SNAP: Catholic church does not ignore us

by David Clohessy

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In the latest installment of an otherwise helpful series of articles, Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea paints a depressing and incomplete picture of the church's ongoing clergy sex abuse and cover-up crisis.

Because she's a therapist, she understandably focuses on the "healing" half of the crisis. But she gives remarkably short shrift, we feel, to the other and more pressing half: "prevention." And she also offers a very limited portrayal of our organization.

No one doubts Frawley-O'Dea's sincerity, academic qualifications, therapeutic skills or commitment to making the church a more healthy and safe place for all. But familiarity with individual abuse victims in one-on-one counseling sessions doesn't necessarily translate into a sophisticated understanding of the ever-growing victims' movement to, in the words of the SNAP mission statement, "protect the vulnerable, heal the wounded, expose the truth and deter future cover ups."

Perhaps her most surprising claims are that "the church resolutely ignores SNAP's voice" and that we have no "organized" approach to healing. Nearly 30 years of our history strongly suggests otherwise.

If one equates "church" with "bishops," in a very narrow sense, Frawley O'Dea is right: in the short run, bishops often seem to ignore us. I can't ever recall an instance in which, face-to-face, a Catholic official told a group of SNAP members "Gosh, I guess you're right. I will take the action you're seeking."

But fortunately, as no publication has more often and more effectively noted than the NCR, "the church" is not "the bishops." It's primarily laypeople. And laypeople do not ignore SNAP. Thousands of them donate to us, call us, and write to us, almost always with gratitude, support and often great advice.

More importantly, increasing numbers of laypeople, especially current and former church staffers, are growing frustrated with the slowing pace of reform. More and more often, they turn to us as "whistleblowers," sharing helpful information about those who commit or conceal child sex crimes.

But in a broader sense as well, our work is not "ignored" by bishops. To cite just four obvious examples:

  • For a decade, we pushed for a national U.S. church abuse policy. In 2002, that happened.
  • For years, we pushed for a "zero tolerance" pledge by U.S. bishops. Again, in 2002, that happened.
  • For the past 14 years, we've pushed bishops to post names on church websites. With considerable reluctance and varying degrees of inclusiveness, about 30 U.S. bishops have now done this.
  • And since our inception, we've pushed for bishops who endanger kids and protect predators be defrocked, demoted or disciplined. Now, there's at least, on paper, a process that might lead to this sorely-needed action.

Change can happen and is happening, albeit slowly, grudgingly and largely because of persistent pressure.

Therapists often give hope to the hopeless. So it's ironic that we who have been violated by clerics and betrayed by bishops seem to have more hope on the long "moral arc" of this crisis than Frawley-O'Dea does.

Another irony: For more than a quarter century, knowledgeable and respected church observers -- plus apologists for the hierarchy of course -- have relentlessly and often condescendingly preached to us of how, in the words of one "Spotlight" character, "The church thinks in centuries," not years. They've cautioned us that change in the church comes incredibly slowly.

Yet now, just a few years after this crisis has been only partially exposed, in perhaps two dozen of the world's 200 nations, many of those same "experts" are now naively comfortable in believing that, in this one seemingly intractable structural scandal, centuries of recklessness, callousness and secrecy have quickly and magically been reversed. That is, in our view, irresponsible. It's precisely the kind of premature complacency that caused the crisis in the first place and enables it to continue.

It's also worth noting that when we seek media attention holding a new conference outside a chancery office or a leaflet outside a parish, our "audience" isn't solely the church hierarchy. These events almost always bring forward more victims, witnesses, whistleblowers or concerned parishioners. They also impact key secular officials -- police, prosecutors, lawmakers and other governmental officials.

That's how we've played a key role in reforming archaic, predator-friendly state laws, notably the predator-friendly statutes of limitations. That's how we've helped change the public discourse in sex scandals ranging from Dennis Hastert to Bill Cosby to Jerry Sandusky to campus rapes, and helped reduce the shame victims feel and the disbelief they face.

Frawley-O'Dea's second main criticism relates to SNAP's healing work which, frankly, she's never seen.

