For most Catholics a church is a place of refuge and healing. For some it now stands for the very opposite: mistrust and a loss of innocence. The church’s denial of clergy abuse has put a dent in the healing process for both, priests and victims.

The Archdiocese of Chicago recently turned over nearly 6,000 pages of documents detailing clergy sexual abuse to victims’ attorneys. They were released to the public on Jan. 21 by attorneys Jeff Anderson and Marc Pearlman, who represent more than 50 victims of clergy sexual abuse. The documents reveal abuse allegations against 30 priests that surfaced under the leadership of Cardinals John Cody, Joseph Bernardin and Francis George.

The Archdiocese of Chicago stated 95 percent of the incidents occurred before 1988 and none occurred after 1996. And of the 30 priests included in the documents, 14 are dead and the remainder are no longer in ministry.

Although the newfound transparency offers some much needed closure to victims and accountability for abusive priests, it also sheds light on a much bigger problem in the foreground: the systematic nature with which the church makes conscious decisions to protect perpetrators.

One such case among many pertains to Cardinal Francis George’s decision to keep Joseph Bennett in ministry for nearly four years after allegations of abuse surfaced against him. These allegations came from an individual who passed a lie detector test and a person who accurately described bodily markings on Bennett’s lower body. However, Bennett was never criminally charged.

Joseph Wilk, the former pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Schaumburg, was reported to Catholic officials for alleged child abuse four years ago; however, only recently did Cardinal George disclose the matter.

Another pair of documents includes an  letter from an anonymous victim to Cardinal George and a letter from Cardinal George to the perpetrator.

“Cardinal George, to be blunt, I am wondering what the hell the Catholic Church was thinking in its dealing with the Norbert Maday sexual abuse. The church kept moving him around even though they knew that he was abusing children,” the victim wrote. “Did you realize that he went on to abuse hundreds of other children in another parish?”

The documents reveal Cardinal George wrote to the imprisoned Maday to tell him he was trying “a number of avenues to see if [his] sentence might be reduced or parole be given early.”

Despite the release of documents proving otherwise, the Archdiocese of Chicago initially refused to accept allegations of complicity within the church. In their initial press release on Jan. 15, the Archdiocese of Chicago stated, “these cases [revealed in the recently released documents] were reported to civil authorities and the Archdiocese did not hide or protect abusers.”

However in a more recent press release on Jan. 21 they divert from this stance, instead stating the “Archdiocese acknowledges that its leaders made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify.”

“We realize the information included in these documents is upsetting,” the statement reads. “It is painful to read. It is not the Church we know or the Church we want to be.”

A Community of Survivors

One victim has taken her traumatic experience and channeled it into something self-empowering and impactful in the lives of others.

From junior year in high school until graduation, Barbara Blaine was sexually abused by her local parish priest in Toledo, Ohio. For many years Blaine thought she was alone in feeling what she now knows were symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. “It was all very frightening and confusing for me,” she said. “I didn’t understand what was happening when I started crying for what would seem to be no good reason.”

After several years of being shamed into silence, Blaine decided to speak out about her story. Several victims of the same priest followed and also came forward. However, by this time it was too late for Blaine to file criminal charges. Once notified, church officials did not restrict the abusive priest’s access to children or take action against him for several more years.

So Blaine created Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in 1988 – in part to heal her own psychological wounds.

“I was thinking I’ll find other victims and we can do research and figure this out. We didn’t need church officials who weren’t helping anyway,” Blaine said.

What started as two dozen victims sharing their common experiences is now an organization with more than more than 15,000 members and support groups meet in over 60 cities across the United States and the world.

SNAP advocates for the removal of ministry for every priest who has molested or been accused of molesting a child. Hoping to target what seems to be a institutionalized decision to protect abusive priests, SNAP believes any priest who knows or suspects abuse by another priest but fails to contact the police should be defrocked.

Also, like Blaine, many victims’ experiences are belittled by legal technicalities like the statute of limitations – a measure SNAP argues should not be used to fight abuse claims.

Good Intentions

The matter is complicated further by the issue of sacrament and Church law.

