Survivors Group Urges Bishops Not to Neglect Crisis

By Jennifer A. Bowen
Bellville Democrat [Belleville IL]
Downloaded June 20, 2003

An O'Fallon man, who said he was sexually abused by a metro-east priest more than 40 years ago, hopes the country's bishops realize that covering up the abuse tells priests it's OK to abuse.

"There is no redeeming quality in covering this up," Jeff of O'Fallon said. "It is even worse than the deed itself. I want the Catholic church to abandon the idea that there is some greater good to be served by covering this up."

More than 130 bishops from across the country are meeting in St. Louis this week.

Members of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests gave a letter to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville. The letter asks the bishops to "stop meddling in the business of the review board" and replace ousted head of the board, Gov. Frank Keating, with someone with a law background and similar qualifications as Keating. Keating was forced to resign after making comments comparing the Catholic bishops to the Mafia.

"I have confidence that (Gregory) will consider our requests," said Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP. "He has listened to us in the past about our concerns and we expect he will listen to us now. We at least want to influence him in the decisions he makes."

Blaine believes that the closed sessions held by the bishops for half of the day Thursday and all day today and their refusal to discuss the sexual abuse allegations by priests in the church "sends a strong message to victims and shows us their actions don't measure up to their words."

During the closed session Thursday afternoon, bishops raised questions about how a questionnaire distributed by the board would help solve the sexual abuse crisis, Gregory said.

Last year the bishops announced a new era of "openness and transparency," when dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse, but, this year the bishops are operating under a "veil of silence and secrecy," Blaine said.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago believes the church has done everything promised to victims at the bishops conference in Dallas last year.

"As far as I know, every bishop went back and removed from ministry anyone who was credibly accused of abuse," George said. "We have done that. There is still a good deal of work to be done, but what we promised to do a year ago has been done."

More than 30 victims and members of SNAP held a silent vigil outside of the bishops' conference Thursday to remember victims abused by priests.

Jeff is one of those victims.

He was abused in 1965 through 1966 by a priest who has been dead for 10 years. Jeff was abused when he was 15 to 17 by a man he said he looked up to as a mentor and friend.

"I was as vulnerable as you could be," Jeff said. "I never knew my dad, rarely saw my mom and lived in foster homes. He was the only man who every took any interest in me and the things I did. He always praised my accomplishments and wanted to spend time with me. To me, as a priest, he was right up there with God. But he had a plan. He knew what he was doing."

The Catholic church was a beacon in Jeff's life and the sanctuary was a place he knew he could go and feel welcome.

"He basically took from me the only safe, stable thing in my life," he said.

After the bishops' conference in Dallas last year, Jeff said he knew it was time for him to come forward and tell someone about the abuse. Although telling someone about the abuse was "incredibly hard," Jeff is glad he did.

"I can't say enough good about Bishop Gregory," he said. "He's paid for my counseling for a year now and he has been absolutely wonderful and supportive. I wish there were more bishops like him and I wish more bishops would follow his lead. Unfortunately, my treatment is far different than what most victims have received."

"There was so much hope, optimism, encouragement and enthusiasm last year (at the Dallas bishops conference). It was like a huge balloon going up in the air and then coming down. Blam! It was over. This year (abuse victims) are just an old business item to them on their agenda -- as if we were all taken care of and it's all over."

Lena Woltering of Belleville, a member of Call To Action, the national organization that advocates reforms in the church, said the bishops should discuss sex abuse by priests openly.

"I don't think they live in the real world. They live in an isolated existence," Woltering said. "They are a room full of old men in a vacuum. Until the victims feel totally satisfied that they are being treated fairly, then things aren't being done acceptably."

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein said the church has done what it said it would do regarding sexual abuse by priests, but that issue isn't the only thing on the bishops' minds.

"The sexual abuse ordeal is important, but, we need to continue to tend to all aspects of the needs of the church," he said.

Buechlein said the bishops will engage in a day of prayerful reflection today because "the bishops need to be together prayerfully and hear each other about our concerns."

Through the counseling he has received, Jeff is feeling better about himself and about life than he has in decades, but he doesn't view the Catholic church as the safe haven it once was for him.

"I'm a nomad," Jeff said. "I'm very spiritual but I'm homeless in that regard. I have a very personal relationship with God, but I don't need a broker. I go directly to God."


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