Survivors Try to S.N.A.P Back

By Lawrence Silver
Jackson Free Press [Mississippi]
June 3, 2004

Local victims of sexual abuse by priests joined other victims nationwide by forming a Mississippi chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (S.N.A.P.). Johnny Rainer, co-coordinator of the group and a licensed counselor, says healing can only really begin when the church comes forward with the truth. Instead, Rainer feels the church wants to minimize the problem and to blame anyone but itself.

As teenagers, Johnny Rainer and Mark Belenchia looked up to then vicar general Bernard F. Law. Progressive and active in the civil rights movement, Law was held up as a role model for young Catholic men.

Priests who abuse are often charismatic and active in the community outside the church, according to Rainer. Victims are told the sexual advances are 'special' and are 'part of becoming a man.' 'You want to believe it,' says Belenchia. 'You feel shame, but here's this guy everybody likes telling you it's OK. You want to believe him.'

To help explain the confusion victims feel, Belenchia tells of serving as an acolyte for a Christmas Eve midnight mass. As the priest says the words of institution for communion, Belenchia looks out over the sanctuary. Full for this important Christian holiday, he wants to yell out that it's all bullsh*t. The priest celebrating the mass had fondled him less than 30 minutes before, as he was putting on his robe in the vestibule.

Rainer explains that the confusion continues into adulthood for victims. When one of the accused priests was transferred from one parish to another in Mississippi, a victim and his sons volunteered to help the priest move. Other victims have thought of actually becoming priests in hopes of resolving their problems with the church.

Oddly, according to the Web site for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, the church did not put in place a policy against the abuse of minors by priests until 1986. Lay people were added to the policy in 1994. In the communication, Bishop Joseph Latino contends the church did not understand pedophilia until recently. Specifically, the church was not aware, at the time of the abuses alleged by the Morrisons (see main story) and others, that recidivism was high among pedophiles. In spite of these shortcomings, the church has offered, according to Latino, 'reasonable and necessary counseling to victims of sexual abuse.'

Defenders of the church exist outside the clergy. Dorothy Morrison, a founder of the local chapter of S.N.A.P. along with her three sons, reports that one older church member asked her once, 'Don't you think the church has suffered enough'' Belenchia and Rainer report similar stories, including family members. Many contend the entire argument is about money. The plaintiffs do not entirely disagree.

Rainer wants 'vindication, therapy, and lost wages,' all in the context of the truth. He is offended by what he calls 'institutional stonewalling.' S.N.A.P. believes the church knows much more about the abuse scandal than it's willing to divulge, including many abuse cases as yet unrevealed.

Dorothy Morrison agrees that the church shrouds itself in secrecy and is offended by its overall attitude of moral superiority. The lawsuits ask for a lot of money because 'money is the only thing they understand. To them, it's all about money.'

Latino's message in The Mississippi Catholic addresses the large sums requested by the plaintiffs. He says the Diocese of Jackson is a 'mission diocese' and depends on the larger church for its support. Latino warns that property belonging to the diocese may be sold and parishes may be assessed if the suits are successful.

Ironically, while virtually none of the abuse victims attend a Catholic church, their faith remains intact. Some attend and are even active in Protestant churches. Others do no regularly attend any church but believe much of the Christian doctrine they were taught as children.

Recently Mark Belenchia's suit against the Diocese of Jackson was dismissed because it was filed after the time allowed for discovery. In spite of this setback, the legal dispute appears destined to continue.


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