Victims of priest abuse find healing in unity

Networks of people who faced sexual molestation pressure the Catholic church as bishops meet.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nine months ago, Ben "Buddy" Cotton's life was in jeopardy. By his account, he was a cocaine addict, an alcoholic, a man who over the past 27 years had had run-ins with the law, suicidal periods, and once been diagnosed as homicidal. But last spring that all turned around.

In March, he was stunned to see a front-page newspaper story about a boyhood friend who told of being abused by a priest. It was the same priest who he says had sexually assaulted him at age 13, after carefully winning his trust.

"I read that and almost fainted," Mr. Cotton says. He had not known there were other victims. But soon that friend, Mark Serrano, called for all victims of Father James Hanley to come forward - at the very church where they had been betrayed. And on April 19, 12 men showed up and began a process of healing together.

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"That amazing meeting changed my life - since then I haven't done drugs or taken a drink," says Cotton, a computer consultant from New Jersey. "It's a miracle, and I owe it all to coming to grips with my innocence."

Few victims of abuse - they prefer to call themselves 'survivors' - have as dramatic a transformation. Yet the past 10 months of revelations of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church have brought significant breakthroughs for survivors, at the same time that they struggle to get the kind of church policy they see as essential to protecting children and encouraging other victims to break their silence.

Finding a voice ... and recovering

While they are concerned that efforts to craft church procedures for dealing with the crisis are now being weakened, they are also buoyed by the validation and support they are finally winning from Catholics and civil authorities.

"The truth is out," says Sue Archibald, president of Linkup, a support group for clergy victims of all faiths. "Ten years ago, few were willing to hear about abuse, and now parishes invite survivors to share their stories."

That acknowledgment is spurring their recovery. "More people are recovering in lightning speed," says Peter Isley, a psychiatrist in Milwaukee. "They are doing in months what used to take years." Yet they want others still trapped in silence to also gain those benefits.

Survivor and lay Catholic groups have come to Washington this week to make their case for stronger action as the US Catholic bishops hold their annual conference. The bishops are expected to vote Wednesday to approve a policy on handling allegations of clergy sexual abuse, with revisions that were called for by the Vatican and made public last week.

SNAP, the largest self-help group, protested the more complicated, lengthy, and secretive investigation process now planned. The group also sent bishops a letter listing 13 steps that could be taken without Vatican approval or canon law reform. These include releasing all victims from gag orders, supporting extension or elimination of state statutes of limitations, and conducting listening sessions in their dioceses, as has been done in Milwaukee and New Jersey.

Acknowledgment by the church - such as through listening sessions with bishops - is a crucial factor in the healing process, says the Rev. Kenneth Lasch, pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, N.J., where Cotton and other Hanley victims grew up. Father Lasch has shepherded survivor families and the parish through the crisis resulting from the former pastor's abusive behavior. Lasch also invited the bishop to a listening session with victims on that eventful afternoon last April when Cotton had his breakthrough.

Yet it would never have happened, Cotton says, had Mr. Serrano not broken his confidentiality agreement with the church and told his story to The New York Times. While such gag orders have protected the privacy of victims and accused - and the reputation of the church - they kept other victims in the dark. Last June, the bishops promised not to require confidentiality agreements in the future, but they did not release victims from past agreements.

New database on priests

Tuesday, a new support group called SurvivorsFirst.org took a major step to spread information on abuse. It launched the first public national database of priests involved in alleged abuse - starting with some 600 names. It lists priests who have been convicted, face pending legal action, reached settlements, or are the subject of allegations reported in newspapers. It also will list priests cleared of false allegations.

According to Paul Baier, the group's founder, the Internet database has several goals: to help survivors connect with others abused by the same priest, to help parishes find out if an abusive priest has served in their parish, and to provide a factual basis for public discussion of the scope of the problem. The US Conference of Bishops has never kept a list, but the national lay review board created under the Dallas charter is charged with studying the scope of the problem.

Mr. Baier says his group has a private database of another 1,500 names, which could eventually be listed as legal action develops.

Reform at stake

As they discussed the policy revisions this week, the bishops clarified the church's statute of limitations in abuse cases. (Victims' groups had argued that, by ruling out old cases, the limits mean abusive priests will remain in the ministry.) The church will not lift the limits, but Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said that if a preliminary investigation shows sufficient evidence, a bishop must request an exemption from the statute. He seemed to suggest the Vatican would almost certainly comply.

For Cotton and other Hanley victims, it is not only the church statute which is at issue. The priest admitted his guilt and agreed to be defrocked. But despite a thick file of evidence, he is living freely in Patterson, N.J., because the state's statute of limitations has expired.

"He committed felony assault on 15 children and he has gotten away with it," Cotton says.

But as the New Jersey representative for SNAP, Cotton is pushing for a state law to abolish the statute of limitations. "The most important factor in my healing is that I can contribute to society - to correcting a very serious problem."

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