Spiritual Director Departs
Caught in Controversy over Church Support Group

By David Yonke
Toledo Blade [Toledo OH]
Downloaded May 3, 2003

Ann Welly, one of two spiritual directors hired by the Toledo diocese to lead a support group for abuse victims, has resigned, saying there was too much anger and not enough trust.

"I think I made an error saying I would be involved in this," said Mrs. Welly, who quit after two meetings. "It's not my style."

The support group was embattled even before its first meeting April 14 at Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish.

Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she had "grave concerns" over the church-sponsored group and asked the diocese to suspend the sessions temporarily.

The head of the national victims' advocacy group cited such issues as victims' confidentiality, counselors' qualifications, the lack of public announcements about the meetings, and the location of the sessions in a church, which can be traumatic for people abused by clerics.

Mrs. Welly, a retired Lourdes College instructor and a longtime member of Corpus Christi, said in an interview this week that she was torn by the controversy, wanting to help the church promote healing but also respecting the concerns of SNAP officials.

"I do understand SNAP's position," Mrs. Welly said. "I know there's not a lot of trust. People don't trust the Catholic Church anymore."

She believes she can be more effective in helping the church and abuse victims by promoting her soon-to-be-published book, Weaving from the Threads of Abuse: A Process Journal (iUniverse Press) and by holding workshops with her co-author, former nun Sue Wilhelm.

Mrs. Welly said that as spiritual director and co-facilitator of the support group, she was stymied by the survivors' anger.

"Victims of clerical sexual abuse are justifiably angry, but there are ways to deal with issues without being angry," she said. "You have to go through that stage, but you can't stay in that stage."

The charter adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November states that support groups "should be fostered and encouraged in every diocese" in an effort to promote healing and reconciliation.

Mrs. Welly asserted that the groups "are a good thing" but that they will take time to yield results. "I think they can work, but I think my time is better spent doing the healing work directly" through her book and workshops.

Frank DiLallo, the diocesan case manager who oversees the outreach to abuse victims, said the diocese mailed invitations to every victim who has contacted his office. He would not estimate the number of letters sent out.

One participant, who requested anonymity, said fewer than five people have attended each of the three meetings.

Mr. DiLallo said the meetings were not announced publicly because they are only for people who were abused by priests and diocesan employees. If anyone would like to attend the support group, they need to contact him at the Catholic Office Building, he said.

"There's no way other than that that we can keep boundaries on it," he said.

If an announcement were made, he said, "we could get anybody in the group and that's not what we're looking for. It's a specific group for victims of a breach in our policy. And we don't want just anybody walking into those meetings."

The meetings were held in a church "just to get things started" and to ensure privacy for victims by barring the media from the private property, Mr. DiLallo said.

He said he would consider suggestions on holding the sessions elsewhere and, in fact, several victims said they received letters this week saying the next meeting will be held in a public library.

Another Toledoan who attended the first three sessions said she felt the facilitators were not prepared to lead the group.

"I think they were prepared to deal with victims of sexual abuse, but not to deal with people who are angry at the church for covering up and protecting the perpetrators," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Mrs. Blaine and local SNAP coordinator Claudia Vercellotti said church-sponsored support groups in Boston and Grand Rapids, Mich., served as "information-gathering sessions" for diocesan attorneys.

With the Toledo diocese now facing 16 sex-abuse lawsuits, SNAP called for greater assurances that church lawyers will not be able to use support-group discussions in planning legal strategies.

Mr. DiLallo strongly denied that possibility and said the invitations specified to victims that all information related to the support group was confidential.

"We don't want any record or communication of what goes on in the group," Mr. DiLallo said. "All I want to know is that it did happen. The facilitators may give some sentiments about whether it went well or not."

Ms. Blaine, a Toledo native who was abused by a priest when she was an eighth-grader at a Toledo parochial school, said church officials could benefit from the knowledge and experience she has gained since founding SNAP in 1989.

"If they truly want to help survivors and set up a therapeutic group, then they should talk to the survivors," she said. "We've been doing this for 13 years in 45 different cities. We might have a little expertise that we could offer."

Mr. DiLallo said he is open to discussing the church's program with SNAP members.

"I know they were upset with the diocese for not consulting them about the formation of the support group," he said. "I'm not opposed to any dialogue around that."

The diocese is looking for a spiritual director to replace Mrs. Welly as co-facilitator along with Daniel Moser, a licensed therapist, Mr. DiLallo said.

The Rev. Michael Billian, chancellor, said he wants the support group to be as independent as possible from the diocese. He said he has instructed Mr. DiLallo not to tell him anything about the meetings. "I don't want to know," Father Billian said.


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