Sex Abuse Survivors Await Word from Bishops About Meeting

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - Individuals alleging they were sexually abused by Catholic priests are awaiting word Monday as to whether they will get to meet with several bishops before Thursday's annual conference of church leaders in Dallas. During the conference, bishops are scheduled to vote on a national policy for dealing with sexual abuse cases.

The meeting between the bishops and 25 members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was originally supposed to take place Wednesday, June 12. Cardinals Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., William Keeler of Baltimore, Md. and Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, Calif. as well as Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn. were going to discuss the personal impact of sexual abuse and how the Church could help victims heal and prevent future abuse.

Flynn chairs the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, which last week drafted a policy statement on how the Church will deal with the sex scandal. Under the policy, there would be zero tolerance in the future for priests engaging in sexual abuse. However, under certain conditions, priests who have committed one act of abuse in the past would be allowed to remain in the priesthood. The policy has prompted much criticism from those who believe it is too lenient.

The meeting between the bishops and members of SNAP was cancelled last Friday after the bishops learned that SNAP had joined in a class action lawsuit, targeting not only the bishops but the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn., the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, and the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo.

The lawsuit sought to quash all confidentiality agreements in past abuse cases dealing with priests.

"For myself, and I believe for all the bishops, I must say that we are very disappointed that just at the moment when frank and productive meetings could occur, SNAP has created a barrier to the very cooperation you have called for so often in the past," Bishop Wilton Gregory, of Belleville, Ill. wrote in a letter to SNAP executive director David Clohessy.

"We invited SNAP to speak with us publicly and in private sessions. Our invitation has been met with a lawsuit," Gregory wrote. Gregory is president of the USCCB.

"We still very much want to have discussions and work with SNAP and the victims you represent," the bishop wrote. "Unfortunately the circumstances have now been changed and we must begin again to establish dialogue."

But in a letter sent to Gregory over the weekend, Clohessy said SNAP would be withdrawing from the lawsuit because the organization did not "want anything to get in the way of genuine dialogue that might ultimately benefit children."

Mark Serrano, spokesman for SNAP, called the withdrawal a "good faith gesture."

"We had discussions with our board over the weekend and the meetings in Dallas are important to us, so that we have the opportunity for interaction with the bishops, so they can hear our stories and what we have to say about the proposal," Serrano said. "That was more important than us remaining on a class action suit, which will carry on presumably without us.

Last week, Clohessy looked forward to the meeting with the bishops, which he said would be the "first time that a group of church leaders" would get together "with a group of clerical sexual abuse victims."

"We hope it will be the catalyst for substantial changes in the Church that will protect children and help survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse to heal," Clohessy said.

Patrick Scully, spokesman for the Catholic League, agreed that if there is anyone who should have the ear of the cardinals, "it is the abuse victims."

"I certainly think the bishop (Flynn) and the cardinals could benefit from hearing from the people who were so negatively affected by this," Scully said. "I can't think of a better group to have their say than SNAP."

However, Scully said he disagrees with certain ideas SNAP is supporting -- such as lifting the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases involving priests and lifting confidentiality agreements dealing with past cases.

"I think just because they are the people who have the right to speak doesn't mean that every thing they are saying should become policy," Scully said. "To enact a lot of it is dangerous.

Scully added that some of the changes being sought by SNAP were "not only unconstitutional, but also patently unfair," he said.

E-mail a news tip to Jason Pierce.

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