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CHARTER-TRUST Sep-16-2004 (1,300 words) With logo posted Oct. 23, 2003, and photos posted Sept. 15 and 16. One in an ongoing series. xxxn

Building trust key part of outreach programs for sex abuse victims

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Two years after the U.S. bishops approved policies to prevent clergy sex abuse of minors, building trust is a major dimension of church programs that reach out to highly skeptical abuse victims.

"The impression is that most bishops don't genuinely want a vigorous effort for victims to come forward," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP.

Explaining outreach programs on diocesan Web sites and in the media "looks to most of us like sophisticated damage-control mechanisms," said Clohessy.

To help overcome distrust, the Boston Archdiocese, where the church's clergy sex abuse scandal first surfaced in early 2002, asked law firms in litigation against the archdiocese to be bridges to victim-clients by informing them of church programs.

There was a wide range of reaction from the approximately 40 lawyers who represent victims, said Barbara Thorp, director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach, which works with victims.

"Some law firms were telling clients not to access our services. Others were encouraging survivors to seek our services," she said.

Many people refer to victims of clergy sex abuse as "survivors."

Thorp, a social worker, said she also moved the outreach office out of the archdiocesan chancery building in 2002 and into a place with no church connection.

"There are no religious symbols on the wall such as a crucifix," said Thorp.

The neighboring Diocese of Springfield, Mass., has been rocked by scandals, including claims that now-retired Bishop Thomas L. Dupre sexually abused two minors when he was a priest. The diocese has accepted a victim's proposal to hire a victim resource coordinator independent of the diocese to assist victims seeking professional help.

At the end of August, the diocese invited local nonprofit social service agencies to bid for a one-year $50,000 grant to staff the post.

In California, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., said he offers to meet with victims and "offer them help even if they have a legal case against the diocese." Stockton is facing several suits.

Bishop Blaire is a member of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

Article One of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" approved by the bishops in 2002 requires dioceses and their Eastern-rite counterparts, eparchies, to have outreach programs for victims of sex abuse perpetrated "by anyone acting in the name of the church."

Michael Bland, a member of the bishops' National Review Board which monitors church compliance with child sex abuse policies and himself a victim of clergy sex abuse, said discussing ways to eliminate distrust about the church's handling of abuse is a main topic when diocesan victim assistance coordinators get together.

Since 1996 Bland has been organizing annual informal meetings of victim assistance coordinators, the general term given to diocesan officials primarily responsible for dealing with victims and supervising the various programs offered.

In telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, Bland, other church officials and victims said that a foundation stone of building trust is not having priests as victim assistance coordinators or in any post involving initial contacts with victims.

"For some victims it is difficult to come forward to a priest, to trust a priest," said Bland, a clinical therapist who works as an independent contractor with the Chicago archdiocesan Office for Assistance Ministry, which helps victims.

Preferably coordinators should be lay people or religious women trained in dealing with sex abuse victims, he said.

Sheila Horan, deputy director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which helps dioceses apply charter policies, said her office "very strongly suggests" that coordinators not be priests.

Also troubling for many victims is if dioceses involve lawyers in the early contact and questioning of victims who wish to report abuse cases.

The fear expressed by victims is that a lawyer -- especially if he or she is not identified as such -- is trained to gather information helpful to the diocese if the victim decides to sue.

Recent criticism has been aimed at the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. In August it announced that a lawyer who is not defending the diocese in legal cases, John Kuremelis, had been contracted to answer the 24-hour hot line number for people wishing to report abuses.

The diocese said the decision was made so that victims could speak to an independent layperson who was not a diocesan employee, thus easing fears victims may have about talking directly to a diocesan staffer.

Before, allegations were reported to a diocesan chancery office employee.

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio defended the decision in a column in the Sept. 11 issue of his diocesan newspaper, The Tablet. He said that the diocesan policy is to forward allegations to local law enforcement authorities.

"Reporting a crime to an attorney, in my estimation, is the best way to get accurate details that can be transmitted to the appropriate civil jurisdiction for follow-up," the bishop said.

Clohessy criticized the Brooklyn decision, saying it makes it more difficult emotionally for victims to report abuses.

"There will always be victims who feel uncomfortable calling church officials, especially if it is a lawyer," he said.

Jim Biteman, director of the SNAP chapter in Seattle, said that "it's not in the victim's best interest to give all this information (to a lawyer) when a diocese still has not made a commitment to the victim."

Officials of several other dioceses which have received such complaints said that they use people with law degrees who are not practicing lawyers and who were chosen because of other skills.

Jessie Dye, pastoral outreach coordinator for the Seattle Archdiocese, said she has not practiced law since getting her law degree in 1976. Instead, she has specialized in mediation and conflict resolution work in which an understanding of law is important.

The archdiocese regards her mediation techniques as helpful in reconciling victims with the institutional church that hurt them, she said.

A recommendation made in January by the National Review Board and the child protection office said that "diocesan attorneys or others who might be in a position to investigate or evaluate allegations of sexual abuse not be assigned as a victim assistance coordinator."

Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops' child protection office, said that by extension the recommendation applies to people doing the initial interviewing.

"It's difficult for a victim or a family member to deal with a diocesan attorney," she said.

"If the person is a lawyer he should identify as such and offer the possibility to the victim of talking to someone else if the person feels uncomfortable," said McChesney.

Boston's Thorp said effective ways of building trust include giving victims control over choosing therapists through programs in which the church picks up the cost and working with victims on programs.

"Because of Boston's large number of victims, we have over 300 independent therapists working with us. Survivors are free to choose" a therapist without having to pick from an archdiocesan-approved list, she said.

The archdiocese also has started workshops based on input from victims, she said.

Other practices to build trust cited by church officials include:

-- Having the bishop apologize to victims and offer to meet individually with them.

-- Helping organize support groups for victims.

-- Opening dialogue between church officials and victims' advocacy groups.

SNAP's Clohessy added strong diocesan education programs aimed at prevention, especially at the parish level and with victims as speakers.

"Anytime this issue is discussed publicly, it helps. Abuse thrives in secrecy," he said.

Clohessy also encouraged bishops to work with advocacy groups to reform civil laws -- especially those regarding statute of limitations -- to make it easier to prosecute abusers.


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