Clerics' Sex Abuse Victims Say Lay Boards Ignore Them

By Patrick Healy
New York Times
January 6, 2004

The review boards that hear allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests tread over terrain where emotions are raw, facts are often in dispute and people's lives hang in the balance. Set up in the wake of the church's sexual-abuse crisis, the lay boards listen to accusations and then try to decide if the stories are credible.

People who serve on the volunteer boards say they are dedicated to the work, but a national victims-advocacy group says that many abuse victims feel shut out after taking their cases to the boards. Sexual-abuse victims in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Iowa have said that the experience left them cold.

Some were able to tell their stories directly to the boards, while others said they were not allowed to. Some received letters telling them about the disposition of their case; others, like Juliann Bortz of Allentown, Pa., said they were told to expect a phone call and are still waiting.

"I never heard anything again," said Ms. Bortz, 54, who said she told her story of abuse to the Allentown Diocese in September 2002. "I just kind of waited for the phone call. After two years you start thinking, I guess I'm not going to hear."

On Tuesday, Catholic bishops will release a major report detailing how well they have implemented policy reforms adopted since the revelations of sexual abuse began to spread. Auditors looked at policies and interviewed bishops, priests and parishioners to determine whether dioceses had taken steps to prevent abuse and ensure that accusations would be handled properly.

Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that most of the abuse victims she talks to come away from the process disappointed and frustrated.

Many victims go to the boards to reveal a story of abuse that has been hidden for years, according to interviews with advocates and with people who said they had been abused. Some want an apology, others want their abuser to be removed or shamed, but most seek some recognition that they have been hurt. But the review boards, they say, are cautious and deliberative, and not set up to fulfill those desires.

"They go seeking answers, and they don't get them," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network. "In some dioceses, they won't even tell you who's on the review board, which we think is just horrible. How can the lay Catholic person have any confidence in that?"

The lay review boards were adopted in June 2002. The boards, which had already been in place at some of the 195 dioceses in the United States, do not have the power to sanction priests, but they advise bishops on the credibility of allegations.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly America, said that each diocese shaped its review board as it saw fit, so they vary widely. Some meet in an imposing diocesan office. Members of some are rigid and formal, said Kenneth Lasch, a New Jersey priest, while others seem more affable.

"You're going to find that the stories are quite varied across the country," Father Reese said. "Some review boards have been willing to sit down with victims. Others have felt that that isn't part of their job description. It's very draining, emotionally and psychologically, to hear these victims tell their stories."

Which is what Anne Tucker, a 65-year-old Westchester County resident, set out to do in September 2002. Ms. Tucker said a priest had raped her four decades earlier as the two drove home amid Suffolk County potato fields. Ms. Tucker said she spoke to officials with the Diocese of Rockville Centre but was not allowed to meet with the full board or to see its final report.

Lorraine Armet has served on Rockville Centre's review board for a year and a half, and said that several accused priests had come before the board to speak, but no victims. Ms. Armet said her fellow board members were compassionate and examined the cases thoughtfully, but did not hear every case and were not alerted if an accuser wanted to speak before them.

"If Anne Tucker had wanted to come before us, she would have had every right to do so," Ms. Armet said. "I would have liked to have heard from more victims."

The desire to be heard courses through many abuse victims, said Sharon Witbeck, 50, who said she was repeatedly groped by a 26-year-old priest when she was a teenager. She said she wrote letters and made phone calls to the Albany diocese's review board and received no direct response ? a pattern she has noticed in talking to other abuse victims.

"Here I am, knocking at their door," Ms. Witbeck said. "They can't find out how victims feel if they don't talk to them. Most victims say they just want to be heard. They'd like to know that these people are listening, and that just doesn't happen."

Forty years ago, Ms. Tucker told herself that no one would believe she had been raped by a priest, and she never told her immediate family or husband about the attack. After she told church officials, she said she wanted to know whether the board members believed her.

"They said I'd be hearing from them," Ms. Tucker said. "I'm still waiting. I don't think they will be calling."


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