Critics Say Program for Abuse Victims Is Flawed
Ties to Church Make Project Benjamin Less Effective, They Say
By Marie Rohde
Journal Sentinel Online
May 19, 2002
When Archbishop Rembert Weakland formed Project Benjamin in 1989, it was touted as a cutting-edge program - a national model to heal the wounds of sexual abuse of children by priests or other church employees.
Project Benjamin promised to lift the veil that long had hidden the church's darkest secret.
But more than a decade later, Project Benjamin's critics say it has provided little more than window dressing. Its fundamental flaw: Many victims believe it simply isn't possible for the church to act as healer after it allowed the abuse to occur.
"They do not seem to understand that there are sexual abuse survivors who would never feel comfortable in or be interested in going to a church-run program," said Patricia Marchant, a therapist and a victim of childhood sexual abuse by a priest. "I would never go to a church-affiliated program to get support. I wouldn't trust that."
While it's likely that the program has had successes, the effectiveness of Project Benjamin is difficult to gauge because the archdiocese has been so stingy with information. Church officials have turned down numerous requests for interviews about Project Benjamin, and have declined to provide victims who were satisfied with the program. The archdiocese has provided few statistics.
Now, a community commission appointed by Weakland to study how the archdiocese has handled allegations of sexual misconduct is recommending changes that could fundamentally alter the way Project Benjamin operates.
And there are signs that even those closest to the program are concerned about how well it is working.
Barbara Reinke, the therapist who is the program's part-time director, said during a meeting of a women's spirituality group attended by a reporter last week that her office was overwhelmed with work and able to do little more than address the immediate questions of victims calling in.
"We're still operating like a fire department," Reinke said.
The office has gotten calls from 40 victims since January, and "there are some real concerns about unfortunate lags in getting back to these people," she said.
Column sparked program
Project Benjamin was born in 1989 after remarks by Weakland in a column on pedophilia published a year earlier in the Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper. Weakland had written that not all adolescent victims of sexual abuse were completely "innocent."
Weakland said the ensuing criticism made him aware of the need for a church program dealing with sexual abuse.
Project Benjamin was intended to go beyond acknowledging the existence of the problem; the archdiocese seemed to be saying that if the church was part of the problem, it would also be part of the solution.
The Project Benjamin Handbook speaks of the project's commitment to help victims of sexual abuse and to "seek healing for those who were the abusers." The handbook also calls for immediate reporting of allegations to civil authorities and says that if the allegations appear to be factual, the priest will be restricted or put on leave.
At the core of Project Benjamin is the offer to pay for therapy for abuse victims. Between 1991 and 2001, the archdiocese provided treatment through outside therapists for 49 victims at a cost of about $525,000, according to a spokesman for the archdiocese.
But many victims who have been through the program say they were disappointed with the results.
Tod Ekstrom, who said he was abused by Father Richard Nichols in the late 1970s, said the archdiocese paid for the past two years of his therapy, but when he called Reinke's office about starting a support group for victims he got nowhere.
"I got no help in that and was told that if I wanted to meet with someone from Project Benjamin, I'd have to take off from work and come in during the day," he said.
Rita McDonald, a Marquette University professor emeritus of psychology, agreed that support groups for victims - led by recognized experts in victims of sexual abuse from outside the church - are critically needed.
McDonald was a member of the committee that was appointed to set up Project Benjamin. She quit after a few meetings, she said, because it was clear that the intention was to operate the program within the archdiocese.
"I felt it should not be inside the archdiocese," McDonald said. "That's just too difficult for many victims. Some can't even walk into a church, and that's what Project Benjamin is asking them to do."
McDonald said the only way to accurately assess Project Benjamin is to have an independent agency survey the victims who have gone there for help. "How can you say that it is a model unless you can show that people benefited from the program?" she said.
The new commission set up by Weakland, and chaired by Marquette University Law School dean Howard Eisenberg, has recommended that the archdiocese contract with one or more outside agencies to provide victim assistance, either as a supplement to Project Benjamin or as an alternative.
