Trouble at the Altar

By Jim Cryns
GM Today [Wisconsin]
Downloaded June 26, 2003

Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in private practice, is one of the founding members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, a national organization dedicated to reaching out to as many survivors of sexual abuse by priests as possible. "I'm the local leader here in Milwaukee," Isely explains. Isely is listed as a regional director on the group's Web site.

"(SNAP's) founding members come from all over the United States. We have members from St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia. There's about 4,500 active members of SNAP right now."

SNAP ( is fighting to educate victims about the effects of abuse and how to recover from the abuse. "The abuse that we have experienced is only part of the problem. We often feel ignored or rebuffed by church officials," Isely says. "SNAP makes it safer for victims to come forward and encourages the Catholic Church to change its actions toward abusive clergy and survivors of clergy abuse."

Isely himself was abused by someone he knew well. He seems at peace and appears to have dealt with his horrifying experiences. "I'm doing something about what happened to me," Isely explains. "I was a victim. I was particularly vulnerable to my attacker because he was aware of my family's devotion to the church. He used my family's dedication to God as a tool against me. The priest told me it would devastate my mother if anything scandalous were to reach her. He believed that would ensure my silence.

"I'm still a practicing Catholic. I fell away for a little while, but I'm back."

The manner in which the church has dealt with known offenders is particularly vexing and abhorrent to Isely. "When a sex offender was discovered, there was a way for the church to get around the criminal reporting to the authorities. Then they got the guy out of the prosecution's district and put the priest into a facility that they were running." Isely says church officials would garner as much information about the incident and on the priest who allegedly committed the crime, develop an assessment on the priest and keep him "on ice" for six to nine months. "At that point the Bishop could bring him back into his diocese or his religious order and put him somewhere else. It was an extremely fine tuned operation. The church actually bragged about how miniscule their liability in these cases seemed to be.

"Milwaukee is as bad as Boston in terms of abuse cases. It's mystifying and frustrating that we haven't had law enforcement investigations relating to the criminal activity."

It's almost incomprehensible to imagine a religious order and a progressive Pope just sitting by while a host of priests were abusing children and young men. One of the prevailing beliefs among SNAP members is that the Catholic Church knew the abuse was occurring, but chose to ignore it. "When you look at the mounting evidence, what they did actually was to take this information and devise a secret institutional response," Isely explains. "They wanted to take on the problem, but at the same time they went to great lengths to avoid exposure to the public and expose themselves to liability.

"This is really the third wave of public awareness of the problem of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church," Isely reports. "We really started to unearth the problem in the mid-'80s in New Orleans. That's when the depth and scope of this problem was really discovered. During that time, the American Catholic Bishops studied the issue, and determined this was one of the greatest problems facing the American Catholic Church. They understood it would not only affect the ranks of the priesthood but also cost the church a great deal of money."

Isely says the Catholic Church has engaged in and funded an extensive analysis throughout the '80s as this problem became more visible to the public eye. "They already knew about the problem," Isely insists.

Isely says he can almost understand why the Catholic Church feels they have to challenge the accusations. "The priest is the last link between parish members and the church. If the church loses too many of the priests, they will ultimately lose members of the church."

Isely is quick to point out this motive is not an excuse for their actions.

Pope John Paul II has enjoyed a level of popularity and adoration among Catholics like few before him. Isely says there are divergent opinions on the Pope's culpability in the matter of abuse. "The conservative Catholics and the liberal Catholics seem to have two theories," Isely says. "One branch seems to feel the Pope is completely insulated from these situations and not being told what is actually happening. But keep in mind, it's the current Pope that put these bishops into their current positions. Part of the problem has been the diplomatic channels."

Isely hopes the future will bring substantial legislative changes regarding those abused by priests. "What I'd like to see are some substantial law changes. The statute of limitations that currently restricts prosecution has got to change. Things are a lot better today just because it's more widely known and we recognize it as a global problem."


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