A Victim Discovers Hope in the Parish
By Dana Parsons
Los Angeles Times [California]
September 28, 2003
It was planned as a night to hand out leaflets, not a night to shake the church or rock the parishioners. Standing outside the church doors, the four women didn't come to pick a fight or force a showdown.
They knew they weren't especially welcome. They'd asked the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange if they could speak to parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church about abuse that they or their children had experienced at other churches in years past, but were told that wouldn't fit on the agenda. Instead, the night was meant for parishioners to vent or ask questions about allegations of sexual abuse leveled against Msgr. Daniel Murray.
So, leaflets it would be on this night in Newport Beach. That was no surprise: The women who wanted badly to talk about how the nation's churches handled sexual abuse allegations were accustomed to being left on the doorstep.
Then an unexpected thing happened. The women stepped inside and found the meeting room where dozens of parishioners had gathered. Mary Grant, abused by South County priest John Lenihan over a period of years in the 1970s and now the Southern California head of a victims advocacy group, saw an empty chair among a group of parishioners.
"Come in, sit down," one of them said to her.
As the evening unfolded, they found out. Grant, 40, told her story of being molested by Lenihan, who in recent years admitted to having sexual relationships with two teen-aged girls and later left the priesthood.
Despite the media attention her case had received, Grant had never spoken to parishioners inside any Catholic church. That night, she'd already heard various people say they doubted the allegations against Murray and that they'd support him.
Then, Grant — who isn't involved in the Murray case — broke her silence. "I raised my hand and told my story, in a nutshell. As I was telling the story, their faces changed," she says. "This huge barrier had come down and no longer was the abuse victim some nonexistent person. It was connected to a person. Although I wasn't the alleged victim of their priest, they had a real person who had been molested by a priest."
She wasn't there, she said, to condemn Murray, but she asked them to reconsider public shows of support. Doing so, she says, sends a message to children who might be victims in such cases not to come forward.
"Kids can be frightened into being silent by seeing the way the victim or alleged victim is treated and how the alleged perpetrator is treated," she says. If parents or diocesan officials give signals that allegations against priests or others can't be true and hold rallies for them, Grant says, children "are going to be trapped and traumatized."
Grant says the evening was a breakthrough. "It was an experience that none of us had ever had. It gave us hope that if you can get in these rooms and simply tell our stories and parishioners get the bigger picture, the way these cases are handled might change."
Some applauded her talk, Grant says. Some hugged her. Two invited her to come back.
Critical that diocesan officials have discouraged victims from contributing to the discussion of clerical abuse, Grant says the victims' involvement is crucial. While the diocese has set up meetings to let parishioners express feelings, it hasn't invited people like Grant or publicized her group's efforts.
"I think we've all felt," Grant says, "that if we could get past church officials hiding and protecting the priests and alienating and blaming the victims, and get to the parishioners, that we could reach them and they would support us."
Now, she says, she's sure of it.
"The parishioners," she says, "are our hope."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.
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