Church Says It Wants to Help, but Victims Wary of Support Groups

By Geoff Mulvihill
February 15, 2003

CAMDEN, N.J. -- A group of victims of sexual abuse by priests will meet for the first time Monday to share their experiences with the help of a professional counselor.

But some victims say the meeting could be dangerous: It was organized and paid for by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, the very entity that is in a protracted legal battle over allegations that it did not adequately address abuse cases.

A handful of church-sponsored support groups for victims have begun around the country. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops called for the establishment of the groups in a report released last year responding to the clergy sex abuse scandal.

But the groups have quickly become targets for critics who blame the church for harboring child molesters. Groups like Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, think there is something disingenuous and perhaps dangerous about the church's offers to help.

"The way the church handles everything is through the backdoor and backhanded," said Gary Mulford, of New Gretna, a SNAP member who has a pending lawsuit against the church alleging he was sexually abused by a priest in the Camden Diocese. "I don't know how they can get anyone to trust them."

Mulford fears church-sponsored groups will either misguide their members or break their confidence. Like other activists, he would prefer that dioceses publicize SNAP's meetings (few do) and pay for counseling for victims (many do, though there are complaints that too many strings are attached.)

Vicky Cubberley, a victim of sexual abuse by a Philadelphia priest when she was a teenager in the 1960s and the head of SNAP in southern New Jersey, said she would attend the diocese support group's first meeting to see what happens. Most of the victims who attend will probably go for another reason, she said.

"They might feel as though it's something that might help them because it's connected to the church," she said. "They're hoping in their heart of hearts the church will do the right thing."

SNAP leaders point to other church outreach efforts as examples of what could go wrong.

Steven Kelly, a SNAP member in Ada, Mich., attended the first meeting of a group organized by the Grand Rapids Diocese last summer. He said a church employee who organized the group told a church lawyer about him.

Kelly said the only information he knows was exchanged was that he had a complaint and would be calling the lawyer. But Kelly fears more transpired.

"It's just extremely dangerous for survivors to be involved with groups like this one that are sponsored by the diocese," Kelly said.

Similar fears last month put on hold plans for a church-sponsored support group in the Orange County, Calif., diocese. There, Bishop Tod D. Brown agreed to suspend planning the group while he gets answers on legal confidentiality questions posed by SNAP regional director Mary Grant.

"One thing we all heartily agree on is we don't want to revictimize anyone who has already been deeply hurt by any clergy or church personnel," Brown wrote in a letter to Grant.

Diocese Chancellor Shirl Giacomi said all 12 of the California dioceses have talked about how to launch support groups, though only Oakland's has done it.

The legal questions are not just hypothetical.

The Camden Diocese has spent nine years fending off a lawsuit filed by 18 men who claim they were abused by priests in the 1960s and 70s.

For more than a year, an Atlantic County Superior Court judge has been holding hearings to determine whether plaintiffs can remain in the suit even though they made their claims after a state statute of limitations expired. So far, the case of each of the seven who have had hearings has been dismissed.

Diocese lawyers have been aggressive in defending the cases. They have subpoenaed counseling records of alleged victims to show they realized they were hurt by abuse long before they filed their lawsuits.

That helps the church to undermine the plaintiffs' claims that they waited so long because they didn't immediately realize the abuse damaged them.

The counseling records obtained by the church include some from therapy sessions that were funded by the church _ and some that were not.

Barbara Gondek, the diocese's victim assistance coordinator, arranged the support group that begins meeting Monday and sent letters informing two-dozen victims about it. She said the structure of the group should make it so confidentiality is hard to break.

The group's professional facilitator, a licensed clinical social worker who is not connected with the church, is not to keep attendance records or take notes.

While the SNAP leaders are vocal, there are other victims of priests' abuse. And some of them have asked the diocese officials for support groups.

In Orange County, a victim from decades ago attended some SNAP meetings, thought they were not helping him, then approached the church asking for help, said Giacomi, the chancellor there.

"There has been a need expressed by victims for a support group for victims of sexual abuse by clergy," said Camden Diocese spokesman Andrew Walton. "That is not a need that has been met elsewhere."

Walton said victims asked for a group that would not be open to family of victims.

Since last summer, SNAP has had a chapter in the area. But that young group has been focused on advocacy and activism _ holding a news conference to announce new cases, for example _ as well as emotional support. And for a time, the meetings were run by the mother of a victim, who had no training on managing support groups.

Not all support groups run by churches are questioned by SNAP.

The Oakland, Calif., diocese began one last May. Unlike the others being launched, that one is specifically aimed at victims who are or want to continue to be practicing Catholics. It meets on church property and church officials are present.

That way, there is no question about whether the church will find out whatever is revealed at the meetings, said Terrie Light, the SNAP regional director for the Northwest. And there is a church person there to hear grievances against the church.

"There should be a lot of ways for people to get help," Light said.

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