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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

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San Francisco Police Department - To Protect and Serve?

February 7, 2003 - San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed piece

By David Clohessy

A physician's first rule is "Do no harm." That, we believe, should be a police officer's first rule as well.

Yet last week, about 100 officers from the San Francisco Police Department stood in court behind Monsignor John Heaney, charged with eight felony counts of child sexual abuse. The officers' insensitive action has harmed many molestation victims and may have hurt the department's ability to pursue abusers in the future.

As men and women who were sexually victimized by abusive Catholic priests, we were hurt and angered by what these officers did. We've heard from other victims of sex crimes who feel just as upset and betrayed.

But the impact on those already victimized is secondary. Even more significant is the impact on those who have yet to report their victimization. Some of them may be frightened or discouraged, and may be intimidated into keeping silent.

Police exist to prevent crime and catch criminals. They can only do this if crime victims feel safe cooperating with police. That won't happen if crime victims see officers rallying behind accused child molesters.

Furthermore, the department's integrity and independence are threatened by what these officers did. Their insensitivity may create doubt and disillusionment in the minds of other citizens, not just crime victims.

What happened last week is over, the damage done. Needed now is decisive, public action by police commissioners -- other than the directive that police officers who show up in court may do so only while off duty and out of uniform.

More meaningful steps include:

Mandatory apology: Require these officers to apologize publicly for their inappropriate action;

Abuse training: Send them to a training session run by a professional experienced in abuse issues;

Ban on 'support' court appearances: Forbid any department staff from appearing in court to support defendants in the future;

Reassignment: Remove any of these officers who serve on the SFPD sex crimes unit; and

Discipline: Formally reprimand the 100 officers who appeared at Heaney's court hearing last month.

It is imperative that the commissioners take immediate steps to reassure hurting men, women and children that the SFPD investigates child molestation thoroughly and impartially, and that it will not allow any future public displays of support for Heaney or any other accused molester.

We don't doubt that Heaney has provided dedicated service to the police. Most priests who molest do outstanding pastoral work. Some psychologists offer a simple explanation: Abusers feel deeply guilty for the pain they inflict on innocent kids, and attempt to "compensate" for their wrongdoing by becoming "super priests," working longer and harder than their colleagues. Other psychologists offer a more devious explanation: By ingratiating themselves with influential people, abusers win deference and trust, which then gives them even more opportunities to abuse, and more "cover" and protection when they get caught.

But regardless of Heaney's motives and record of service, the fact is that he is charged with a heinous crime. Therefore, public servants (especially those charged with upholding the law) ought not to publicly show support for him and thereby intimidate other victims into silence. We in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests believe in Christian charity and compassion.

We believe that everyone, including molesters, deserve sympathy and understanding. But even more, we believe that children deserve to be safe, and crime victims deserve to feel safe. The natural human kindness we feel toward an adult we personally know must not cloud our obligation to protect vulnerable children we don't know.

Across the country, police departments are becoming increasingly creative and assertive in catching child molesters. They are becoming more and more sensitive to the needs and feelings of those devastated by abusers. Last week, however, dozens of San Francisco police did just the reverse. They may have aided and abetted a sexual predator. They certainly rubbed salt in the already deep wounds of many of us. And they made crime victims more reluctant to come forward, get the help they need and protect others at risk.

David Clohessy, who was molested as a youngster by a priest in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., is national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Louis.

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests