Group Aids Survivors of Sex Abuse by Priests

By Sandra Mathers
The Orlando Sentinel [Orlando FL]
Downloaded March 27, 2003

When Richard Heinkel was allowed to drive his priest's car without a drivers license, the teenage altar server didn't tell.

When the Roman Catholic priest took Heinkel to R-rated movies without his parents' permission, the 15-year-old didn't tell.

And when, he says, the priest plied his young overnight houseguest with beer and muscle relaxants before climbing into his bed at least 30 times during a three-year period, Heinkel didn't tell anyone about those encounters, either.

Now, however, Heinkel is more comfortable talking about his abuse at the hands of his former priest, and he wants to make it easier for others like him to open up. That's why he is starting a Central Florida chapter of SNAP -- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The grass-roots support group for men and women abused as children by priests and other clergy operates in 29 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.

"I didn't want to tell anyone [about the abuse]. Who would believe me?" asked Heinkel, now 43 and a general contractor for an Orlando construction company. "At that age, the more times it happened, the harder it was to explain."

Heinkel said he was sexually abused in Orlando from age 15 to 18 by a priest who later left the state and the priesthood. Even so, Heinkel kept his secret for years, revealing it for the first time to his mother in his 20s and 10 years ago to his former wife before they married.

Since then, he said, it has taken a drinking problem, the breakdown of his marriage and serious therapy to come to terms with the abuse, Heinkel said.

In addition to providing support for its members, SNAP also recommends literature about child sexual abuse and advocates for legislation that supports abuse victims.

SNAP members in several states, for example, have helped pass legislation that makes it easier to prosecute abuse cases. For instance, in some states, the statute of limitations runs out once a victim reaches the age of majority, and the group has helped extend that timetable, said David Clohessy, SNAP's national director in St. Louis.

In Florida, a bill (HB 1321) recently filed by state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, would in part allow abusers to be prosecuted for up to seven years after their victims reach age 18. Currently, Florida law allows abusers to be prosecuted up to four years after their victims turn 18, said Lisa Roberson, a spokeswoman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office.

"Kids remember they were abused, but they don't understand it really hurt them," Clohessy said. "Only after their fourth failed marriage or their fourth bar fight do they realize their adult problems are linked to and stem from their victimization."

Clohessy said some priests tend to abuse youths from very devout families, knowing the youth is less likely to report the abuse and is less likely to be believed if he does.

"It's such an incredible betrayal by a revered adult authority figure," he said. "He [the priest] is Jesus Christ's representative on earth."

For Heinkel, therapy has come in two parts: attending church after a 25-year lapse and forming the local SNAP chapter.

"My number one goal is to help people know they aren't alone," said Heinkel, who will serve as the group's facilitator. "Sometimes being in a room with people who have common problems is comforting."

Dealing with the guilt and angst associated with such abuse isn't easy, but it can be done, he said, touting SNAP's key philosophy. Acknowledging that the incidents occurred and understanding they aren't the fault of the victim is a start, he said.

Heinkel's group is one of four in Florida. The Tampa-St. Petersburg group was formed last summer. Groups in Jacksonville-St. Augustine and Miami geared up more recently.

So far, he has signed up three members. His goal is a total of 12 within 90 days, though the group could attract many more.

After a spate of cases involving youths sexually abused by Catholic priests made national news last year, officials with the Catholic Diocese of Orlando confirmed they had provided victims abused by local priests with emotional and financial assistance through the years.

The Orlando Sentinel reported seven priests in the Orlando diocese were accused of or admitted to molesting nearly three dozen youths from 1973 to 1996. All were removed from their posts, said diocesan spokeswoman Carol Brinati.

Last week, a Catholic priest in Polk County was suspended from his church after the diocese received an allegation he was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor.

The Rev. Peter Uniowski, 52, pastor at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Lakeland, was suspended, pending a criminal investigation.

The nine-county diocese encompasses Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Brevard, Lake, Sumter, Volusia, Polk and Marion counties.

Victims who report sexual abuse by priests to the church are referred to the diocese's Victim's Assistance Program and offered counseling by a private, licensed mental-health therapist, Brinati said.

The therapist also offers separate support groups for male and female victims, she said.

The Orlando diocese is aware of SNAP's new Orlando support group, Brinati said.

"It is important to have organizations interested in working with victims of sexual abuse by any perpetrator," she said.

Sandra Mathers can be reached at or 407-420-5507.


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