Our Opinion: Springfield Diocese’s failures underscore retraumatizing effects of clergy abuse scandal

The Berkshire Eagle [Pittsfield MA]

August 11, 2021

When institutions like the Catholic Church try to reckon with histories of systemic abuse, survivors often relate how the difficult but necessary process of unearthing the truth is deeply retraumatizing for them. They must relive horrors no one should endure. Their most vulnerable personal history is exposed. Character, motives, credibility are questioned — all of this not because they’ve done something, but because a powerful person did something to them when they were powerless.

Truly reckoning with the clergy sexual abuse scandal demands that dioceses acknowledge and repair the grievous harm done over the years to the communities they serve. They also have a moral duty to conduct this process in a way that minimizes how much abuse victims are retraumatized for having the bravery to share their painful experiences. A Cheshire woman’s heartrending story shows that the Springfield Diocese has utterly failed to live up to that duty.

Sheri Biasin told The Eagle Investigations team what she told a Springfield Diocese abuse survivors hotline: Between the ages of 8 and 12, from her first Communion party at her childhood home in West Stockbridge to family picnics and outings, she endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of the late Rev. Daniel L. Gill — known to her family as “Father Dan.” It left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. It severed her spiritual life from her family’s faith. In addition to the mental and emotional wounds, her therapist says that the lingering trauma has resulted in physical manifestations of chronic pain.

Yet Ms. Biasin told The Eagle that sometimes the abuse itself does not feel like the worst of it. Her suffering has been compounded by the diocese’s unacceptable errors in handling her reports, which the diocese itself admitted in a statement to The Eagle: “The diocese readily acknowledges that this matter was not handled according to our procedures when the survivor first came forward back in 2002 and was mismanaged again when she attempted on various occasions to have her complaint heard.”

That first call to a diocesan hotline was in 2002, an intake noted by the church on April 29 of that year. Six years later, the church asked her to submit another report, including all of the details of her abuse. She photocopied pages of her initial report to save her from having to transcribe some of the most devastating parts of her life.

“Reliving this traumatic pain is just as devastating as it was 6 years ago,” she wrote by hand in 2008. “I am hoping it is acceptable that I attach what I wrote back then … This is the absolute last time I have to do this. I dread the thought of having to write the effects this abuse [had] on all of my adult life.”

Unfortunately, it would not be the last time.

The diocese says that elements of Ms. Biasin’s file have been “lost,” and in turn, Ms. Biasin once again must pay the unfair price of being retraumatized just to help the diocese patch the gaps in its records. In other words, if she hopes to get her alleged abuser on the list of credibly accused priests, she must now act as if her previous reports never happened. The Springfield Diocese lists credibly accused clergy on its website. Previously, the church’s policy was not to list priests who were posthumously accused of abuse. That changed this year, however, when the diocese’s new bishop, the Most Rev. William Byrne, changed the policy to allow the list to include credibly accused priests whose victims came forward later. It was a long overdue effort to empower survivors of clergy abuse, many of whom long feared reprisal from their parishes or even their families for accusing priests with powerful standing in their communities.

The Rev. Gill’s name, however, was not on the new list, despite the fact that the diocese had documents in its possession confirming that Ms. Biasin had come before its Misconduct Commission for Diocesan Personnel in 2002 and had met with Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell in 2008. She wants the list of credibly accused priests to include the Rev. Gill, who, according to the diocese, had at least one other abuse complaint against him in addition to Ms. Biasin’s: a woman who told the diocese in 1992 that he molested her as a teenager.

If the diocese wants to make good on its promises to atone for years of unimaginable suffering in their faith community and years more of gaslighting the victims who dared to speak the truth, then this sort of situation should have never happened — and the diocese should be forthcoming about the steps it’s taking to ensure this never happens again. Bishop Byrne has pledged to lead the diocese in a way that upgrades its accountability and cares for abuse survivors, especially those who have faced myriad hurdles just to share their truth. This was heartening to hear, but cases like Ms. Biasin’s underscore how much change is needed within the diocese and the greater institution of the Catholic Church to truly let the suffering speak. While much of Ms. Biasin’s case played out before Bishop Byrne’s arrival, how it played out shows that he has his work cut out for him.