Q&A About SNAP

(Note: These remarks are the personal opinions of Mr. David Clohessy, Executive Director of SNAP, 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 (www.survivorsnetwork.org) 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.

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 20,000 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.

Showing 6 comments

  • Tess Sneesby
    followed this page 2019-02-15 18:13:03 -0600
  • Mary Lane
    followed this page 2018-08-29 19:30:50 -0500
  • followed this page 2013-02-28 13:01:59 -0600
  • followed this page 2012-04-02 17:53:48 -0500
  • Robert Connor
    commented 2011-10-06 23:53:38 -0500
    One thing that people could do: Keep their kids away from priests! I don’t have any kids and I know every priest is not like that but why take the chance? Also I no longer support the church financially because why should my money be used for lawyers and settlements? It would also help to have altar servers be over 18 to reduce access to kids.
  • published this page in Resources 2011-08-20 12:59:46 -0500

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