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  Priest-Abuse Victims Share Their Grief
200 Catholics Turn out at Midwest Express Center to Speak to Bishops, Panel

By Tom Heinen and Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 23, 2002

"Why?" and "Remember!" were the emotional, often pointed refrains heard Tuesday night as survivors of sexual abuse by priests opened their hearts and minds to an unprecedented panel that included victims' advocates and Milwaukee's two Catholic bishops.

It was a long-awaited litany, unlike any ever imagined by rank-and-file churchgoers in an earlier era, before the sexual abuse issue finally was pushed into the daylight and limelight.

Why were priests who were known abusers shifted from parish to parish? Why didn't bishops telephone and apologize to victims on behalf of priests? Why did the archdiocese pursue some victims for court costs in failed civil suits?

And -- in a seldom heard entreaty -- church officials were urged to remember that the victims' parents also carry deep wounds.

"Victims of sexual abuse and their families truly know the meaning of a broken heart," said Karen Cerniglia, whose son, Joe, said he was sexually abused in his early teens by Father William Effinger in a rectory in Lake Geneva. Effinger died in prison after being convicted of abusing a boy and accused of other abuse.

"I want you to know that I trusted and believed in Archbishop (Rembert G. Weakland) and in you," she said to Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba. "However, my faith was completely shattered."

Cerniglia said she was heartened when she met Sklba at a parish gathering and he promised to call her by-then adult son to talk to him. She gave Sklba his number, but no call was ever received.

"Is that a compassionate and caring way to treat my son?" she asked.

Sklba, described by others as a compassionate and good man, acknowledged the conversation. He said he tried several times to reach her son, but the calls were unanswered.

"Ever since then, I have been burdened with a sense of failure," Sklba said. "I do know I tried to do that."

The mother's retort: He could have called her.

Joe Cerniglia, who shared some details of his abuse, accused the hierarchy of betraying the faith, adding, "Please, give me a reason to believe again."

So it went. With sorrow, anger, dispassion, candor and occasional gratitude and praise.

Painful memories were relived, and comments and questions flew, as lines of people waited their turn to speak before a crowd of about 200 survivors and their family members and supporters in a hall at the Midwest Express Center.

First in the nation

The sharing session, organized by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, is believed to be the first one in the nation that involved victims, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and the hierarchy in the planning and in giving responses at the event, according to Milwaukeean Peter Isely, one of the panelists and a member of the national board of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The panelists included Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann. McCann told one victim who was abused while on an out-of-state trip with a priest that it still might be possible to prosecute the man because statutes of limitations vary from state to state.

Dolan thanked those who had suffered crimes at the hands of priests for coming and renewed a previous call for victims to come forward.

"The psychological, emotional and physical horror of what was done to you by people who dared to say they represented the Lord is beyond belief," said Dolan, who stressed that he did believe and respect the survivors for their courage in coming forward.

Victims were not required to identify themselves when they spoke. And, out of concern for their emotional state, reporters were not able to go up to them in the meeting hall to ask follow-up questions. Counselors from throughout the 10-county archdiocese were available in a "safe room" to talk with any victims who needed assistance.

A second session, scheduled for 1 to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Midwest Express Center, will be closed to the news media, though people who want to talk to reporters will be able to do so in another room.

'Long and painful process'

Mark Salmon, 48, of Wauwatosa, who was abused repeatedly by a former seminarian who taught in a Catholic school, said: "Where the real tragedy of this lies is with the parents. . . . I feel they have been saddled with a life sentence."

Salmon's mother, Pat, 72, did not speak during the session, but she did express her views several days ago at a news conference when details of the sharing session were announced.

"I would like to say that as a mother of a victim, this has been a very long and painful process," she said. "The pain will never go away, and I hope, though, with the new archbishop and the listening sessions, that can come to some resolution that will be satisfactory."

At least two women told of being sexually abused by priests. And another said that it is not just the priests who abused youths emotionally and sexually -- she was abused by a nun.

Michael Sneesby, 45, said he was sexually abused from about the age of 13 until age 16 by Father Frederick Bistricky at St. Augustine Parish on Milwaukee's south side. He and other family members were shocked to learn earlier this year that, although they had been told that Bistricky had retired on a disability and would have no contact with children, he was helping out at weekend Masses at nearby Immaculate Conception Parish.

"Why?" asked Sneesby in a rising voice.

Sklba said he did not know that the priest was saying Mass at a parish until the family complained. As soon as he heard, he put a stop to it, he said.

"Don't you, as a bishop, know what a priest is doing in your diocese?" Sneesby asked.

"Not all of them," Sklba said.

Since then, the archdiocese has said, all priests with any history of a credible allegation of sexual abuse have been removed from all public ministry.

During the meeting, Sklba took much of the wrath expressed by victims, particularly from those abused by the late Father George Nuedling in Twin Lakes.

One of Nuedling's victims asked why Sklba had sent a priest to another parish after learning of abuse in 1996.

"Why not report it to the police? Why did you not try to find other victims?" the man asked. "He was not in rehabilitation. It's terrible, Bishop Sklba. Victims can't have peace until they have justice."

Another man said he had gotten an e-mail from Sklba promising a letter of personal apology would be sent to his brother who had been abused. The man said the letter never arrived.

Sklba interjected: "I sent it."

The man also said Project Benjamin, the archdiocese's program to deal with abuse victims, has little credibility, and he asked that church officials produce studies or testimonials that would show that it was "something more than a public relations device."

The session was moderated by Lina Juarbe, executive director of the Healing Center at Aurora Sinai Medical Center.

Other panelists included Barbara Reinke, director of Project Benjamin; Mary Hennis, director of counseling services at The Women's Center in Waukesha; Barbara Schveidler, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and director of religious education at Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa; and Patty Marchant, a Milwaukee psychotherapist, who, like Isely, is both a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy and a nationally known advocate for survivor victims.

 
 

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