From sex-abuse scandal, cautious hope of reform

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Twice in the past month, Jim Sacco has been elated by the news. First, John Geoghan, the Boston-area priest who Mr. Sacco says molested him and his four siblings 35 years ago, was convicted of molesting another child and is in jail.

Then, the Boston Archdiocese began taking steps to prevent such abuse - after long ignoring victims' pleas to do so.

"This has been bothering me my whole life," says Sacco of Amherst, N.H., who no longer attends church. "The church has dealt with victims extremely poorly."

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More than anyone, abuse victims and their families have felt the Roman Catholic Church's recalcitrance in better addressing sexual exploitation of young people by priests. Victims and their supporters have pressed the church for reforms, but say they've made little headway.

Now, as dioceses such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia announce reforms in the wake of the Boston scandal, victims like Sacco - who say they've seen previous scandals come and go with no real change in church actions - see glimmers of hope.

Most heartening to victims and their allies is a shift in public attitude in the Boston area that has forced the archdiocese to remove priests with a record of abuse, and to turn their names over to law-enforcement officials. That's a dramatic departure from the longstanding practice of handling such cases behind closed doors, with silence a condition of financial compensation for victims.

It's also the first time the debate has included calls for a church leader to resign - an effort to hold responsible not the pedophile but also officials who transferred him among parishes.

"That has been unthinkable," says A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest turned therapist who has treated victims and accused clerics. "So this is monumental."

Scope of the problem

To many who have been abused, serious consequences for engaging in or overlooking sexual exploitation represent the greatest hope for handling a problem that some say has grown over the years to include 3,000 priests and tens of thousands of victims. Still, both they and others are cautious in their expectations. Ten years ago, there was an outcry over the case of James Porter, a former priest sentenced to 18 to 20 years in Fall River, Mass., after more than 200 adults in several states said they were his victims.

Yet "nothing essentially changed since that last time around - they were still putting these guys back into ministry and they were not dealing with the victims and their families," says Peter Isely, a therapist in Milwaukee, Wis., who in the past has run a victims' program. "The question is what is going to be different this time around."

Victims argue that the church needs to take radical steps - not incremental ones - to create an environment that will protect children from predatory priests. Among their desires: Clergy should be required to report allegations of abuse immediately to authorities and let them carry out the investigation. The church should remove the cleric and tell his parish why, so that parents can communicate with their children. And they want prevention programs that will educate the clergy about the problem and requirements to report abuse.

"More parents, police, prosecutors, and politicians need to show courage and ... insist on the right steps," says David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

In some parts of the country, policies have been in place for at least a decade. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which coordinates Catholic activities and education, set up an ad hoc committee in 1993 that drew up guidelines for dioceses. Many of the 194 dioceses have written policies, and a few have victim-assistance programs.

"I'm not sure you can ever do enough for a victim, but the bishops have tried extensively for 15 years or more," says William Ryan, the USCCB's deputy director of communications. "I don't think there's been any issue the bishops have ... dealt with more thoroughly."

Those dealing with victims see the situation differently. "I've been involved in 55 cases since 1993, and in almost all of them the church has resisted the allegations," Mr. Sipe says.

Jeff Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul, Minn., who has handled more than 400 such cases, says the church sometimes plays hardball. Two years ago in Portland, Ore., for example, it served a countersuit on a victim at his place of business, charging his suit lacked merit. Forty-three other individuals came forward. A case on behalf of 23 was settled; a second is under way for 20.

Perceptions that the church is unresponsive leads many to sue. "The Catholic Church is acting like every other institution whose leaders are exposed for abuse - with self-protection," says the Rev. Patricia Liberty, director of Associates in Prevention and Education in Pastoral Practice, which works with clergy and victims across denominations. "Because they act like an institution instead of ... a church, it adds another layer of pain...." Victims turn to the courts, she adds, when the church fails to listen.

That was the case for Phil Saviano, who says he was molested by a young priest in his Massachusetts parish in the 1960s. Reading a 1992 article in the Boston Globe about Fr. David Holley abusing youngsters in New Mexico spurred him to tell his story. When the diocese responded that there had been no problems with Father Holley in Massachusetts, Mr. Saviano sued for the files.

"What I ended up with was ... letters signed by bishops in four states and a vicar of priests in a fifth, outlining the times he was caught molesting kids, all the times he was sent to a treatment program, and moved to a new parish without the parishioners being warned," he says.

Holley was prosecuted in New Mexico and received the longest sentence ever given to a Catholic priest - 275 years.

In the wake of the Boston revelations, Catholic bishops in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have said that no priest will be returned to parish ministry after a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of minors. That was already the case in Chicago and Cleveland. In a survey of the 25 largest US dioceses, the Boston Globe found only those four cities (of 13 that responded) had written policies to that effect. Only five required clergy and employees to report allegations to police or child-welfare agencies. Many states do not require clergy to report abuse.

More responsive policies

Some dioceses have taken steps to set up clear review procedures and to reach out more to victims. Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, once falsely accused of abuse, is credited by many for establishing a responsive approach. A decade ago, Chicago set up a board of lay people and clergy to handle allegations, and a separate office to help victims get counseling.

"If trust has been abused by a member of the church, it can be a difficult journey for people to come back and seek help from the church," says Ralph Bonaccorsi, director of the Chicago archdiocese's Office of Conciliation and Assistance Ministry. The archdiocese also sponsors an annual conference for staff in other dioceses who offer such services.

Mr. Bonaccorsi's office offers therapeutic and spiritual counseling for victims. When a priest is removed,he meets with local leaders and parishioners to discuss why, and to work toward healing.

Isely, the Milwaukee therapist, says Cardinal Bernadin met with victims and intended, before his death in 1996, to promote a public conversation with them.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was one of the first to do victim outreach when it initiated Project Benjamin back in 1989. "For many people, their first choice is that the church respond to them," says former director Elizabeth Piasecki. They develop individual care plans and pay for counseling. "We had no litigation after we established that process."

Others attribute that result to the church's success in getting the state supreme court to say it can't be sued in Wisconsin. "They make the claim in every state that it would infringe on free exercise of religion," says Mr. Anderson, the St. Paul lawyer. "But Wisconsin is the only place the high court has accepted that."

The high cost of inaction

It's not surprising that the church would seek to avoid litigation. A report from the US bishops conference in 1985 warned that it could cost the church $1 billion in the next decade unless it addressed the problem. Some say it has paid out that much, but the church says the amount is exaggerated.

Survivors say more than money, victims want to be believed, and to be sure that other kids will be protected. Financial settlements represent that acknowledgement. "I'd trade all the written and verbal apologies for one safe-touch program in all Catholic schools," says Mr. Clohessy of Survivors Network.

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