What If You Were Abused?
Getting Yourself Healthy Is the First Step

By Patti Wenzel
The-Bee [Phillips WI]
December 13, 2006

It is not unusual to have questions, doubts and fears following the revelation of accusations of alleged abuse on the part of Fr. Terrence Fitzmaurice, the cleric who served Phillips Roman Catholic community from 1986-1999.

"It would be uncommon to not hear more accusations after something like this comes out," said Peter Isely, Midwest Regional Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Isely and SNAP's national director, David Clohessy, said the first thing someone who suspects clergy abuse should do is know they're no alone.

"They have to know they are not alone," Clohessy said. "And that something like this is never, ever their fault."

Clohessy said the next step is to find help from an independent therapist. Both men were adamant that a victim or someone with suspicions should never contact the church itself.

"The main reason abuse cases have been mishandled by the bishops is because they can," Clohessy said. "By reporting it to them, they have the opportunity to threaten and intimidate people, move abusive priests and destroy evidence."

Instead, victims should contact law enforcement or human services to report the incident, no matter how old the allegations might be.

"These people are the professionals. They know how to investigate these things. They know how to protect people," Clohessy said.

"Above all else, don't keep this type of violation of trust a secret," he continued. "Silence is deadly."

SNAP is an independent support group made up of victims, family members, therapists and clergy who support, comfort and advise others who have been abused by priests, nuns and other church workers.

Clohessy said many victims don't even realize that they have been abused, choosing instead to minimize the event.

"They minimize it by saying 'he only touched me once,' or 'it could have been worse,'" he said. "But then their troubles pile up and they start to take a close look at their lives. We're here to help them when they come to terms with it."

He added that the abuse in the Catholic Church occurred because of the nature of the organization.

"The crux of this problem is that the church is a monarchy with unchecked power and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

What is the church doing?

The Archdiocese of Chicago, where Fitzmaurice is accused of abusing teenage boys in the 1970s, and the Diocese of Superior, which is the overseer of the Phillips congregation both have reporting policies concerning abusive priests and lay workers in place.

Both bodies have adopted all or portions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, along with enacting communication and ethics policies for priests, nuns and layworkers.

Fr. Phillip Heslin, the Moderator of the Curia in the Superior Diocese, is the contact person for those who suspect or have been abused by diocesan employees. Heslin can be contacted at 392-2937, ext. 106.

The diocese also has a lay person to take abuse reports, Cate Van Lone-Taylor. She can be contacted at 364-2950.

Within the Superior dioceses' communication, morals and ethics policies, possible victims are directed to report incidents of sexual abuse to a minor to local law enforcement and human services.

Included in the diocese policies is a requirement that all references given by church employees will be contacted before hiring and that background checks are to be administered to those who will regularly work with minors in the church.

Those policies were amended in 2003, but the diocese did not return calls to say if these same policies were in place prior to or during Fr. Fitzmaurice's tenure in Phillips.

When reports of abuse by clergy are made to the Superior diocese, according to its policies, the incidents will be reported to state authorities, after which a preliminary investigation will be conducted in accordance with church law.

The accused person will be temporarily suspended from service and if the worker belongs to a religious order, the order's superior will be notified of the accusations in writing.

The policy also notes that the accused's reputation is to be protected throughout the investigation.

If the charges are substantiated by civil authorities or through the church's own investigation, and the accused is an priest, he will be removed permanently from the ministry. He may also be removed from the clerical state, or defrocked, if the case so warrants.

In a case where the priest is elderly or infirm, the USCCB allows dioceses and orders to maintain the priest's status, but asks that the man refrain from the public ministry and instead lead a "life of prayer and contrition."

The investigation into allegations against a priest is conducted by the diocesan review board, made up of laypeople and appointed by the Bishop.

Another requirement the USCCB has put in place is the mandated reporting of religious workers names and where they had served is allegations have been substantiated.

Not doing enough

According to a survey commissioned by the USCCB in 2004, about 4 percent of U.S. priests ministering between 1950-2000 were accused of sexual abuse of a minor, or roughly 4,400 clergy. More than $800 million has been paid to victims of clergy abuse from U.S. dioceses and religious orders.

Most of the settlement monies have come from the sales of church properties, investments and liquid assets. Church officials assure the membership that regular offering collections have not been used to pay settlements in these cases.

Isely said while the policies are in place, and settlements have been made to help victims, he doesn't have confidence in the church, either in Superior, Chicago or Rome.

He also isn't pleased with the state of Wisconsin's laws that protect priests, bishops and the Catholic Church.

"We are the only state in the nation where a pedophile priest's superior (the bishop or religious superior) cannot be named in a civil case for negligence," Isely said.

"This is a complete shield for the Catholic Church, one of the largest corporations in the world, and for the predator."

He characterizes Wisconsin's child abuse laws as archaic and protective of the church.

Neighboring states, Illinois and Minnesota, do allow victims to sue the church and its officers, namely the bishops, for negligence in civil suits.

"Wisconsin is in the top five for the highest proportion of residents who call themselves Catholic," Isely said. "We have the highest concentration of religious orders than any other place in the nation. These laws have to go to protect victims."

Isely said Gov. Jim Doyle would sign a law to remove the current legal restrictions from victims of clergy sexual abuse. Isely was unsure when a bill would be forwarded in the Legislature to correct the inequity he feels exists.

"We also need to eliminate the statute of limitations on child abuse," Isely said. "Mainly, people need to report abuse, no matter how old the incident is. Because by not reporting it, that's how the church gets away with it."

If you or a loved one has been abused or suspects abuse on the part of a priest or other religious worker, contact SNAP at (414)429-7259 in Milwaukee or its national headquarters at (314)645-5915

Representatives of the Chicago Archdioceses and the Superior Dioceses did not return calls concerning this topic.


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