Archdiocese of Mobile Plans Sex Abuse Hot Line
Counselors Will Be Available to Help Individuals Talk about Allegations

By Steve Myers
Mobile Register [Mobile AL]
April 25, 2003

In response to recently disclosed sexual abuse accusations in the local Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Mobile plans to set up a hot line so people can report abuse or request counseling, according to a church official.

The hot line should be running by next week, said the Very Rev. Michael L. Farmer, chancellor of the archdiocese. It will be staffed by Catholic Social Services counselors during the day and early evening. Both local and toll-free numbers should be available, he said.

Counselors will help individuals talk about alleged abuse and will offer advice on how they might proceed. Callers will be able to report a priest, request information about certain clergy or even "just vent their feelings," Farmer said.

Some of the information might have to go to the district attorney's office, Farmer said, because counselors are required by law to report such allegations to law enforcement.

In-depth counseling wouldn't take place over the phone, Farmer said, but it could follow. Such counseling may be funded by the church.

"That's a great idea, if in fact the information, all of it, is turned over to law enforcement and the district attorney," said Pat Guyton, director of the Child Advocacy Center, which investigates and provides counseling for abuse allegations. A better option, he suggested, would be a church-funded line directly to law enforcement.

"The first line of information when people call a hot line should be to the DA's office or to law enforcement if they're making accusations of past sexual abuse," Guyton said.

Well after the Catholic Church in other parts of the United States became embroiled in scandals regarding priests who sexually abused children, the Church in Mobile now finds itself in a similar position.

In February, the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock left the ministry in Montgomery after Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb learned of a case of sexual abuse by Sherlock after the priest already had admitted to such abuse of three teens in the 1970s.

The Rev. Arthur C. Schrenger later was removed because of sex abuse allegations.

Lipscomb also disclosed that he had removed Brother Vic Bendillo, a former teacher and counselor at McGill-Toolen High School, several years ago after similar accusations. Bendillo was arrested Thursday and charged with four sex abuse crimes involving two victims.

Told of the archdiocese's plans to create the hot line, victim's advocate Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, said, "That's bad." In other places, she said, such hot lines have led to problems.

Based in Louisville, Ky., The Linkup is a national advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse. Archibald said that one major problem is that conversations on such hot lines are "like a deposition."

The Boston Globe reported in January that church lawyers had started requiring church therapists to answer questions under oath about the emotional states of alleged victims. A church spokeswoman was quoted as saying the church was obligated to defend itself legally because civil lawsuits were moving toward trial.

And the Sacramento Bee reported that two women had sued the Diocese of Sacramento, claiming that the woman who answers that sex abuse hot line is a lawyer, not a trained counselor. The lawyer and church officials responded that her license was inactive and that her job was to provide pastoral care.

"The preference for any of these dioceses is to have the cases settled as quietly as possible, without public disclosure," Archibald said. "If they have the first opportunity to channel things in that direction, then they're going to do it."

Farmer, however, said he didn't think it would be possible for the church to use such information to its advantage. "Obviously, if there is a credible accusation, then it will be found out."

He said the policies directing how the hot line will work, including how information gathered will be disseminated, had not been worked out. Callers will be given the option of identifying themselves or remaining anonymous, Farmer said.

Licensed psychologist and author Thomas G. Plante, who teaches psychology at Santa Clara University, in California, said he understands Archibald's perspective, but such a hot line could be beneficial.

Depending on the diocese, he said, "it makes a lot of sense that people would not trust the church or local diocese given their experience in the past, but that doesn't mean it can't be done right."


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