Nun Strives for Reconciliation in Hurting Catholic Community

By Randy Myers
Contra Costa Times [California]
Downloaded May 4, 2004

Sister Barbara Flannery's outrage when she hears how some East Bay priests stole children's trust and violated their bodies fuels her passion to end the sex abuse.

"I experience anger at the institution and anger at those who failed to do what they were supposed to do ...

"I committed myself to throwing all my anger into staying with the institution and being sure that this never happens again."

By no means has the abuse scandal eroded her religious convictions.

"It does not shake my faith," said the 63-year-old, who entered the sisterhood at 18.

As chancellor for the Oakland Diocese, Flannery works with abuse victims to ensure they are aware of their rights, including counseling the church offers. Victims are invited to meet with Bishop Allen Vigneron, who has conducted apology services in East Bay parishes where abuse occurred.

The bishop praises Flannery's unwavering dedication to establishing outreach programs.

"I can say that we are extraordinarily blessed with Sister Barbara's leadership with this crisis," he said.

"She really understands what's going on in people's lives ... She has a great capacity to relate to people and she has an acute mind at seeing what's at stake."

The energetic Flannery sets her expectations high, wanting East Bay abuse victims to feel secure in revealing their ordeals.

No matter how uncomfortable the stories are, every account needs to be heard before the church can move forward, Flannery said.

She worries when she hears that the Catholic community is pushing to move on from the spiritually and financially crippling scandal.

Lessons still need to be learned, she said.

"People don't want to hear their stories. And that's the hard part for me now, is that the Catholic community wants to move on, and I think it's a little early yet."

She fully agrees that the scandal has overshadowed the good works of the church.

"There is so much good going on," she said. "And it's so hard to get the message out."

The third-generation Oakland resident bristles when she mentions the Supreme Court decision setting a statute of limitations on molestation cases.

"When you're talking about the sexual abuse of children I don't think there should be any statue of limitations.

"We have nine men who are still living who all have cases against them. ... None of them are on any offenders list anywhere, and they don't have to be. But they are offenders."

The crisis achieved one positive - it woke the public to the reality of childhood sexual abuse. She is alarmed by the statistic that one in four girls and one in six or eight boys suffers sexual abuse at some point.

"When you look at your congregation on Sundays you can be sure there are abuse victims sitting there," she said.

She admits she was "naive" about abuse when she became the victim assistance coordinator nearly 10 years ago.

"I needed the victims, survivors to talk to me to tell me their stories. And I think for the first three years all I did was listen to people so I could begin to understand a little bit about the damage done to these people."

She used to wonder why victims didn't snap out of it and move on.

"But as I listened to survivors' stories I realized that that was a very naive viewpoint and that it didn't take into consideration how traumatizing when someone who represents God for you at an early age acts very ungodly."

Terrie Light of the East Bay branch of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests views Flannery as a contradiction, a compassionate and dedicated figure but a representative of an institution that she said has failed abuse survivors.

"She walks a tightrope a lot of the time," Light said.

"What makes her unique is she has not walked away from this. She's stayed with this, and that level of commitment is unusual for someone in the church, to take feedback from victims."

The scope of the abuse has been staggering. In February, a blistering study estimated 11,000 victims and 4,392 offending priests nationwide. The Oakland Diocese reported that in a 52-year span it had 72 victims and 24 Catholic abusers in its jurisdiction. The 54 pending lawsuits here have been consolidated.

The diocese serves 433,000 Catholics.

Survivors' groups say abuse numbers often are low because many victims live in silence. The majority of reported cases took place 20 to 30 years ago.

The Oakland Diocese paid out one of the nation's largest legal settlements to Jennifer Chapin, an Oakdale resident who was raped by Monsignor George Francis during a four-year period. The abuse started when she was 6. She received $3 million.

That amount stunned some.

Flannery said it was just.

"What happened to that young woman was absolutely horrendous," she said.

Flannery is not totally unfamiliar with the problem. When she was a teenager, her family's then-admired priest often came to dinner. Much later, Flannery learned that he had molested two of her brothers' classmates.

Flannery finds a lot to respect in most of the priests she has met since becoming chancellor in 1994.

"If someone asked me to list the top five things that you like best about your job, that would be one of them. ... They're bright, they like what they're doing and they're good priests. So it has been very hard for me to see this very small minority overshadow" them.

Flannery's previous dealings with priests were limited. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 18, received her teaching credential and worked in Arizona, Southern California and later Oakland.

She came to the Bay Area in 1971 and was principal at St. Patrick's Catholic elementary school in West Oakland for 10 years. She later was associate superintendent of Oakland's Catholic school district from 1981 to 1994.

She treasures her time in West Oakland, a poor area with limited resources.

"I learned more there than I think I learned anywhere in my entire life, especially from the women I worked with who were raising children in this community who, many of them, had maybe an eighth-grade education but were Ph.D. smart."

The St. Joseph of Carondelet nun said she is energized by the diversity of the area and seeing laity taking on more leading roles.

"It doesn't make any difference what my age is or how old I will get. I can, till the day I die, be about unity and reconciliation."


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