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  Abuse Victims Call on Bishops to Act
Before Catholic Leaders Begin Their Retreat in Denver on Monday, about 275 Members of a "Survivors Network" Meet Here First, Seeking an Open Update on Reform Progress

By Eric Gorski egorski@denverpost.com
Denver Post [Denver]
June 13, 2004

Johnny Vega cherishes a photograph of himself as a young boy. He is 11 years old, seated on a chair and wearing a corduroy suit, a bow tie and a smile.

The New Jersey man had the image laminated, and on Saturday he wore it on a string around his neck at a downtown Denver hotel.

He wears it to remember and to tell others that he is a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a clergyman. He was an altar boy; his alleged abuser was his parish priest.

About 275 members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, are meeting at the Denver Hyatt Regency this weekend to share stories, plot personal recoveries and challenge the nation's Roman Catholic bishops to do more to protect children.

The group's choice of Denver for its national conference Friday through today was no accident: On Monday, more than 250 U.S. bishops will open a six-day private retreat here.

SNAP officials on Saturday reiterated a call for bishops to open portions of the Denver meeting that will deal with whether to stage a second annual review of how dioceses are meeting reforms adopted after the clergy abuse scandal.

Two years ago in Dallas, U.S. bishops met with 25 SNAP members during a historic gathering that led to adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The document calls for the removal from ministry of abusive priests, review boards with lay people and abuse-prevention training.

But the U.S. Catholic bishops conference made it clear that the Denver meeting, planned years ago as a closed-door retreat, will remain that way.

SNAP also asked bishops to appoint a current or former prosecutor with sex-crimes experience, at least one SNAP member and at least one representative from the lay group Voice of the Faithful to a board of prominent lay people investigating the causes of the abuse scandal. Bishops must replace four members of the board who are resigning at the end of June.

Mark Serrano, a SNAP board member from Leesburg, Va., acknowledged that engaging the church hierarchy remains his group's ultimate challenge.

"These same bishops knowingly allowed thousands of children to be raped by priests," he said. "To suggest those of us impacted directly should trust these same bishops to protect our children is impossible.

"Nonetheless, they are in power, and we have no choice but to engage them. Unfortunately, it's from outside the gates."

Sergio Gutierrez, spokesman for the Denver Catholic archdiocese, said Denver bishops have met with abuse victims and their immediately families, and lay people have been involved in reviewing sexual abuse allegations in the archdiocese for more than a decade.

He said bishops remain committed to fulfilling the promises made in Dallas two years ago.

"No matter what the bishops do, SNAP is not going to be satisfied," Gutierrez said.

Vega, 40, came to Denver still trying to sort through his feelings of betrayal.

He said his parish priest, the Rev. Jose Alonso, sexually abused him for six years, starting when he was 11.

Vega went to a church deacon, Carlos Guzman, for help. Guzman sexually abused Vega as well, he said.

Alonso was convicted in 1987 for abusing two other boys and was sentenced to five years in jail. He has since died. Vega recently filed a lawsuit against Guzman, who had been training for the priesthood and is no longer in the ministry after another allegation was made against him.

Vega, who is Puerto Rican, recently formed SNAP's first Latino chapter.

"I basically just want (bishops) to stop the secrecy," he said. "If they really believe in Jesus, I'm pretty sure he's looking down on these priests and bishops and asking, 'What exactly is going on; why aren't they protecting children?"'

Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-820-1698 or egorski@denverpost.com .

 
 

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