Supporting Victims Remains Group's Focus

By Greg Jonsson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
May 5, 2003

He woke up at 4 in the morning and paced in the darkness for three hours, when he finally called his brother.

"Put your clothes on," he told his brother. "Tell your wife you'll be gone for about an hour."

A few minutes later they were at a St. Louis County parish, and everything looked the same. The air conditioner hanging in the window. The door he'd kept between himself and the priest after he was abused. The porch where he'd waited for his mother to come pick him up early one morning 30 years ago.

"It was a little shaky," the man said with an empty laugh. "I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I took my brother with me."

It was a simple story about a man facing a fear he had lived with for decades, but it had a powerful effect on the members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Some members of the support group cried, others passed around tissues. Some just sat in awe of the man's courage.

Silence filled the bare basement at the Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis, where the group met that night. About a dozen SNAP members faced each other on two black couches and a handful of chairs that formed the group into a circle.

SNAP's executive director, David Clohessy, was among those wiping at his eyes.

Thank you," he said simply to the man who told his story.

These twice-monthly support group meetings are the rarely seen side of SNAP.

The group has risen to national prominence, especially in the wake of last year's abuse scandal. Members have picketed meetings of church officials, handed out leaflets at churches where they believe abuse has taken place, and pushed for change in the Roman Catholic Church.

After years of trying to draw attention to the issue, Clohessy has addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and was named one of People magazine's most intriguing people of 2002. He and other SNAP members hold news conferences and comment on abuse for the media.

But its public agenda is just a small part of SNAP's work, Clohessy says. He describes the group as 5 percent Mothers Against Drunk Driving and 95 percent Alcoholics Anonymous. Much of its work - perhaps the most important - is done in phone calls and support group meetings, he says.

"We are and always have been first and foremost a support group and only much more recently and gradually an activist group working to prevent future abuse," Clohessy said.

SNAP's public face - its MADD-like advocacy role - has not only drawn attention to sexual abuse by members of the clergy but also fed the group's exponential growth as more people seek out SNAP for its support role.

Many of its members, such as the man who told the support group about his trip back to the church where he was abused, have found SNAP through mentions of the group in the media.

The man, who didn't want his name used for fear of harassment, read about SNAP in a story in the Post-Dispatch about five months ago.

"I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" he said. "'They're actually doing something about these guys?'"

He found the group's phone number and dialed it. He hung up before someone picked up. Another time he got a machine but couldn't imagine leaving a message.

After a few more false starts, he found himself talking with Clohessy. He told Clohessy he was an abuse victim, then he realized he didn't know what to say.

"Do you want to talk or do you want me to tell my story?" he remembers Clohessy asking. It was disarming, and because he didn't know if he wanted to tell his story yet, he listened to Clohessy's tale of abuse at the hands of priest.

After a few months of talking on the phone, the man ventured to his first SNAP meeting.

In that time, his abuse has gone from a secret shared with a select few to one he's told openly in support group meetings and in a police report filed against the priest he says abused him and others.

"I just thought it was something I was going to live with the rest of my life, that it was going to be my dark secret," the man said.

Instead, he found a place to tell his story and hear the stories of others - young and old, men and women, victims of priests and nuns and other religious figures.

"People are going to believe you"

That progression is a typical path for those who find their way to SNAP meetings, though faster than most, Clohessy said.

"I've talked to people (on the phone) for two years before they even tell me their name," Clohessy said. "We have had some people show up at the meeting and pull out this yellowed clipping from years before with our number in it."

The SNAP meeting is unlike anything else, members say.

"When you tell your story here, you're sure people are going to believe you and you can't do that anywhere else," said Barbara Dorris, a SNAP volunteer and support group member.

It's also a place where people will listen without trying to "fix" or brush aside abuse victims.

"Even well-intentioned people say things that at the best aren't helpful and at worst are hurtful," Clohessy said. "Many a loving spouse has said, 'Well, gee, can't you get past this?'"

People who say they've always felt "different" or "weird" say they suddenly feel understood, their feelings validated.

"When you talk about wanting to hurt yourself or cut off contact with everyone in your life, and you see heads nodding instead of foreheads wrinkling - that's very healing," Clohessy said.

Group member Bob Swart agrees.

"Most of our lives we haven't been able to talk to the people closest to us," Swart said at a recent meeting. "People just don't want to hear from us.

"It suddenly occurs to me why support groups are called support groups," Swart said, looking around at the nodding heads.

Many come to SNAP only after years of problems they never attribute to their childhood traumas.

"It's a whole constellation of self-destructive behavior ranging from suicidal thoughts to having a short fuse," Clohessy said of the feelings and experiences many SNAP members have in common. "It takes a range of painful life experiences before we start to look inward. ... Some of us went years before connecting the dots."

Until the recent media spotlight on sexual abuse in religious groups, most of the members of SNAP had years or decades of such experiences behind them. Now, some members come forward in their teens or 20s.

"The good news is you guys are coming out early," Dorris said, referring to some of the younger people at the meeting. "The bad news is it never goes away."

Clohessy said the group hopes to continue helping people come forward earlier.

"The presence of younger people in the group is just so encouraging," he said. "It's tragic the abuse is still happening ... (but) they will be spared 20 or 30 years of shame and self-blame and self-destructive behavior and feeling weird and ostracized."

Reporter Greg Jonsson:
Phone: 314-340-8253


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