Sex Abuse by Priests Gives Group Its Mission
SNAP: Victims Offered Support; Church Urged to Fully Address the Problem
By Nicole Tsong
Anchorage Daily News [Anchorage AK]
April 2, 2004
David Clohessy tucked leaflets into windshield wipers of cars parked in front of Holy Family Cathedral on Thursday and handed the white pieces of paper to churchgoers who would take one as they emerged from noon Mass.
It's grunt work that has no immediate outcome. But maybe within hours, or weeks, or months or years, a victim who has never spoken about his or her sexual abuse by a priest will pick up the phone and call Clohessy's organization, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
That is all Clohessy, 47, can hope for. Despite the flurry of attention the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal has received in the past two years, Clohessy will continue to hand out leaflets and talk about priest sex abuse even when it seems like no one else cares.
For Clohessy, the organization's St. Louis-based executive director, Anchorage is another stop on a long road. He is here to talk to victims and offer support, to deliver a letter to church officials about the network and to try to reach others who still need to take the first step and talk about their abuse. He gave a letter to the vicar general Thursday, asking the archdiocese to post information about SNAP in parishes.
"There's still this enormous backlog of pain," Clohessy said. And most victims will never tell anyone about their abuse, he said.
Clohessy, who was abused in Missouri in the 1960s and 1970s, has been working for SNAP for about 13 years. He is the network's exuberant, always available spokesman. He tirelessly follows news stories about the Catholic Church and speaks knowledgeably on practically every topic related to clergy sex abuse. But in person, he is often on the verge of tears as he talks about victim suffering, pulling out a crumpled handkerchief and wiping his eyes.
His task has not become easier even with recent changes made by the U.S. Catholic Church, he said. Many, he added, are superficial policy changes that were created as a result of the publicity surrounding the scandal.
"We weren't molested because priests didn't read a code of conduct," he said.
Meaningful change will come from new state laws that eliminate statutes of limitations that allow victims to sue for old crimes, he said. Priest abuse stems from abuse of power, both the priest abusing the children and the bishops abusing their power over information coming from their diocese. But the threat of lawsuits changes behavior, and it also means someone besides the bishop can watch over priests' behavior and hold the church accountable, he said.
Clohessy said the Anchorage Archdiocese took a good step in naming a Kenai priest accused of abusing a girl for six to eight years before he died in 1992. The naming of the Rev. Robert Wells means only one priest accused of abusing children in the archdiocese since 1950 is still unnamed.
But Clohessy said the archdiocese would have taken a significant step if it also released that third name.
Otherwise, "it has the feel of orchestrated damage control."
Alaska has had a smaller percentage of priests accused of abuse than other dioceses, but Clohessy believes the scandal will subside in big cities and most likely will move to rural areas, which have fewer media outlets and victims who don't believe they have the comfort of anonymity in their hometown, he said.
The Fairbanks diocese, which covers the largest area in the state, already faces two lawsuits by victims who say they were abused in the Bush.
The Alaska SNAP chapter is small but growing. Tom, the local contact for SNAP who does not want to be identified by his last name, said he has between five and 10 people attending support sessions.
Meanwhile, Clohessy will continue visiting with victims around the country at the dozens of SNAP chapters and, through them, perhaps effect change in an ancient institution.
"The single greatest driving force (for change) is the courage of survivors," he said.
Daily News reporter Nicole Tsong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4450.
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