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Listening to survivors sets direction of diocese’s ministry


As the sex abuse scandal continues to upend church life in the United States, at least one bishop has earned respect and even praise from survivors of abuse for listening to them and for establishing a strong ministry on their behalf.

Listening has played a large role in the development of the Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Oakland, Calif., diocese. The ministry is led by diocesan chancellor Barbara Flannery, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

When she became chancellor in 1994, Bishop John Cummins gave her the responsibility for the area of clergy misconduct. Flannery began going through the files, she said, “to verify that we had done what we should do.” Among many others, she found Terrie Light’s name. Feeling that Light had not been treated the way she should have, Flannery called her to ask how she could help with the healing process.

Light, Flannery said, then “took me under her wing.”

The language gives a clue to Flannery’s approach, one noticeably different from the approach used elsewhere: It is survivors, not church officials, who need to set the direction of church-based programs on clergy sexual abuse. “Any diocese that thinks they can do it without that,” said Light, who now serves on the core committee of the ministry, “is not going to be successful. They are just going to get people aggravated and annoyed. And the only way they are going to understand the huge breach in trust, the devastation, is by talking to [survivors] and listening to what they say.”

In the Oakland diocese, listening is precisely what happened. Survivors listened to one another, first through informal networks and through SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), then in the presence and with the support of Flannery, who began regular breakfast meetings with survivors in the late 1990s. Then church personnel listened, a new experience both for them and for survivors, who often experience rejection or disbelief even from their families.

Flannery said she needed to listen and learn: “I was so naive and ignorant around this issue when I took the job. If you haven’t been sexually abused, and you haven’t been sexually abused by a priest, a person you trust, you can’t understand.”

A group of eight survivors worked for a year with Flannery and a priest of the diocese, Dan Danielson, to plan the service at which Cummins and other church officials made their formal apology.

Of Cummins, Marlis Marolt-Sender said, “I think he’s great. He’s definitely a pioneer in the field in addressing this issue. Has been nothing but supportive.” Cummins was unavailable for an interview.

Light’s perspective on Cummins is also positive, but more measured: “He’s been involved when we ask him to be. He shows up at things. Bishops, like CEOs, don’t get into the running of their organization. He’s empowered Barbara to do it.”

The survivors, Light said, did not want Cummins simply to come to the March 25, 2000, apology service with no preparation. “We required him to come meet with us beforehand.” It was an emotional, even stormy session. “He took a lot of heat [from us],” Light remembers, “and we admire him for this.” Cummins also came back for a second meeting before the service. “I do give people credit for showing up,” Light adds, “because most bishops are not ready to hear victims’ anger, and they have to. That’s what’s healing.”

Light adds “I don’t know that he ‘gets it’ in the way Barbara does but he gets it in a way that’s helpful; I think he’s changed as a bishop, maybe reluctantly.”

Following the public apology, Flannery met for six months with a group of about 20 survivors. Out of this group emerged a committee of four that now forms the core of the Ministry for Survivors with Flannery: Judy Anguella, George Fruehan, Light and Marolt-Sender.

“This whole work is not about bringing people back into the church,” Flannery said. “It’s about restoring justice, giving people back their voice, restoring to them something that was given away, as best we can. I understand we can never fully do that, but we can certainly attempt.”

Pastoral support is the first priority for the diocese and includes helping survivors find peer support as well as therapists. Flannery has spent many hours visiting survivors, many of whom feel too distrustful of the institutional church to enter its buildings. The diocese has plans for a summer retreat with a priest who is himself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, Fr. Gary Hayes of the Owensboro, Ky., diocese.

The Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse has also planned a workshop titled “No More Secrets” -- a recurring theme in the new diocesan literature -- for the fall diocesan catechetical institute. It has recently developed flyers and posters and is about to launch a confidential voice mail service and an e-mail address, both staffed by survivors. The diocese is preparing a brochure defining clergy sexual misconduct and listing the procedures for reporting complaints against clergy and other church personnel.

Though the ministry has been active for some time, it will have an official diocesan launching on May 5, when Cummins will dedicate a plaque at the site where a small tree was planted after the 2000 ceremony of apology. The tree will be watered by survivors who will tell of their hopes for new life.

Light, 50, directs the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, a homeless services agency and is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She was abused by a priest of the Oakland diocese when she was eight.

Marolt-Sender, a partner in a chain of health clubs who also has clinical training, was abused by a priest-chaplain while attending a Catholic college in San Antonio.

Flannery helped Marolt-Sender confront both her abuser and Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, first by mail, then in person. She accompanied Marolt-Sender to Texas for the confrontation. “Sr. Barbara has just been incredible,” Marolt-Sender said. “I applaud her. ... She really is passionate about this and goes the extra mile.”

Of the core ministry group of one male and three female survivors, two were abused as children, one as a teenager, one as an adult. Terrie Light said she makes that distinction “only because the church does. They try to differentiate. But that doesn’t get at the crime. They just go to the ‘pedophilia’ issue. Pedophiles are a small group of people in a general population, so those who usually get abused are teenagers and adults.”

According to Marolt-Sender, “The big piece, the heart of it, the piece we are really trying to communicate to the bishop, is that at the core of the whole issue is an abuse of power. Because the priest, the clergy, is in a position of power. So whether you’re a kid or an adult, male or female, it can never, ever be a consensual relationship.”

Flannery has come to agree with this position as well. A sexual relationship with a priest or other clergy, Flannery said, “is never consensual, period. Any time you are in a relationship, priest to parishioner, or even if the person knows you are a priest, it’s not consensual.

“We do have a category called ‘consensual.’ This would be cases of anonymous sex,” she said, adding that two unidentified priests have been caught in sting operations. “Then it’s not a case of using the office of priest.”

Flannery thinks the presence of women and laity make a difference in the new programs and emerging policy. Being a woman religious, she said, was not a direct help since as such she is a visible representative of the institution. But, she said, “it is easier for me to listen to these issues, as painful as they are. I imagine if you are a faithful priest it’s very difficult to hear one of your fellow priests has not been faithful.”

The Sensitive Issues committee put in place by Flannery’s predecessor once had a majority of priests. Now, she says, only two priests sit on the seven-person committee, which is composed of three women and four men. “I’ve noticed the difference in male and female thinking on this committee, more than any other I’ve been on, and I want to keep that balance.”

Jane Redmont is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today and of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002