Hope Seen in Church Crisis
Victims of Clergy Abuse Can Help Develop Policies

By Nancy C. Rodriguez
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded July 20, 2003

As Louisville's Catholic Church wrestles with the aftermath of decades of alleged sexual abuse by priests and church workers, it faces a difficult future.

But it's also a time of hope and healing that offers the church the opportunity to help its victims, renew its mission and restore safety and protection to all those vulnerable to abuse of power, said Dr. Carroll Cradock, an expert in the assessment and treatment of victims of sexual abuse.

"This is an opportunity to move forward," she said yesterday during a conference in Louisville on sexual abuse.

Cradock, who has been a consultant for more than 120 religious organizations on abuse issues, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, was yesterday's keynote speaker at the conference, titled "Healing and Preventing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse in Our Religious Organizations." It was held at the Kentucky International Convention Center.

The conference was organized by Dr. Joseph Fischer, a psychologist who was moved by the Archdiocese of Louisville's situation last month it agreed to pay $25.7 million to settle sexual-abuse allegations made in 240 lawsuits naming 34 priests and other church workers. The settlement is the second-largest payout in an abuse case against the church in the United States.

Fischer wanted to help religious organizations of any denomination learn more about how to respond to cases of sexual abuse, and how to prevent them.

The daylong conference drew more than 60 people, including abuse survivors, victim advocates, psychologists, clergy, parishioners and non-Catholics.

Cradock said the church won't be able to move past the controversy until the church and its followers face and accept the damage that was done. Only by doing that will it be able to effectively offer the help victims need and restructure itself to prevent abuse from happening again, she said.

During the conference's first session, Cradock spoke extensively about the feelings abuse victims experience, from shame and anger to conflicted feelings about their abus er. For many, the person who molested them may be the same person who also helped them by helping them get a spot on the swim team or offering their families financial assistance, she said.

"It is as if the Good Samaritan then turned around and abused them," she said.

Years later, because their abusers have died or are ill, many victims are left with feelings of resentment because they cannot confront the person who hurt them.

S piritually, many victims cannot seek comfort from the church because they distrust religious leaders, and because prayers, hymns and religious ceremon ies trigger painful memories for them, she said.

Cradock said churches need to take the lead in reaching out to those affected by sexual abuse, helping them access therapy as well as offering spiritual counseling, if they want it.

She stressed, however, that counseling should be based on an individual 's needs, and that churches should not confuse "forgiveness with recovery."

"That cannot replace a slower process of reconnecting with God," she said.

Cradock also said the church should look to victims to help in developing sexual-abuse policies.

"We have a lot to learn. And one of the things we need to learn is we need to stop expecting them to meet us on our turf," she said.

Cradock also spoke about the effect sexual abuse has on churches, and ways churches can restore trust through such measures as training and screening.

Barbara Steadmon of Jeffersontown, who is involved with children's ministry and her church's Sunday School, attended the conference at the urging of her pastor at First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown.

She hoped to collect information that could be used to develop policies on how to screen people who work with children at the church.

"We don't even think about it," she said. "But if we're dealing with children, we need to know the backgrounds of people who are working with them."

Dr. Paula Berry, a clinical psychologist, asked Cradock how to prepare victims to face court proceedings or church tribunals, where their word is pitted against that of their alleged abuser.

Cradock's suggestions included having the person talk to others who have gone through the experience.

During the conference, Shannon Age, who filed an abuse lawsuit against the church, talked about her difficulties as a victim dealing with the church, and how going public with her experience angered many people at her former church.

Age and her sister, Debbie Ernspiker, say they were raped by the late Rev. Kevin Cole.

Age a ppealed to church leaders and clergy to try to step across the "abyss" between themselves and victim-advocacy groups.

"And when I am able to, I will take a step toward you ... I want to meet back up with my church," she said. "It's my church, too."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.