affirmation and validation they deserve.

While Vonnahmen has been permanently removed as a priest, it is troubling that he continues to wear his Roman collar and run large corporations that lead the public to believe that they are Catholic institutions. Bishop Wilton Gregory can and should take further steps to disassociate his diocese from Vonnahmen's enterprises and warn Catholics of his predatory behavior.

13. In the case of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, an accuser later recanted his charges of being sexually abused by Bernadin. Before SNAP holds a press conference at which an accuser makes serious charges, what steps are taken to verify that the accusations are true?

We rarely do such news conferences. In St. Louis, over the past decade, we have done this perhaps four times, and only with survivors who are very credible. Usually, we have spent hours and hours with those survivors and sometimes they have physical evidence and/or witnesses.

The possibility of mistaken accusations does, of course, exist. However, we know of only three civil lawsuits (out of hundreds) that have been withdrawn by survivors' attorneys because of doubts about the truth of the accusations.

Sometimes, painful choices must be made. Our advice to bishops has been consistent: if forced to choose between protecting an adult's feelings or a child's safety, the child must come first.

I can think of only two things worse than being falsely accused of child abuse. One is actually being molested. And the other is being molested and ignored or not believed.

It's far easier for an adult to repair his or her reputation than it is for a kid to repair his or her entire life.

14. Some liberals blame the Church's current crisis on prohibitions against marriage by clergy, an obsession with Humanae Vitae, and a refusal to bring more women into church positions with ordination. Conservatives blame the crisis on departure from tradition, liberation theology and more acceptance of gays as clergy and as parishioners. Should the problems afflicting the Church with the sex scandals by viewed, or explained, in political or ideological terms?

No. This is about crimes against children and criminal conspiracy to cover up those crimes. Bishops all along the ideological, theological and political spectrum have reacted to this crisis in much the same way.

15. How many members of SNAP have left the Church because of their experiences and the new round of revelations of sexual abuse? How many SNAP members remain committed to Catholicism with the ambition of reforming the church? Do those committed to reform seem to have a common prescription to address ills?

We are constantly amazed by the resiliency of SNAP members. Often after considerable struggle and years of doubt or confusion, most survivors reach a point where they consider themselves religious or spiritual. Many are still churchgoers. Some have managed to remain Catholic, while others have chosen other faith groups.

In terms of a "prescription," suggestions fall into two broad categories - broad steps that require Rome's approval or involvement, and more immediate steps that could be taken now by any bishop anywhere.

In the former category, many believe that if priests could marry, if women could be ordained and if laity were given greater power in decision-making, abuse by priests would be less widespread, more quickly detected and more sensitively handled.

In the later category, steps that can be taken without approval from Rome, many believe that every bishop should:

-- remove every priest who has molested or been accused of molesting a child;
-- use independent professionals to conduct any investigations;
-- announce the names of admitted or suspected abusive priests to the public;
- -have 'safe touch' prevention programs in parochial schools;
-- have "Abuse Prevention Sunday," on which every priest tells parents that discussing sexual abuse with their children and reporting suspected abuse ot authorities is their civic and moral duty;
-- voluntarily stop using legal technicalities (like the statute of limitations) to fight abuse claims,
-- guarantee therapy to abuse victims by independent providers;
-- defrock any priest who knows or suspects abuse by another priest but fails to contact the police.

In the public policy arena, we believe every state legislature should:
- extend the statute of limitations so that abuse survivors can seek justice even into adulthood
- force clergy to be "mandated reporters" of suspected abuse (just like we )

16. As a long-time leader of SNAP, you are familiar with many reports and cases of sex abuse by priests over a period of more than a decade. Is there any situation in the current round of revelations that you find especially problematic or disturbing? Or, do these stories tend to follow a typical pattern as you become more and more knowledgeable about them?

These stories are very typical. The abuse occurs, often for years, with some other priests and bishops knowing or suspecting it. The offender is sometimes left to continue his crimes in one place or moved to other locations.

What is disturbing this time is the multitude of broken promises by bishops who pledged, time after time, that they had changed their ways, but have essentially not.

17. Are you optimistic that progress is being made, and that steps are being taken by the Church to address and alleviate the problems of sexual abuse of children by priests? Or do you fear that five or ten years from now, we will simply see a new round of stories about abuse and a new round of reassurances by the Church that appropriate action will be taken?

Almost all of the progress we've seen on this issue has happened in spite of the church's hierarchy. Secular authorities - including police, prosecutors, judges and politicians - are slowly beginning to treat the church like any other institution and treat abuse by clerics like abuse by any other profession.

I am not optimistic about the leadership of the church. But I am optimistic that Catholics-not their ordained leaders, at least not yet--will take matters into their own hands and find a way to make the church a safer place for children.

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Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests