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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 11/14/2003 3:56 PM ET

Christmas party, healing teams part of outreach to sex abuse victims

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the San Francisco Archdiocese, Barbara Elordi is planning a Christmas party for people who were sexually abused as minors by priests.

In the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., Dominican Sister Ellen Finn is organizing healing teams to help victims of clergy sex abuse overcome their traumas.

Through media ads, Web sites, hot lines and parish announcements, Elordi and Sister Finn, along with other diocesan officials across the country, are getting the word out about a wide range of services and programs available to victims.

The U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" tells dioceses to offer programs such as counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups and other services mutually agreed upon by victims and church officials.

A Christmas party by mutual agreement?

It brings some lightness to what is a heavy situation, said Elordi, San Francisco archdiocesan pastoral outreach coordinator. "We must be friends, be pastoral."

The path to church services is often rough terrain for victims, as many are still hesitant to trust the institution they felt betrayed them, said victims and diocesan officials interviewed by Catholic News Service.

Important to success is overcoming mistrust and involving victims in the development of programs, they said.

So Bernard Nojadera of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., went to a local meeting of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and passed out his card.

"At first people clammed up. I told them: 'I represent the diocese, which wants to make things right. We want to offer whatever we can,'" said Nojadera, director of the diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.

Now, three victims and several wives of victims are on the diocesan 24-member lay pastoral outreach committee, he said.

Cooperating with victims is crucial in developing programs because of the high degree of sensitivity felt by victims, said Terrie Light, a victim who has worked with the Diocese of Oakland, Calif.

Most people working for the church do not understand these sensitivities unless they have been highly trained, said Light, licensed in California as a marriage and family therapist. "Church people just don't know what survivors want." (Many church officials and people who have been abused use the term "survivor" to describe a clergy sex abuse victim.)

Light praised the Oakland Diocese for starting a dialogue with survivors in the late 1990s.

One result was a healing prayer service in 2000 in which then-Oakland Bishop John S. Cummins apologized to victims and to the entire church community.

"This service of apology was created by the survivors. We wrote the words we wanted them (church leaders) to say," said Light, who was abused in the Oakland Diocese and still lives in the area.

Several other dioceses have held similar liturgies.

Oakland diocesan chancellor Sister Barbara Flannery, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, said she would like to have reconciliation services in 2004 in each parish where abuse occurred.

"One survivor termed this 'an exorcism of the place,'" said Sister Flannery, who is in charge of diocesan programs for victims.

Other Oakland programs that have evolved from this cooperation include support groups, workshops, retreats and personal counseling by qualified professionals.

"We continue to offer therapy even though people are litigating against us," said Sister Flannery.

Several victims said that the smaller, private therapy programs aimed at easing the trauma are more important than the highly publicized healing liturgies.

"Healing services are like a ribbon-cutting. More significant is the follow-up," said Alexandria Roberts, head of the San Jose chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Healing services become "a media circus" and many victims do not have the "media savvy" to handle this, she said.

For Sister Finn, associate executive director for the Brooklyn Diocese, "a lot is about opening doors and making people feel welcome."

She is developing healing teams of priests, religious and lay people who can work one-on-one and in groups with victims and their families.

"Sometimes the families need just as much care as the victims," she said.

Sister Finn's goal is to have a healing team in each of the diocese's four territorial jurisdictions, called vicariates, and use them as the outreach to parishes affected by clergy sex abuse.

The diocese is working with Safe Horizons, an independent organization that specializes in trauma counseling, to set up programs. Victims who are not in a professionally qualified therapeutic program are referred to Safe Horizons, said Sister Finn.

The diocese also provides victims with a list of spiritual directors trained in dealing with people traumatized by sex abuse.

Many victims "have a strong belief in God and the (church) institution got in the way," said Sister Finn. "They are longing for something that has been taken away from them."

A major task is to get victims to see that "not faith, but the institution has hurt them," she said.

Elordi of the San Francisco Archdiocese said that when the sex abuse occurred part of the trauma was that priests surrounded the abuse with spiritual issues and threatened the children with a spiritual punishment such as going to hell if they told anyone what happened.

In general, developing outreach programs requires creativity and patience, said Elordi. In cooperation with victims, she has held a writing workshop.

Expressing feelings on paper through a diary, essays and poetry is a therapeutic way of easing emotional pain, said Elordi.

Elordi is also working with victims to develop an artistic program by which victims with musical and writing talents would go to parishes to play music composed by victims and read their own poetry.

"We want people to see survivors more as persons who have done a lot to overcome their problems," she said.

END

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