Support Group Gives Aid and Comfort to Victims of Sexual Abuse by Priests

By Kevin Murphy
The Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]
Downloaded April 8, 2003

The middle-aged priest strolling along a south Kansas City sidewalk that summer morning two years ago wasn't such a harmless figure to Jim Hager.

There was something about his face, maybe the horn-rimmed glasses, that reminded Hager of another man -- a Catholic brother he says sexually abused him as a boy 30 years ago in Ohio and Indiana.

"I slammed on the brakes, I jumped out of the car, I grabbed the guy, and I mean I slammed him to the ground hard," Hager recalled recently. "I had my fists drawn back."

Suddenly, Hager said, he realized this was not the man whose memory tortured him all these years."There was this scared individual under me," he said, "And I just broke down."

To Hager's surprise, the priest was forgiving, declined to call police and said he was sorry about what happened to Hager so long ago.

Hager said that although he was already in therapy, the episode made him realize he needed something more. He needed to talk about the past with people who had long suppressed similar abuse experiences.

He sought out the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization whose membership has grown rapidly during the scandal of sexual abuse by priests. Nationally, there are 4,500 members, up from 3,000 a year ago.

"I had kept putting it off," Hager, 43, said. "Finally, when that (incident) happened, I realized that this is a lot deeper than I ever thought it was."

Now Hager is a regular at twice-monthly SNAP meetings, where members sit in a small circle on metal folding chairs in a back room of a Westport art supply store.

SNAP has about 60 members in the Kansas City area, with 10 to 20 usually attending each meeting, said chapter director Mike Hunter. The first meeting is the hardest but most liberating, Hunter said.

"Most of the time, people are terrified to come," Hunter said. "They are still really stuck in the shame of what happened to them. Hearing these other people come forward, they gain courage and strength and to say `this happened to me and it wasn't my fault.' "

Stories of long-ago abuse are spilling forth at SNAP meetings in 44 cities with chapters, including Springfield, St. Louis and Wichita, national director David Clohessy said.

"There is a tremendous backlog of pain that has to be dealt with," Clohessy said.

When lawsuits are filed or settled, SNAP is likely to be called by reporters for a reaction. But Clohessy said "95 percent of what we do is quiet, behind-the-scenes support," not litigation.

SNAP is often seen as an adversary of the Catholic church, but Vicar General Patrick Rush of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said the group had acted responsibly.

Rush said the diocese had a victim advocate who referred people to SNAP for advice on counseling and other needs. "They are out there trying to help people," he said.

Last month, the diocese reported paying $836,331 in legal fees, settlements and counseling since the mid-1980s related to sexual abuse by 19 priests. All the incidents occurred between 1951 and 1992, Rush said.

The Jefferson City diocese has paid about $550,000 in the past year stemming from allegations against priests, said Sister Ethel Marie Biri, chancellor of the diocese.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas has not compiled figures on abuse cases, said the Rev. Charles McGlinn, vicar general for personnel.

McGlinn said he was not aware of the local SNAP chapter but would encourage people needing support to consult the group.

Memories shared at SNAP meetings often are vivid.

Rob Butler, 30, remembers the cold linoleum floor of the church basement in Nebraska. The priest would playfully spin the 12-year old altar boy in the air until he felt dizzy, then get on top of him after he fell to the floor.

"When it was over, he'd say `Let's go for ice cream,' " said Butler, 30, who drives to the Kansas City meetings from Omaha, Neb.

Timothy Schroeder of Lee's Summit was 10, he said, when a priest took him to a remote rural cemetery in mid-Missouri and raped him in what was the beginning of three years of sexual abuse.

Schroeder remembers the priest plying him with beer and peppermint schnapps, which he believes started him on his path to alcoholism. At the SNAP meeting, he brought along a jumbo plastic mug of beer.

Hager said he was first abused at a youth camp one day when he was ill. The Catholic brother went to his bedside, rubbed his body and then performed oral sex, he said. Abuse continued for almost three years, he said.

Hager said he submitted to sex because he was being made to feel it was expected.

"It's how he presented it -- that this is what you do to right yourself with God," Hager said. "It's expected of you as a Catholic boy."

Victims often thought they were privileged to get the affection of a priest. "We were made to feel closer to God because they were attracted to us," Schroeder said.

The Jefferson City diocese has paid Schroeder about $100,000 over the past 13 months for rent, psychiatric care and other expenses, the diocese acknowledged.

"SNAP is the foundation of my healing process, more so than therapists," Schroeder said. "Therapists don't get it. Until you've lived it, you just don't get it."

Hager, who said he has not filed any lawsuits or been compensated for abuse, said what happened to him as a boy probably was to blame for four failed marriages. He is on military disability after being injured in the Persian Gulf War.

"It has a tendency to screw up your idea of love, trust and relationships," Hager said.

Butler said he settled with the Lincoln diocese in 1992 for $40,000, which he said was way too little. He has not been able to hold down a job.

"I just can't concentrate on anything," Butler said. He said therapists attributed his inability to focus on post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Women make up half of the SNAP membership, Clohessy said. One of the Kansas City members is Kay Goodnow, 66, who said she was seduced by a priest in the Kansas City area at age 15. It lasted for three years.

Goodnow said she tried to help others find peace and strength.

"Most of them are very, very angry still and very confused," Goodnow said. "Most of them feel cheated out of a normal life. Normal does not exist for survivors. We just survive."

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