That's not her fault. We don't invite outsiders or TV cameras into the thousands of confidential support groups we've organized over nearly three decades. We aren't followed by journalists when we meet a brave survivor disclosing for the first time to us at a coffee shop. We don't brag about the painstaking and patient hours we spend on the phone with victims -- or their spouses, partners or parents -- who call, sometimes feeling suicidal or in tears.

Our "healing" work involves all this and more. We listen with patience and compassion. We assure victims the abuse wasn't their fault and that they can get better. We suggest self-help books and treatment programs. We gently prod virtually every survivor toward therapy, sometimes recommending experienced counselors or sharing information on financial help for counseling. In nearly every case, we offer alternatives and gingerly suggest victims ponder exploring criminal and civil options.

That this crucial and effective work is essentially "invisible" to the public is an enormous frustration for us and always has been. An alien from another planet might drive across the U.S. and conclude "Look at all these churches. Religion is about buildings." And many who observe SNAP from afar assume we're a "watchdog" or pressure or activist group. In reality, that's just part, and actually the smaller part, of what we do.

Frawley-O'Dea urges us to "grow beyond" our "work of confrontation." Research shows, however, most victims disclose their pain to no one. A small percentage of victims tell church officials of their abuse. An even smaller percentage of us file police reports or civil lawsuits or talk publicly about our suffering and the clerics who caused and concealed it. And a tiny group of us "grow beyond" confronting this scandal in a personal way and "grow" into public advocacy.

The result: In the U.S. alone, literally thousands of predator priests remain hidden. History, psychology and common sense tell us some or perhaps many of those thousands are or could be hurting kids today.

So those of us who want to stop or reduce this horror should be pushing for more "confrontation," not less. (Frederick Douglass, who knew a thing or two about pain and oppression, astutely said "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.")

Let's get specific. Bishops admit that at least 6,528 priests have been accused of abuse in the U.S., a figure that observers believe is nowhere near the real total. Yet according to, the most credible and independent source of data on this crisis, "at least 2,688 accused clerics whose names are still not public." That means that in the nation where one would expect the highest percentage of predators to have been exposed, at least 41 percent of the child molesting clerics are still "below the radar." Many of them live among unsuspecting neighbors or even family members and look like your kind old uncle and are still able to shrewdly win the trust of parents and be near their kids.

That's a continuing public safety crisis that cries out for dramatic, sustained advocacy, reform and yes, "confrontation," not for "healing services" and other "feel good" events.

(More broadly, one in four girls and one in eight boys in the U.S. are sexually abused. In the face of this, is it really responsible to fixate on salving the wounds of adults instead of stopping the devastation of children?)

The formidable trauma expert Judith Herman writes that "neutrality in the conflict between victim and perpetrator is not an option. … Those who stand with the victim will inevitably have to face the perpetrator's unmasked fury."

Wisely, Herman does not claim that most or even many are capable and willing to face that fury. For the sake of innocent kids and vulnerable adults, we wish more were capable and willing.

But for the small persistent and compassionate group of us who are, she says, "there can be no greater honor."

That's how we in SNAP feel. That's why we do what we do. That's why we're making a difference, and fight against the temptation to engage in a quieter and less "confrontational" approach, the approach that endangered youngsters for ages.

We in SNAP have made many, many mistakes. We still make mistakes. We're survivors and we carry most of the baggage survivors carry. But our full-time staff of three have six degrees and more than 50 years of experience in this arena. We relentlessly focus on our goals of prevention and healing.

Given thousands of still-hidden predators and unpunished enablers and the vulnerability of kids, Frawley-O'Dea's preference -- more conciliation and more focus on "healing" over "prevention" -- feels like a luxury that we just can't afford.

And we question whether anyone really can or should afford that luxury, until "zero tolerance" is a worldwide practice instead of a piecemeal promise, and until those who enable child sex crimes -- not just those who commit them -- are defrocked, demoted, disciplined and thus deterred from such heinous wrongdoing in the present and future.

[David Clohessy is the executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.] 

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