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  Victims Appeal to Legislators in Push to Shape Abuse Bill
Measure Compels Clergy to Report Cases, but Private Talks Excluded

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [Baton Rouge LA]
June 6, 2003

BATON ROUGE -- A New Orleans mother told legislators Thursday her childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest so disoriented her psychologically that she feared bathing her own little boys lest she hurt them.

Testimony by Mona Villarrubia and others who said they were victims of sexual abuse by priests moved some legislators to tears during a hearing on whether to add clergy to the list of professions required to call police when they encounter suspected cases of child abuse.

The bill exempts disclosures that come in spiritual counseling and sacramental confessions. That pleased representatives of several denominations but left Villarrubia and the victim's group disappointed.

Dueling testimony before a House committee pitted an array of Catholic and Protestant clergy who want the state to recognize that some spiritual counseling sessions must remain confidential, against victims who said the protection of children requires that clergy always call police, no matter how they learn of suspected child abuse.

The victims, members of the new Louisiana chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, sometimes struggled through their testimony. In sometimes quavering voices, they told stories of years of chaos, depression and suicidal impulses after they or relatives were abused by clergy.

"Only in my worst nightmare could I ever have envisioned that one day I would be sitting here discussing this today," said Lyn Hill Hayward, a Covington artist and one of the founders of the group.

Scars 'waiting to erupt'

In all of the stories told before the committee Thursday, the accusations were against Catholic priests, and in one case, a nun.

Some victims wore pictures of themselves as children showing how they looked about the time of their abuse, which set off years of complications.

Villarrubia, a religion teacher at Dominican High School in New Orleans, said she was sexually abused at age 9 by a Catholic priest in England.

She said the damage was so deep and disorienting that years later she found she was afraid to touch her toddler sons in the bathtub.

"I had to ask my husband to come help me with this because I questioned what was appropriate, and that terrified me, because I didn't know what the boundaries were," she said in an interview later. "My own sense of appropriate 'private touch' had been taken from me."

For years such an experience defies attempts to bury it, Villarrubia said. "It stays beside you, waiting to erupt."

The group's testimony left a former prosecutor, state Rep. Emma Devillier, D-Plaquemine, struggling for emotional control as she tried to ask Hayward a question. At the session's close, Devillier, still teary, embraced Hayward and told Hayward that as a Catholic she was ashamed of how the church's leadership had handled cases of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Confession excluded

But at the end of the day, members of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice unanimously supported the clergy's wishes and sent SB 383 by Sen. Tom Schedler, R-Slidell, to the full House. It has already passed the Senate.

It provides that clergy must call police when they encounter suspected cases of child abuse. But it exempts all counseling sessions or conversations with a priest, minister or rabbi "accustomed to hearing confidential communication" who "under the discipline or tenets of that . . . denomination . . . has a duty to keep such communication confidential."

Legislators did so partly because requiring clergy to disclose the contents of spiritual counseling or private sacramental confessions would almost certainly prove unconstitutional as a state intrusion into church affairs, Schedler told the committee.

In any event, for the first time Louisiana clergy are added to such professions as doctors, nurses, teachers and others who are required to report suspected cases of child abuse, he said.

Even with its exceptions, it leaves broad areas in which clergy would have to call police, he said. For example, a bishop or supervisor who gets a credible report that an employee has abused a child must call police, he said.

Schedler's bill "provides a sort of middle way" that enlists the help of clergy as reporters of child abuse while ensuring that they can still function as people who can hear about sensitive problems in a confidential environment that breeds trust, said the Rev. C. Dana Krutz, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, an ecumenical group.

Clergy "must be open to people who know that what they tell us is in confidence -- is held inviolate," he said.

"If we were to lose that in this society, I think that would be a grievous loss."

Moreover, Catholic Church law and tradition requires that conversations within the sacrament of confession remain confidential, under pain of a priest's excommunication, said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Victims: Safety paramount

As a practical matter, Devillier noted, priests who learned of suspected abuse inside confessionals likely would not report it regardless of state law.

But in testimony before the committee and in interviews, victims argued that the safety of children trumps all other considerations.

Jim Johnson of Slidell said the church has for years expressed a need for confidentiality to protect abusive priests, not victims.

Johnson told the committee that he, his wife and son have been suing the church for six years on their claim that the boy was molested by a priest at a parish in Pearl River in the early 1990s. The priest, identified in court papers as the Rev. Michael Fraser, now at Visitation of Our Lady Church in Marrero, has denied the allegation. Because he remains in ministry, the accusation against him is presumably among those reviewed by an independent archdiocesan lay review board and found not to be credible.

"It's impossible to express the devastation this causes in a family," Johnson told the committee.

Villarrubia said after the hearing, "I believe in the tradition and I love my church. But there is a greater good here, which is the protection of children."

Dr. Steve Taylor, a psychiatrist who accompanied the victims, said, "The privilege is not as important as helping the next child. The cycle has to be broken."

'We have faces now'

Myra Hidalgo, a clinical social worker, told the committee she was wracked by guilt and shame for years after being abused between the ages of 12 and 15 by a nun in Opelousas. "I do not understand how a church can place the need for confidentiality ahead of the need for justice," she said.

She raised the possibility that the bill's language is so broad that "it makes it easier for a pedophile priest to talk to his bishop under the guise of a spiritual advisement."

At the end of the session, SNAP members said they were glad to be able to tell their stories in public for the first time, a landmark in the life of the new group.

"We have faces now, to go with the stories people hear," Hayward said.

The group came to Baton Rouge knowing it probably would fail to have the bill's exemptions struck down, she said. But she said the group's ultimate goal for Louisiana is the enactment of a law, like one in California, that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations on old sex-abuse crimes to let victims file charges that are now too old to prosecute.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at bnolan@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3344.

 
 

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