Hudson Man Forms Group for Victims of Clergy Abuse

By Pat Kinney
Courier [Hudson IA]
Downloaded April 4, 2004

HUDSON --- A Hudson man and former Dubuque police officer --- who alleges he is a survivor of child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church --- is organizing a Northeast Iowa chapter of a national support group for similar victims.

Steve Theisen, a self-employed safety consultant, is starting a chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

SNAP, as the group is called, would hold meetings in Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Dubuque and Mason City, all within the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Times and locations have not been determined.

"Basically, it would be a safe place where victims of any religious sexual abuse will have a chance to come and feel comfortable around other victims and talk if they desire to," Theisen said.

Age and denomination don't matter.

"It's not just for victims that were abused as children," he added. "It's also for vulnerable adults --- those adults who went to a spiritual leader and were subsequently sexually abused by them."

The meetings will be confidential.

"There will be no media allowed, no religious (ordained church personnel) allowed, unless the religious were abused themselves," Theisen said. "It's just an opportunity for victims to realize they're not out there by themselves. They're not alone."

Theisen has attended SNAP meetings in Minnesota and western Iowa. He decided to form a local chapter out of frustration with what he feels is a lack of progress by the Archdiocese of Dubuque in investigating his own case, first reported to them about a year ago.

Theisen grew up in the Dubuque area and served on the police force there from 1984 to 1991. He was abused in the early 1960s while attending Catholic grade school. The abuse began at age 9 and continued for about two years.

Unlike some other cases, Theisen's alleged abuser was not a priest, but a nun. Roman Catholic nuns, monks and others who belong to religious orders answer to their respective orders and are not directly under archdiocesan control, as priests are.

Theisen is receiving professional counseling at archdiocesan expense and has appeared before the archdiocesan review board formed in 2002 for victims of sexual abuse within the church. He has also been contacted by diocesan-appointed victim assistance coordinators, in keeping with a more detailed policy for handling complaints adopted about a year ago. That action follows mandates from a national bishops conference in Dallas. The previous archdiocesan policy, about 10 years old, had resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of a Dubuque priest in 1997.

Most recently, at Theisen's insistence, the archdiocese hired a private investigator formerly employed by the Dubuque County Sheriff's office to look into Theisen's case. The investigator concluded in a report issued in February that Theisen's allegations are "credible." The investigator reached his opinion after interviewing Theisen, his classmates and the alleged abuser, who has retained counsel and denied the allegations.

So far, the archdiocese has not responded to Theisen about what --- if any --- action it will take. Archdiocesan officials apologized for the delays in written correspondence to Theisen in March, citing unique aspects of his case. It was the first claim the archdiocese has received involving a member of a religious community not under direct diocesan control.

Monsignor James Barta, vicar general of the archdiocese, said Thursday the investigator's report has been delivered to the review board. That group meets bimonthly and will convene again in about a month.

"The next step in the procedure is for the review board to tell us whether we've handled it correctly and advise us what we should be doing," Barta said.

Barta also noted the alleged abuser is now advanced in age, has been retired for several years and "not doing anything that would bring her in contact with children."

If she is guilty, Barta said, the question is how she would be punished. Her religious maintains she is innocent until proven guilty. Her name will not be made public until formal action is taken.

"I've been strung out on this for about a year now," Theisen said. "It's a process that should take no more than two months. It just increases the anxiety level of the victims."

Church officials lack a sense of urgency to be responsive to victims, he said.

"It's been my experience they're not following the policy they publicly stated they would follow. And they have not informed the faith community of the abuses," he said.

The archdiocese has acted on previous allegations. In early 2002, Dubuque archdiocesan officials removed the Rev. Allen Schmitt from duties at three Allamakee County parishes after a credible accusation surfaced against him. The action stemmed from an incident in the late 1970s at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids and, subsequent to his removal, another incident earlier at Sacred Heart Church in Waterloo.

Also, in 2000, the archdiocese removed Rev. Michael Fitzgerald from St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Marion after inappropriate Internet chat room activity with a member of a sexual abuse watchdog group posing as a 13-year-old boy. Other sexual abuse allegations surfaced later. Fitzgerald, who served at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Cedar Falls, died in a car crash in 2001 in Illinois.

In late December, Dubuque Archbishop Jerome Hanus wrote to Northeast Iowa Catholics that 26 priests were accused of abusing children from 1950 to 2002. Those allegations arose from the accounts of 67 victims, including 55 boys and 12 girls. Hanus also said officials in the church sometimes failed to stop the abuse, which contributed to more children being victimized.

Theisen believes those numbers, like similar national figures, are low. He also said the church should make abusers' names public and inform every school or church in which they served.

"It's important that they do reveal the names of all religious who have had credible accusations made against them so that other victims feel comfortable and come forward and have a chance to heal," Theisen said.

Investigation is critical, Theisen said.

"I know personally how important it is to get a qualified investigator to do a credible investigation, both for the protection of the victims and the abuser and the accused," he said.

As to turnout at initial SNAP meetings, Theisen said, "I hope it's small, because that would just mean there's not as many victims. However, I suspect there will be more."

He has attended SNAP conferences in the Twin Cities attended by more than 300 victims.

Questions and information requests regarding SNAP may be directed to Theisen at (319) 231-1663 or Heather Smith (319) 236-8147.


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