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From sex-abuse scandal, cautious hope of reform

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2002



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.

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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."

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.

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