New Support Groups for Abused Catholics
But the Groups in Dubuque and Sioux City Haven't Been Embraced by All

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register [Iowa]
May 17, 2004

Des Moines Register

Catholics who were abused by clergy are starting local chapters of a national advocacy group in the Dubuque and Sioux City dioceses.

Iowa members of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests are handing out leaflets, holding rallies and forming support groups.

Catholics' reaction has been mixed.

North East Iowa SNAP members waiting outside St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cedar Falls were recognized and invited in by the Rev. James Secora. The Rev. Mark Reasoner, pastor at Visitation Catholic Church at Stacyville, instructed his flock to show the SNAP members respect and concern.

Some parishioners offered hugs and words of support, while others shouldered their way past while refusing to make eye contact, organizers said.

"Some people bless our efforts," said Heather Smith, a co-founder of the northeast Iowa group. "Some said they were sorry this happened to us. I met another survivor as a result of the leafleting, which was gratifying."

However, the Dubuque Area Lifetime Center, where the group has been holding victim support meetings, has asked it to go elsewhere.

In Sioux City, those planning a March rally to support abuse survivors and their families had to sue to force the manager of an auditorium to honor the rental contract.

SNAP members said the manager told them he wanted to renege on the agreement because of pressure from church officials and members. The manager later denied he had been pressured to cancel the contract.

Last week, Jim Wharton, a spokesman for the Sioux City diocese said, "We have no comment on SNAP."

Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque acknowledged the new SNAP chapter by saying the organization shared the U.S. bishops' desire to support abuse survivors.

"One of the main goals of the Dallas Charter is the support of victims and survivors," Hanus said. "The church has devoted much time and resources in this regard. But we cannot achieve this goal by ourselves. I pray that other efforts will be blessed by God with success."

North East Iowa SNAP co-founder Steve Thiesen, of Hudson, is a former police officer. He said his abuser was a nun who taught him in fourth grade at Sacred Heart school in Dubuque. The guilt and shame from those sexual encounters have haunted his life.

After the abuse ended, Thiesen said he tried to suppress the memory of what happened to him.

"Like many other survivors, keeping the secret has caused a lot of nasty, ill-placed emotional baggage," Thiesen said. "I know I wasn't the best husband, father, son, brother, friend or co-worker I should have become.

"I now feel guilty because I didn't tell anyone. I worry that my silence has meant that other boys experienced my fate at the hands of this woman."

Although he has not sued his abuser or the Dubuque archdiocese, he did report the abuse and has been the most-assertive victim working with the abuse review board, according to one board member.

He demanded progress reports on his case. When he discovered the man the diocese hired to investigate abuse claims had no professional training or experience in investigating sex crimes or child abuse, his complaints were instrumental in the archdiocese hiring of a more-qualified person. That investigation found his allegation credible.

"Why does it take an assertive person to get action?" Thiesen said. "From my experience, I would not recommend any victims go to the archdiocese for help."

Thiesen and Smith have found a safe and supportive environment in SNAP.

Smith said she was abused by a Milwaukee, Wis., priest when she was 7 or 8 years old. She reported the abuse in January, and the district attorney told her about SNAP. She contacted the organization, not knowing what it was about.

"The group is so supportive, it has really helped me out," Smith said. "But there was nothing in Iowa.

"Steve and I believed it was time to do something in this area because we couldn't be the only abuse survivors. We want there to be a place for people and their families where they can talk about what they are going through. Because, unfortunately, you really can't understand it unless you have experienced it.

"It affects every area of your life. It isn't something you can fix and then put away and you're done with it. It is a journey, one that for me hasn't come to an end."

In Sioux City, the SNAP rally this spring drew about 45 people - supportive Catholics, victims and family members - according to Barbara Blaine of Chicago, SNAP president.

The Sioux City group continues to meet.

"Often, abuse survivors are so racked by guilt and shame they just can't put themselves into the public eye," Blaine said. "But once they put the responsibility on the cleric who abused them and the church that harbored the perpetrator, it becomes easier to come forward."


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