Victims Assess How Church Is Helping

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
January 20, 2004

Two victims say the Archdiocese of Philadelphia frustrated their efforts to identify the priests who sexually abused them as children years ago.

Another says it was "healing" when the archdiocese last year arranged for her to visit the rectory where she was raped decades ago.

A fourth describes his dealings with the archdiocese as both "good and not-so-good." The archdiocese has paid more than $200,000 for his psychotherapy, but he is angry that it now wants some reimbursement from Medicare.

"Compassionate," "uncooperative" and "penny-pinching" are just a few of the words these four used in interviews to describe the archdiocese's response to their requests since it appointed two victim-assistance coordinators in April 2002.

Their varying experiences cast a new perspective on the audit released earlier this month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The audit concluded that virtually all the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses had implemented the 10 mandatory policies for combating clergy sex abuse that the bishops adopted in June 2002.

Although the Philadelphia Archdiocese was among those listed in full compliance, the head of a local victims' support group gives it a barely passing grade for its conduct.

Most abuse survivors approaching the archdiocese for help report "some level of dissatisfaction or frustration," John Salveson, head of the local chapter of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, said last week. "More than a few have left feeling worse than when they went in."

Salveson said many survivors resent the archdiocese's demand for periodic progress reports from their therapists.

He nevertheless called the creation of the victim's assistance office a "very basic, but good, step... . People now know who to call for help."

Martin Frick and Karen Becker, the archdiocese's victim assistance coordinators, said last week that they "did not know what to expect" when they began their new roles about 21 months ago.

"We are trying to help people heal," said Becker, 46.

"The first thing most people want is someone who understands what it took for them to come forward," said Frick, 56, the archdiocese's full-time victims assistance coordinator. "They want to be believed."

The two, who have master's degrees in social work, declined to discuss the particulars of any case, or even to say how many people have sought assistance.

Their primary task, they said, is to get counseling to survivors who need it. As a rule, they said, the archdiocese will pay for weekly counseling by a licensed psychotherapist and will consider requests for other treatments such as family counseling.

Becker said that some of her most powerful moments in the job came when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the former archbishop, "told victims, 'I believe you.' " Cardinal Justin Rigali, the current archbishop, has agreed to meet with any victim and has slated one such meeting, his spokeswoman said.

The coordinators also have arranged for several victims to visit the scenes of their abuse and to meet with their abusers.

Because a Philadelphia grand jury is investigating clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese, Frick and Becker said they are obliged to provide the names of those alleged to have committed abuse and their accusers to area district attorneys. Accusers who do not want their names used must sign affidavits to that effect, they said.

For Victoria Cubberley, 53, the coordinators have proved far more helpful than the Office for Clergy, which used to handle abuse complaints.

Cubberley, who said she was abused for years starting at age 14 by a priest at St. Michael's parish in Levittown, said she felt the Office for Clergy had seemed "suspicious" of her abuse claim when she came forward in 1994.

But she described Frick as "very good" and said the archdiocese had been paying for her psychotherapy for a number of years. When she told him she wanted to visit St. Michael's rectory, he arranged it and accompanied her on the visit.

"It was profound," she said. The current pastor had been "reserved" when she arrived, Cubberley said, but when she began to cry at the memory, "he couldn't be more helpful."

Frick later arranged for her to confront another priest who she said had sexually harassed her as a girl and consulted with other victim advocates "to see if there was a format" for such confrontations, Cubberley said.

Joseph Curtin's relationship with the archdiocese had a rocky start in spring 2002, when he told the Office for Clergy that a priest had abused him for six months while he was a third grader at St. Katharine of Siena parish in Wayne.

The clergy office was "sympathetic," Curtin recalled, but after reviewing the records, said it could find no priest fitting that description at St. Katharine's in 1959, when Curtin was a third grader.

Only later did Curtin determine that the priest had been assigned there in 1960, and that his abuse occurred in fourth grade, not third. He said the clergy office never told him that it had subsequently identified his abuser.

"I was outraged," Curtin, 53, a building contractor, recalled over coffee at a cafe in Bryn Mawr. "I'm not a detective. Why couldn't they have said, 'Gee, maybe it wasn't in 1959. Let's try a few other years.' "

Months later, he approached the archdiocese again, this time to report he now recalled watching his abuser and two other priests rape a 12-year-old girl in what he supposed was a rectory basement. His abuser had told him they were visiting St. Bartholomew's parish in the Northeast, Curtin said. Two other preadolescent boys were present, he said.

This time, Curtin met with Frick and said he might be able to identify the other priests if he could see photos of all 35 priests the archdiocese then knew to have abused children since 1950.

Frick "said no, that it would be like releasing all the names, and they weren't doing that," according to Curtin. Instead, he was shown class photos from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where archdiocesan priests are trained, and picked out six faces as "possibilities." Weeks later, he said, the archdiocese told him only that none had worked at St. Bartholomew's.

Since Curtin now doubts that St. Bartholomew's was the true name of the parish, he feels the archdiocese has been "uncooperative" and perhaps "deceptive."

"Why can't they just show me some photographs of five or six or nine [abusive priests] they knew were active around this time?" he said. "That's what a detective would do."

Frick and Becker declined to discuss Curtin's case. "We haven't given out the list" of diocesan priests known to have abused minors. "If you showed pictures, it's the same as [giving out] the list," he said.

Jack Conn, a former Philadelphia police officer now living in Harrisburg, said he got no follow-through from the victim coordinators when he tried to learn whether a priest who grasped his crotch long ago had lived at St. Joseph's Orphanage for Boys.

"I felt bad I never reported it to anybody," Conn said in a phone interview. "I just wanted to ease my mind" that the man had not abused anyone else.

Despite repeated promises, Frick never reported back whether the priest had indeed lived at St. Joseph's, Conn said. "The more people stonewall, the more suspicious you get," Conn said.

(The 1952 edition of the Official Catholic Directory shows that the priest whom Conn remembered lived at the Catholic Home for Destitute Children, a girl's orphanage. He died in 1995.)

Michael Kurtz, 40, described Frick as "very friendly," and said the archdiocese had paid more than $200,000 for his therapy bills. He is irked that it won't pay for massage therapy, he said, and "furious" that the archdiocese is seeking reimbursement from Medicare for his medications.

"Why should the federal government pay for something that's not their responsibility?" Kurtz said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he now lives.

Becker and Frick said last week that if a victim has medical insurance, the archdiocese seeks reimbursement for psychiatric and pharmaceutical bills, but pays for psychotherapy bills.

Catherine Rossi, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said last week she could not say "at this time" what the archdiocese has paid so far for counseling and other treatments for victim of clergy sex abuse.

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