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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 12/15/2003 3:34 PM ET

Having victims as review board members gets mixed reaction

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Nora Connors was outraged twice over because of the scandals involving clergy sex abuse of minors.

At first she was an angry parishioner wondering if the church was digging into the collection plate to pay for settlements. Then the crisis reawakened the 67-year-old, semi-retired accountant's awareness that she had survived abuse by a priest when she was 9 years old.

Now Connors' concerns have an official outlet. She is one of nine members of the review board in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., where she advises on prevention policies and on actions to be taken against accused priests.

"Having a survivor on the board is part of our approach. A survivor is part of our community," said Marianna Thompson, diocesan communications director and a review board consultant.

"She knows the feelings of survivors. She is understanding and articulate and helps us come to a fuller understanding of each situation," Thompson said of Connors.

Having a victim on the board, however, has not been a uniformly positive experience for dioceses.

In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, two victims quit the board over policy disagreements in 2003, with one saying publicly that he also left the church. In the Diocese of Orange, Calif., one victim who was on a transitional board scheduled to evolve into a review board left and filed a civil suit against the diocese when California temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for sex abuse of minors cases.

Neither is Connors immune from controversy. She did not come quietly to the Paterson board.

"Anything that I say is my own opinion and I'm not necessarily reflecting the opinion of the board," she said in prefacing her telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

"I try to resolve problems from within rather than walk away," said Connors.

"I've been a Catholic all my life. I like the theology. I don't like all of the hierarchy," she said.

Connors told CNS that she was getting upset reading about abuse cases and the money being spent to resolve them. She wrote her complaints to Paterson Bishop Frank J. Rodimer and suggested the diocese should be funding outreach programs for victims and parishes affected by the crisis.

She followed up with phone calls to diocesan officials asking that the money she contributed to a building fund be returned. Connors said that she got the money back and an invitation in early 2002 to be on the diocesan response team which later became the review board.

"I bring an understanding of victims and what they are going through to the items we are considering. This takes some of the bureaucracy and routineness out of the air," she said.

Connors is also a member of Voice of the Faithful, a group which formed in the wake of the sex abuse crisis to ask for changes in the church.

Several church officials and review board members from other dioceses said that they are open to having victims on boards in the future, but initially the preference is for impartial experts who are not viewed as advocates for a side. Church officials also caution that victims may bring too much of their personal pain to board issues.

The victims who resigned in Dubuque and Orange said they considered board deliberations too secretive.

Melvin Loes, an 80-year-old retired truck driver, said he left the Dubuque board last May, after asking to be on it in 2002. He told CNS that he also left the church after being a lifelong Catholic.

"I didn't agree with the operation. Everything was confidential," he said of the board.

To Loes, who said he was abused as an altar boy in 1938-39, confidentiality meant cover-up. He also felt meetings should be public and board members should be free to publicly discuss their work.

Dubuque officials said confidentiality is needed given the sensitivity of the issues discussed and because some discussions involve individuals.

"People are entitled to a good name unless proven otherwise. Morally, we can't publicize accusations alone," said Msgr. James Barta, Dubuque vicar general.

Joelle Casteix said she dropped out of the Orange diocesan transition board because she felt a lawsuit was the only way to get the diocese to release confidential documents.

Casteix, who heads her own public relations firm, said review boards need to be more than advisory bodies to bishops. The U.S. bishops' policy approved by the Vatican grants boards only advisory functions.

"They should act like a grand jury, be independent, and have power to investigate and make public recommendations," Casteix said.

Casteix said she was abused by a priest from 1986 to 1988 while attending a Catholic high school.

Shirl Giacomi, Orange diocesan chancellor, said Casteix did not express any of these concerns when she was on the transition board.

END

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