Survivors of Clergy Abuse Form Support Group in City

By Brooke W. Stanley
Gazette [Maryland]
July 14, 2004

The mission of a new support group in Gaithersburg for survivors of clergy abuse is a simple one validation.

Pain not validated is aggravated, explained Rockville resident Elizabeth Eisenhaur, who co-chairs the group.

Called A Support Group for Survivors of Clergy Abuse, the group began in May and meets monthly at the Gaithersburg Library. The group also caters to family members and friends who have been affected by the sexual abuse of loved ones.

The group is co-sponsored by the Montgomery County chapter of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a Newton, Mass.-based organization of concerned Catholics dedicated to supporting survivors of abuse, supporting priests of integrity and shaping structural change within the Catholic Church. It is also co-sponsored by the Washington regional chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national, confidential self-help group.

Eisenhaur, a Boston native, said she became involved in abuse survivor support after being deeply affected by the 2002 abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. That scandal involved numerous accusations of sexual abuse by clergy and failure to correct the problem.

"My initial motivation was heartbreak," explained Eisenhaur, who is Catholic.

She decided to help form the group because she is also a member of VOTF, and one of their central missions is to support survivors. She said she consulted with SNAP to see if that group thought there was a need for a support group in Montgomery County.

"We didn't know what the need would be in Montgomery County for a survivor group," Eisenhaur said.

When the answer was yes, she took action.

The group meets at the library because it is not only close to Interstate 270, but is also not affiliated with any church.

"They needed a place that was a neutral setting," Eisenhaur said.

A victim always leads the meeting, and the program is based on the 12-step Alcoholic Anonymous program, which prioritizes self-help and maintains anonymity.

The group also offers alternatives for where to go for help, a listing of area therapists who specialize in clergy abuse survival and a list of emergency services in Montgomery County, including the Montgomery County Crisis Center.

Mark Serrano, 40, of Leesburg, Va., who said as a child he was a victim of repeated sexual abuse by a priest, said groups such as the one in Gaithersburg are a critical part of the healing process for survivors.

"Silence and secrecy is toxic for victims because you can never heal," said Serrano, a member of SNAP.

Victims of child sexual abuse usually suffer in silence, which can lead to problems with drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, suicide attempts and a variety of emotional problems.

"So many of us can never get on that road of recovery because of the layers of shame and guilt," Serrano explained.

Serrano has not been to a meeting of the Montgomery County support group, but plans to attend this month and may moderate a meeting in the future.

"People desire a safe place to come to receive affirmation," Serrano said. "...You're talking about the biggest secret of their life."

Through support groups, the self-blame often associated with abuse starts to dissipate.

"I've seen lives changed and I've seen lives saved," he said.

Glen Burnie resident Wayne Dorough co-chairs the Gaithersburg group with Eisenhaur. Dorough said he was a victim of sexual abuse, but by a neighbor rather than a clergy member.

"It's something that, when it's happened to you, you put it on the back shelf," he said, adding that often survivors will put off dealing with their pain in order to focus on their career and family. But, as time goes on, many survivors are ready to talk out their pain.

Dorough agreed to co-chair the group, he said, because he benefits from being around others who understand first-hand what he has been through.

"Therapy, for me, is working with a group," he said.

Eisenhaur would not comment on how many members are in the Gaithersburg group, but did say it was small and that the number of attendees varied between the two meetings held so far.

"It's quite evident that there's a need for it," she said.

Judy Miller, chairwoman of the Montgomery County affiliate of VOTF, said the group decided to form the survivors support group in part because support services by the Archdiocese of Washington were not widely publicized or easily accessible.

"We need to do tangible things to say that we are supporting our brothers and sisters who are survivors," she said.

VOTF notified the community by announcing the group to the local media and local parishes, Miller said.

"We really feel that we are living out our responsibilities as members of the Catholic Church," she said.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that the Archdiocese would pay for counseling outside of the church for anyone who has been abused by a clergy member. When someone comes forward with an accusation of abuse, the police are notified and the clergy person in question is put on leave pending both an internal and external investigation.

The Archdiocese of Washington does not, however, offer a support group for those abused by clergy, Gibbs said.

"People who have come forward have not expressed a need for support groups," she said.


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