Abuse Victim to Help Diocese Evaluate Accused Priests

By Judy Peet
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
February 6, 2003

The Diocese of Metuchen, in what has been called a major breakthrough for victims of sex abuse by priests, will name a member of the country's largest survivors' advocacy group to its crisis review board, Bishop Paul Bootkoski said yesterday. Bootkoski is the first Roman Catholic bishop in the nation to invite a representative from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, to help evaluate accused priests.

"This is a major, although belated, breakthrough," said SNAP national Executive Director David Clohessy, noting that a small minority of the 194 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the country have victims on their crisis teams.

"And in the small number that do (have victim representatives), they were handpicked by the church to have the most positive attitude towards the church," Clohessy added.

"This not only acts as recognition of SNAP as an independent voice for the victims, but indicates that the bishop of Metuchen is recognizing how important the victims are in this process."

Bootkoski said his decision to appoint a SNAP member is part of his commitment to do "everything humanly possible to protect our children's safety and to restore, reaffirm and renew trust in our priests.

"It is important that the members of the Diocesan Review Board bring to their deliberations varying experiences as professionals, as laypeople, as clergy and as victims."

The boards, handpicked by each bishop, are supposed to independently review and assess the credibility of sex accusations made against priests.

The names of board members are confidential, said a diocese spokesman.

These boards often comprise doctors, jurists, psychologists and church officials. According to new rules established at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas last June, and revised last fall, the boards must have a majority of members with no affiliation with the diocese.

In the case of Metuchen, attaining a nonaffiliated majority means expanding the review board from 10 to 15 members, Bootkoski said. The SNAP representative would be the first of five new members.

The review boards are supposed to hear from the accused and their accusers and to make recommendations to the bishop regarding further action. If civil suits have been filed, they are to determine whether the suits should be contested or settled.

The board in Metuchen, for instance, last fall heard accusations made against priests and then recommended that the diocese settle out of court on civil suits against five priests. Last week, the diocese paid $800,000 to settle with 10 people who said they had been molested.

The settlement was made even though an independent criminal investigation by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office is ongoing.

The settlement did not require the priests to admit guilt, although one priest was recently convicted of child molestation and another had died in prison while serving time on sexual abuse charges.

Although these boards have no authority to evaluate criminal charges, they can recommend what canonical action should be taken against a priest, if they think his accuser is credible.

The bishop is not, however, bound by their recommendations.

A review in Metuchen last year of all the files of every priest who ever served in the diocese uncovered 18 who had been accused of molestation. The charges date back decades, and some of the accused are now dead, but the files were all forwarded to the prosecutor to see whether any cases warranted criminal charges.

No details will be revealed until the entire investigation is completed, said Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julie McClure. The prosecutors probe was supposed to be completed by the end of 2002, but investigators asked for additional information, McClure said.

Clohessy, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child and who was one of the founders of SNAP in 1989, called the Metuchen appointment another example of the remarkable growth of the survivors' advocacy group.

A year ago, he noted, "we could barely get arrested." Church leaders refused to even meet with victims and ignored or covered up even the most blatant cases of priests violating children.

Then, a year ago, a Boston Globe investigation detailed the abuses of former priest and child predator John Geoghan, and the efforts of the church to protect him at the cost of children.

The clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted into the greatest crisis in the history of the country's largest denomination. Victims came forward everywhere.

SNAP's membership doubled to more than 4,500, and the victims that the church denied existed were suddenly invited to address the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And to appear on "Oprah."

Clohessy admits he enjoyed some of the limelight, but said the Bootkoski appointment represents more of a chance for change.

"This isn't at all easy for survivors of sexual abuse. It forces us to relive the pain we suffered at the hands of the clergy," he said.

"But if we can help make sure that these boards deal with the problems openly, maybe it will help us heal, too."


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