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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 11/19/2003 3:40 PM ET

Dioceses start support groups for clergy sex abuse victims

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Once a month Sister Barbara Flannery waits outside a door for about two hours. On the other side is a support group for people sexually abused as minors by priests.

"I'm there, hanging around," said Sister Flannery, chancellor of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Sister Flannery and a priest who also was abused as a minor are milling around in case the group wants to talk to them. She told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview that sometimes they are invited in to discuss spiritual issues or are approached by an individual afterward.

The diocese organized and finances the support group.

Other dioceses around the United States also are organizing support groups as part of the outreach services to victims of clergy sex abuse. Support groups -- composed of victims talking among themselves -- are often an important way for victims to release the anger and pain locked inside them.

Victims need to repeat their stories many times to release the anguish in them, said Herminia Shea, a licensed psychologist in California who has organized a victims' support group for the Diocese of Orange, Calif.

"Family and friends can hear the story one time, but it is hard to listen to it over and over," she said.

The diocese also sponsors a support group that is solely for relatives of victims, organized by another licensed psychologist.

Few people who have not been abused can understand what a victim is going through, said Shea.

In a victims' support group, participants talk among themselves and "are able to express their feelings and frustrations with no fear or shame," she said.

They learn that other people have gone through the same thing "so they don't feel so alone," said Shea.

"Somebody is understanding what you are going through. This is important for healing," Shea said.

"In any trauma, you are trying to make sense to yourself of what you are going through," she added.

"When you see you have a mirror in someone else, you connect with the outside world," she said.

Shea describes her role at the group sessions as a "facilitator" who provides an environment where people feel safe in expressing themselves freely without feeling threatened.

Shea said that support groups are helpful but are not therapy sessions.

They should be understood as complementary to private therapy as each individual has personal needs and develops at different stages, she said.

"Dropouts are normal. No group can fit everyone's need," Shea said.

Bernard Nojadera, director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., said his diocese organized a support group but it is no longer meeting because the members decided it would be better to continue with their personal therapy first.

"One survivor said he had anger issues he needed to confront before he could be useful to others," said Nojadera.

Barbara Elordi, pastoral outreach coordinator for the San Francisco Archdiocese, said that support groups are a place where victims have the opportunity to progress with their lives.

"Clinically, it's a place where they feel hope and experience movement forward," said Elordi.

"We make clear we don't want them stuck in place," she said.

Through a support group, victims can network with each other, she said. "As people get more healed, they can get together for more things."


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