For Abused, New Focus Is Church Accountability
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests Shares Stories and Mulls Pathways to Justice

By Leslie A. Pappas
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
February 1, 2004

What began two decades ago as scattered cries of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests is becoming a powerful movement to reform national laws governing child abuse, victims said at a conference yesterday.

The Mid-Atlantic regional conference of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, came one day after five men who say they were abused by priests sued the Philadelphia Archdiocese, accusing it of giving known pedophiles access to children.

Yesterday's conference discussion and the lawsuits filed Friday reflect the changing focus of the survivors network, an independent self-help group of 4,500 men and women who were sexually victimized by clergy, said John Salveson, the Philadelphia chapter's regional director.

Before, the group focused on exposing abusive clergy; now it is shifting to bishops, cardinals and other members of the hierarchy who knew about the abuse but did not stop it.

"The church will have you believe that they can fix this themselves," Salveson said. But that would be like former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay's saying, "OK, we have a problem, but we'll take care of it."

"When you behave criminally, you don't get to do that," Salveson said - "unless you're the Catholic Church."

About 150 people attended the conference yesterday at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, sharing stories of childhood abuse and exploring ways to bring perpetrators to justice.

Sharon Tell, 51, of Lancaster, who said she was abused by a monsignor from the Allentown Diocese for 20 years starting at age 12, said the conference convinced her "that I need to help get the laws changed."

Survivors and their supporters talked about changing the statute of limitations, which in Pennsylvania gives victims of sexual assault two years to file suit once the abuse has stopped, or until age 30 if they were children when the crimes occurred.

Marci A. Hamilton, a constitutional scholar from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, told the audience that the church would oppose any movement to change the statute of limitations for fear of more lawsuits.

"Your worst enemy in the legislative process is the church," she said.

The lawsuits filed Friday, however, are based on the theory that the church fraudulently covered up the abuse, said Richard M. Serbin, an attorney representing one of the plaintiffs in the Philadelphia suits. Since victims learned of the fraud only recently, Serbin argues, the statute of limitations would not apply.

Serbin has filed more than 20 lawsuits against Pennsylvania dioceses since February 2003 under that theory; none has yet been settled.

Philadelphia archdiocesan spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi denied that the church had intentionally covered up abuse, saying that the medical understanding of abusers was much different 20 years ago. She said that abuse allegations the church receives today are reported immediately to law enforcement, and that the church has established prevention programs to make sure that the abuse of the past does not happen in the future.

"We regret that anyone suffered so deeply at the hands of someone who represented the church," Rossi said. "The failings of a few have caused pain for a great many. Primarily victims, but also for other priests, religious and faithful lay people."


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