Sex Abuse Survivors Meet to Share Tales; local SNAP Formed for Victims of Priests
Group Distrusts Archdiocese; Survivors of Abuse by Priests Meet
By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
February 4, 2003
Fourteen men and women faced each other in the meeting room of a public library Monday night, sharing stories of being abused long ago by Catholic priests. Through this gathering, the first local chapter of the national network of clerical sex abuse survivors was launched.
The closed meeting at the Old Metairie branch library ran a half-hour longer than its allotted 90 minutes, a sign of its productivity and perhaps its promise, some said.
Having met one another and exchanged stories, the new members of the Louisiana chapter of SNAP, Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, said they would meet again at a time and date to be posted on the group's Web site, www.snap.laweb.org.
Although the Catholic sex abuse crisis has involved mostly boys as victims, Monday's meeting in Metairie included several women, such as Shari Bernius of Chalmette and Darlene Austin of New Orleans, who said they were abused as children in the 1970s at a parish for the deaf run by the Rev. Jerry Howell.
Their allegations surfaced in New Orleans in 1992 and were denied by Howell. He now lives in a monastery in South Dakota, they said.
Bernius and Austin both said they were glad to have come. "We're still feeling each other out, still trying to figure out where to go with this," Bernius said. "It's early."
The group is now focused more on self-help and mutual support and less on an agenda for change, making the local SNAP chapter more like Alcoholics Anonymous than a political action committee, said Lyn Hill Hayward, a Covington artist who helped organize the group.
For much of the evening, people shared their stories while a retired Covington psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Taylor, listened at Hayward's invitation.
"I think whoever comes tonight is going to be both brave and troubled," he said before the meeting.
Hayward and the organizers did not extend an invitation to archdiocesan officials, who have pledged to support victims of sexual abuse but who, in the eyes of many victims, fall short of that goal.
Nonetheless, "we want to continue to minister and reach out to victims of sexual abuse," said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the archdiocese in an interview before the meeting. "We have a sex abuse reporting policy in place and a staff coordinator to work with them and follow up with pastoral care. We want to continue to minister to them."
He noted that Archbishop Alfred Hughes has met privately with several sexual abuse victims, and that he has pledged to work with law enforcement officials in handling reports of sexual abuse.
But the local SNAP chapter was formed because the archdiocese's actions do not match its words, Hayward and other local victims said.
Shortly after announcing its formation, the organization called for a series of changes in the way the archdiocese handles complaints against abusive priests, calling for a full listing of priests found to have been abusers in the past.
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