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CHARTER-OUTREACH Sep-16-2004 (860 words) With logo posted Oct. 23, 2003, and photo posted Sept. 15. One in an ongoing series. xxxn

Programs for sex abuse victims learning by experience

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In 1996 when Michael Bland started organizing informal meetings of U.S. diocesan officials involved in outreach programs to clergy sex abuse victims, eight people showed up.

At the 2004 meeting this summer, 125 people attended, which reflects the growth in outreach programs since the U.S. bishops approved the 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

Despite the growth, outreach programs are still a work in progress as such programs are new to most dioceses and the needs of victims are as varied as the personalities of those affected.

"There is no fixed format for helping victims. You need to enter the process where they're at," said Bland, a victim of clergy sex abuse who has come full circle.

Bland, a clinical therapist, is an ex-Servite priest who is now treating victims. He is also a member of the bishops' National Review Board, which monitors church compliance with child sex abuse policies.

He likened an abuse victim's suffering to the heartbreak of people facing the death of a loved one.

"Not everyone grieves the same way, but there are similarities," said Bland, an independent contractor with the Chicago archdiocesan Office for Assistance Ministry, which helps victims.

One growing consensus is that outreach work is a ministry, a special calling for church people, he said.

"It's a difficult and draining ministry ... to be with people in their emotional vulnerability," he said.

Article One of the charter says that dioceses and their Eastern-rite counterparts, eparchies, "will reach out to victims/survivors and their families and demonstrate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being. The first obligation of the church with regard to victims is for healing and reconciliation."

While requiring outreach programs, the charter gives little information about how to conduct such programs.

"The charter doesn't have a lot of meat on the bones," said Sheila Horan, deputy director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which helps dioceses apply charter policies.

"People are grasping for best practices to do outreach in a pastoral way," she said.

In early 2005 her office plans to sponsor a national meeting for victim assistance coordinators, the general term given to church officials responsible for outreach programs. The meeting will give the coordinators an opportunity to listen to experts, share experiences and develop model programs.

Meanwhile, victim outreach coordinators are learning as they go, sharing experiences to better understand what are effective programs.

Sometimes it is a case of learning from someone else what not to do, several church officials told Catholic News Service in telephone interviews.

Practices church officials recommend include:

-- A 24-hour hot line that allows victims to speak in confidence to someone or to leave a confidential message which will be responded to quickly.

-- Support groups for victims.

-- A team ministry approach to victims with team members trained in different aspects of treatment.

-- An apology by the bishop even if he was not in office at the time of the abuse as victims tend to see the bishop as the symbol of the institution that harmed them.

-- An offer by the bishop to meet individually with victims.

-- Open dialogue with victims' advocacy groups.

-- Offering help to victims -- such as paying for professional counseling -- even if the victim is suing the diocese.

-- Using a layperson or woman religious trained in dealing with sex abuse victims as an outreach coordinator, as many victims still have difficulty relating to priests.

Outreach programs also have to overcome the distrust many victims have of the church.

"It all starts with the bishop. He has to take tangible steps," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group known as SNAP. "It's crucial to avoid the impression of damage control."

Several diocesan officials involved in outreach work years before the charter was approved said that building trust involves getting the word out about programs, contacting victims' groups and developing relationships with victims.

"My name is well-known in victims' circles. People know they can trust me," said Phyllis Willerscheidt, who has worked for 14 years for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in programs to combat clergy sexual misconduct.

Her approach to getting the word out includes talking to parishes and various church groups interested in the sex abuse issue. She has developed e-mail contact with a circle of victims.

"If they have a criticism, believe me, they let me know," said Willerscheidt.

Victim assistance coordinators also advocate being a good listener and providing services that empower victims by giving them choices, such as in picking a professional therapist or in organizing support groups.

"Walk with them in their healing process," said Bland.

Give victims options by letting them know there are services available through state and secular agencies if they do not want to use church programs, said Bland.

The main thing is that victims who need assistance get it and that outreach programs stress that mental health professionals help people get cured, he said.


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