The Eisenberg commission also has recommended that all complaints of abuse be reviewed by civil authorities before the church gets involved, regardless of how old the allegations are.
A recurring question hanging over Project Benjamin has been whether it has done that.
Cases not always reported
Reinke acknowledged during last week's meeting that internal guidelines requiring reporting of sex abuse haven't always been followed, even involving cases that came to light as late as the 1990s.
"Unfortunately, there have been exceptions," Reinke said. "Our guidelines might not have always been observed."
She said she supports a bill being worked on by state Rep. Peggy Krusick and state Sen. Alberta Darling that would require church authorities to report allegations of sexual abuse, just as teachers are required to do.
Some victims have told the Journal Sentinel they were flatly told they didn't have a chance with criminal or civil authorities.
Steve Burnette, 33, said he met with Reinke in April. He complained that Reinke focused on his allegation that there had been only one incident of abuse. He said she also told him that there was no point in calling the district attorney's office because the statute of limitations had passed.
Reinke referred calls to the archdiocese's spokesman, Jerry Topczewski, who said that dissatisfied victims should try Project Benjamin again.
Brian Flynn, a 28-year-old man who complained to Project Benjamin about sexual abuse by a priest in late February, says he doesn't understand why it took until April 5 to refer the case to the district attorney's office.
Flynn also questioned another common practice of Project Benjamin: The church set up a meeting between the victim and the priest he had accused of abusing him. It was not done at Flynn's request.
Such meetings were criticized by McDonald and therapists.
"The only person to benefit from such a meeting would be the perpetrator," said McDonald. "The purpose is reconciliation and forgiveness."
The accused priest denied the allegation and brought an acquaintance of Flynn's to the Project Benjamin meeting. The acquaintance asked Flynn why he had told no one about the abuse when it was going on, Flynn said.
Another victim, Peggy Jude, who was abused by a priest from the time she was 9 until she was 17, went to Project Benjamin in 1995 and says she was devastated by the experience. The archdiocese offered to pay her $20,000, a sum her husband said doesn't come close to paying for the therapy she's received over the years. Jude rejected the offer.
Jude charges that a report written by Samuel Friedman, a psychologist hired by Project Benjamin to assess her treatment, was sent to Jude's husband. Among other things, the report mentioned that Jude had had an extramarital affair.
Jude has filed complaints with the state Department of Regulation and Licensing naming Friedman and Elizabeth Piasecki, the psychologist who was then Project Benjamin's director.
Friedman said he could not understand why the report would have been sent to the husband, saying it was "lethal." Piasecki refused to comment on the matter, saying to do so would violate a client's confidentiality.
The Effinger case
Weakland recognized the breadth of the suffering in 1992, when the scandal involving Father William Effinger erupted in Sheboygan. Weakland acknowledged that he had known about other children who had been abused by the priest 14 years earlier. He said he believed Effinger could be treated and monitored and remain a priest.
A number of archdiocesan officials went to the Holy Name parish as part of Project Benjamin. After the highly publicized event, Weakland said he hoped that it would serve as a road map for how such a crisis would be handled in the future.
But that hasn't happened.
A woman from St. Dominic Catholic Church in Brookfield attended the women's spirituality meeting where Reinke spoke and expressed dismay over how the archdiocese handled the resignation of the associate pastor of her church, Father Thomas Trepanier.
Trepanier is one of six priests who faced credible allegations of sexual abuse in the past and still were serving in the active ministry. With Weakland's endorsement, the Eisenberg commission gave the six an opportunity to publicly disclose their background before the archdiocese did. After resigning two weeks ago, Trepanier did that in a letter read at Masses a week ago.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, said there was no counseling made available to parish members and that Project Benjamin should have done more.
Topczewski, the archdiocesan spokesman, said announcements are made when a priest leaves and that Project Benjamin's presence was made known through the parish leadership and through printed material made available in the church.
Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.