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CHARTER-PARISHES Oct-26-2004 (1,070 words) With logo posted Oct. 23, 2003. One in an ongoing series. xxxn

Dioceses reach out to parishes feeling isolated by abuse accusations

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ann Peacock recalls the time about 10 years ago when her parish was in shock over the removal of a priest accused of child sex abuse.

"We found out through television" and there was little help from the diocese to ease the anger and pain of parishioners, she said.

"We were like orphans. A different retired priest was sent out each week to say Mass. There was no discussion," she said. "It was four weeks before a diocesan official came out to talk about the situation."

Now, Peacock is on a "crisis team" in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, which heads out immediately to inform parishioners about such situations. The team holds listening sessions, provides people in need with individual counseling and looks into pastoral ways of providing healing to the wounded parish community.

Such teams of volunteers, also called "rapid response teams," are being formed throughout U.S. dioceses as part of the U.S. bishops' outreach policies outlined in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The charter calls for outreach programs to victims, to their families and "to faith communities in which the sex abuse occurred."

These teams also provide information about what people should do if they have information about specific allegations.

Peacock has been pastoral associate and religious education coordinator at Sacred Heart Parish in Yarmouth in the Portland Diocese for 18 years. She became a crisis team volunteer when the teams started being formed in 2003.

"The crisis at my parish suggested that we needed this," said Peacock.

Portland has five teams made up of two to three people each. Team members are chosen because of their experience in handling parish crises or because of their specialized skills in dealing with counseling and sex abuse situations. Peacock's three-member team has a psychologist and a retired social worker.

People in several dioceses involved in outreach programs interviewed by Catholic News Service said parishioners generally express shock, anger and a sense of betrayal when they learn that a parish priest has been accused.

They added that these feelings are compounded because diocesan officials are often limited in the amount of information they can provide to parishioners as a police investigation may be in progress or because of the need to protect the privacy of the accused and the accuser.

"We find a grieving pattern of anger, denial and sadness," said Peacock. "Parishioners' first concern is: Will the parish be closed? Their sense of identity is challenged if the parish is closed."

There are parishioners who defend the priest and "those who are uncomfortable, worried about what might have happened with their children," said Peacock.

Joseph Naff, director of the Office for Healing and Pastoral Care in the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., said parishioners find it especially hard to believe an allegation against a priest they have known for a long time if the alleged incident occurred decades before.

"You tell them about an allegation of abuse that may have occurred many years ago in another parish and they say, 'This is not the priest I know,'" said Naff, who has visited 10-12 parishes affected by accusations since his office opened in 2001.

Carol Brinati, communications director for the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., said the parish is like a family and such accusations cut deep.

"Parishioners feel betrayed by the priest if the allegations are true, by the bishop who removed the priest and because they felt they knew a person well and now maybe they didn't," said Brinati, who has visited affected parishes to help people deal with the media.

Kathy Hummel, an Orlando crisis team member said that the team often has to go back several times "to get a parish back on its feet."

"It takes several months for some. For others, never," said Hummel, a clinical social worker and a sex abuse therapist.

Common aspects of outreach policies to parishes include:

-- A meeting of the crisis team with parish leaders prior to the announcement a priest is being removed so the leaders can be briefed on the situation and they can help field questions.

-- A letter from the bishop announcing the removal read at weekend Masses by the bishop or his personal delegate.

-- Meetings after Masses where parishioners can get more information.

-- Providing professional counseling aid to parishioners requesting it.

-- Informing the bishop and other diocesan officials of parishioners' concerns and suggestions.

Some dioceses supplement the bishop's letter with a press release made available to parishioners so that they have official information by which to judge media reports.

A delicate issue is judging how much information to tell the parishioners about the allegation. Many dioceses follow the lead of law enforcement agencies, providing only the data that the agencies make public. Others are more cautious, not even giving out the public details but telling parishioners how they can get those details.

A major concern is protecting the privacy and the right to due process of the accused and the privacy of the accuser, especially if he or she still lives in the parish and if the accuser is still a minor.

The situation is a two-edged sword, said Monica Howa-Johnson, communications director and supervisor of safe environment programs for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

In one case a priest born in a Latin American country was arrested two years ago for soliciting sex online in a police entrapment, she said. The pastor discussed the situation at Mass, but did not provide all the information available to the diocese, she added.

"The case was still pending in court and we didn't feel good about publicly humiliating someone," she said.

But the priest was popular with Hispanics who did not believe that he could be guilty, she said. "They rallied behind the priest because they didn't have all the facts."

The priest eventually pleaded no contest and returned to his native country, said Howa-Johnson.

Orlando's Hummel said that an important element in helping parishioners cope is getting them to separate their feelings from their faith and to see that their faith, through prayer, has the tools to get them beyond the crisis.

"I tell them that priests are men and that some are damaged men," she said.

Hummel then turns them toward prayer. "Pray for the priest, but also for the victim and the other parishioners," she said.


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