Few abuse survivors were involved in task force report on Springfield diocesan reforms

MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]

September 26, 2021

By Anne-Gerard Flynn

Victims of clergy abuse were proportionately the smallest group providing input for a recent task force report on how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield can better handle claims of sexual misconduct.

A total of 11 abuse survivors participated in three, 90-minute focus groups held online this winter, a form of response selected by the task force. In contrast, an online survey asking lay people for feedback drew 492 respondents, while a phone survey of clergy involved 83 priests.

“We were disheartened that we did not have more and that we did not have more time to get more voices and we also felt incredibly grateful about how much was shared,” said Jenny Coleman, a licensed mental health counselor and director of the organization Stop It Now! that was hired by the diocese to recruit survivors for the focus groups.

“We know each person had an in-depth, complicated story to tell and that they were being given the chance, many of them for the first time, to do this. So, the stories still felt incredibly informative, incredibly instructional and we felt added to the information that people needed to understand for what they can do both looking back to respond to people and looking forward to prevent abuse.”

Orlando Isaza, an Easthampton-based social worker and co-chair of the task force, said he felt the focus-group approach elicited sufficient survivor response for the task force. The panel made recommendations aimed at immediate, as well as long-term, change in how the diocese responds to victims.

“No new themes or new concepts could be expected to emerge from further involvement,” said Isaza of research results that focused on the importance of an approach that did not retraumatize a survivor. “The fact that the survivors were asked how do we move forward to promote healing and prevent further abuse was kind of a precedent in our task force work. The whole concept of trauma-informed approach and trauma-informed response starts with believing a person.”

Jenny Coleman, director of Stop It Now!, speaks during a Jan. 7 press conference outside the Bishop Marshall Center. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield contracted with the organization to conduct focus groups and surveys with abuse survivors. (Don Treeger / The Republican)
Jenny Coleman, director of Stop It Now!, speaks during a Jan. 7 press conference outside the Bishop Marshall Center. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield contracted with the organization to conduct focus groups and surveys with abuse survivors. (Don Treeger / The Republican)

When asked about the low participation rate by survivors, the Most Rev. William D. Byrne, who was installed as bishop here in December, said he remained “confident in the report’s findings and recommendations.”

“I believe Stop It Now! did an excellent job in facilitating the input from the survivor community,” Byrne said. “However, if we are to continue to improve our efforts, we will need to listen to many other victims of abuse and hear their stories. I have learned much from hearing from these courageous individuals, so as I have done since my arrival last year, I will continue to meet with survivors on a regular basis.”

The Independent Task Force on the Response to Sexual Abuse within the Diocese of Springfield was created in May 2020 as part of ongoing reforms directed at how abuse allegations are handled by the diocese, long criticized for cover-up and lack of timeliness by survivors and their advocates, and to prevent such abuse in the future.

The task force report was presented and publicly accepted earlier this month by Byrne, who called its comprehensive list of strategic initiatives to be implemented over a three-year period, a “blueprint for real change.” It follows diocesan reforms on mandated reporting and an understanding with district attorneys that they would first investigate allegations. Some of its reforms, like a reorganized review board and new procedures for investigating allegations, are already underway.

Task force members were appointed by Byrne’s predecessor, the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, now archbishop of St. Louis. Their reform initiatives were based on the report from Stop It Now!, a report on the one-on-one clergy interviews prepared by a different organization, Arpeggias, as well as a summary of the online survey from October 2020.

The task force report also incorporates many of the recommendations that retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis made as a result of his independent investigative report, requested by the diocese and released June 2020. The judge determined a Chicopee man’s unresolved claim that he had been abused by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon to be “unequivocally credible.”

“Naively we had anticipated more voices to include but that is not what happened in the timeframe for when our report was to be completed,” said Coleman whom the task force had asked to recruit six to 12 participants for a maximum of four focus groups each.

She called the timeframe a “challenging one for many” in its overlap with the holiday season and with some impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also coincided with the Weldon accuser filing a lawsuit in Hampden Superior Court against the diocesan, charging there was a cover-up to protect his legacy.

Recruitment began in January with a report deadline, extended by 30 days by the task force at Coleman’s request to accommodate focus group times around survivors’ schedules, of March 31.

The diocese has settled more than 150 claims of clergy sexual abuse. As outlined in the report, the focus groups were open to anyone 18 or older who had experienced clergy sexual abuse by someone who was or is a member of the clergy within the diocese or experienced such abuse anywhere in the church but who now lives in the diocese that covers the four counties of Western Massachusetts.

“Scheduling was hard,” Coleman said. “We had some folks on the West Coast as they had moved out there. We had folks on the East Coast who were working and people who had COVID.”

Through a variety of recruitment efforts, including advertisement, outreach to professionals and various organizations and notices in parish bulletins, although the report notes few parishes published the focus group recruitment notices, an initial pool of 31 individuals contacted Stop It Now! and this ultimately resulted in 11 survivors. As noted in the report, two focus groups were conducted with a third “part two” at the request of the first group.

“We strongly suspected with more time we would have heard from more folks,” Coleman said. “We did feel the limited voices we were given were still informative. What are the barriers, how we are responding to these barriers when we are asking for people to share the most sensitive and personal of information and are we allowing them enough time?”

Given the subject, “the process of getting some folks engaged was lengthy,” she said.

“They needed to know that we would respond along the way and that they would be safe and respected and that they would be treated with dignity,” Coleman said. “We knew this report was very important and that the information needed to be gathered but because of the work that we do, we also know it is equally important to make sure we were working with everyone with dignity and respect all the time.”

She added, “We also know from a researcher’s perspective the task we set about doing could have taken a good 18-months plus, and that then we would have been able to deepen the conversations and gather even more of the nuances that were acting as barriers for folks and what they had hoped that they could achieve differently by being able to participate in this process.”

“Survivors were there to talk about the experiences they had with their own abuse and the church’s response,” Coleman said. “We had voices across both genders and ages.”

The Stop It Now! report as well as the report based on clergy feedback, had praise for Jeffrey Trant, who was hired in June 2019 to head the reorganized diocesan Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance.

“Survivors did feel a difference between the current office of Victim Assistance versus the past, and said it was great to see it being led by someone who has an understanding of what trauma-informed response means and that this was being done,” Coleman said. “Also, the fact that the task force was requested by the bishop made a big difference for folks as well as that the reports were made public.”

She added, “There is not one answer that is going to meet the needs of everyone in terms of healing or preventative practices.”

“The individual survivor is just that,” Coleman said. “We can have individual treatment modalities, different judicial outcomes, we can have ways of community that we can offer support in. At the bottom of it each person should ask for what will help heal them and it might not look like what anyone else has experienced. We may or may not have the people to provide it by they should be able to ask.”

She said that “people who been abuse can often feel, all right, all ready, we have heard enough from you, we have heard from all of you and enough of you, yet since it is a life-long process of healing, it should be a life-long process of learning.”

The main report as well as the other three reports can be read on the diocesan website.