“We get stuck in the fact: once a priest, always a priest. The impermanence of sacrament shows how theology clashes with something very practical,” said Rev. Mark Krylowicz, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Roseland.

Krylowicz said although many in the Catholic community are generally aware of the existence of clergy abuse cases, they are “tired of the secrecy of it all.”

“The church is supposed to be about healing and trust but yet the average person learns they can’t trust this,” he said.

However, Krylowicz maintains the Archdiocese has good intentions at heart. “They’re trying their best to save face for the church, save face for the victims.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago has an Office for the Protection of Children and Youth (OPCY), which provides support to abuse survivors and their families. The Archdiocese says they have trained more than 160,000 priests, deacons, religious, lay employees and volunteers to recognize and prevent abuse and more than 200,000 children to protect themselves from sexual predators since 2003.

Still, for many it is difficult to understand why, if the Archdiocese has good intentions, priests accused of child abuse were often moved around and had continued access to vulnerable children.

In addition, cases of clergy abuse are often settled at exceedingly high values and left unexamined. SNAP’s estimates of money used as settlements in abuse cases, ranges from $400 million to $1.3 billion.

“I get disappointed when they settle these cases. Truthfully, I’d love to have a hearing so we could learn about why and how these things happen,” Krylowicz said.

Invisible Wounds

“It’s not your fault. Speak up. You’re not alone.”

These are the words Blaine wants survivors like her to know. Blaine uses the word “survivors” consciously, recognizing many individuals have taken their own lives as a consequence of being raped as a child.

Blaine said the pain of childhood sexual abuse persists into adulthood and for many, the healing process is lifelong. Many victims engage in efforts to self-medicate without a proper understanding of what they’re doing; their lives often spiral into eating disorders and alcohol addictions.

“Many of us have difficulties with relationships and intimacy, allowing anyone to get close,” Blaine said. “It breaks down relationships with parents, siblings, with our own children.”

She emphasizes in particular the difficulty she has with trusting people in authority, considering the priest who abused her was in a hierarchal position of power.

Psychologist, Manisha Dayal, has worked with several adult survivors of sexual abuse. She too has noticed “the biggest thing they struggle with is finding trust in adults.”

Dayal finds long-term therapy focusing on issues of attachment as the best approach for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

She also distinguishes between how adults and children handle trauma – noting that adults can talk about trauma but children’s trauma often manifests in a refusal to go to school, acting out and displaying symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“Preventatively, there needs to be more discussion about good touch, bad touch; not enough of that is happening,” Dayal said. “There’s a lot of stigmatization about sex. I think the more information children have about what’s right and what’s wrong – the more comfortable they would be about talking about these issues.”

A Global Fight

Today, SNAP is fighting for children and adult-survivors of clergy abuse around the world, right here in Chicago. On Wednesday, they held signs and childhood photos at a sidewalk news conference outside the Chicago archdiocese chancery office.

In addition to asking for the release of more records about predator priests, SNAP also responded to a recent report by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which accused the Vatican of systematically protecting its reputation instead of looking out for the safety of children.

The report states: “The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

It highlights how priests are moved around to new churches or locations to protect them while putting more children at risk of abuse. Moreover, the report rejects the Vatican officials’ claims that it doesn’t control priests across the world and is only responsible for abuse and cover up on actual Vatican property in Rome.

The Vatican expressed their discontent with what they felt was an attempt by the UN committee to “interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”

There is pressure on Pope Francis – and although he has in large part inherited a legacy of cover-ups, the report has made clear recommendations to break the code of silence. Whether the church chooses to follow these is at their discretion.

However, there seems to be little doubt, based on history, their actions will have far-reaching implications. The documents released by the Archdiocese of Chicago echo the same criticisms many have toward the Vatican. Although these documents and reports shed light on the darkest aspects of the church, they are a step in the right direction for understanding how and why clergy abuse persists till date.

The revelation of truth is beneficial, not only for the thousands of survivors of clergy-abuse, but also for a church that is desperately trying to maintain their integrity and the faith of their followers.

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