| Group Offers Help
A New Program of Catholic Charities Is Designed to Give Hope to Victims of Clergy Abuse
By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle [Kansas]
July 11, 2005
Joe told no one for more than 30 years. Instead, he was "suffocating," as he put it, "on my stench of shame."
He was convinced it was somehow his fault that his parish priest had molested him over three years as he entered his teens in the early 1970s.
He believed he was guilty of an offense "even God could not forgive."
He contacted the Catholic Diocese of Wichita two years ago to tell them of his abuse only because "I wanted to be counted" among the number of children abused by priests, he said.
But what he thought would be a one-visit means of validating the abuse became a doorway to healing.
As a result, Joe will be there tonight for the first meeting of Reclaim, an ecumenical peer support group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The eight-week program is intended to serve as a catalyst for abuse survivors who want help on their journey of healing, said Joyce Webb, clinical director of Community Counseling Services, a program of Catholic Charities.
"I look forward to being involved in it in any way I can," said Joe, who didn't want his last name used. "I really believe there are many more victim-survivors that continue along in their faith as I have.
"Those are the people that I'd really love to reach -- to have them be able to experience what I've been able to: the whole healing process. I had no idea that it was even an option."
The support group is open to men and women of all faiths, Webb said, because clergy sexual abuse is not just "a Catholic problem," even though priests were at the center of abuse brought to light in Wichita by The Eagle in 2000 and on a national scale almost two years later.
The Kansas chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has a support group that meets in Wichita. But diocesan officials withheld their endorsement because of concerns that the group was focused more on blame than on healing.
Reclaim is modeled after a program developed by The Linkup -- Survivors of Clergy Abuse, the other national advocacy group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
No one thinks victims of clergy sexual abuse can be healed in eight weeks, Webb said, but the program offers a framework that survivors can use to aid in their recovery.
"It's a support group," she said. "It's not therapy, per se."
The group will be a place for survivors to come and recognize that they are not alone in their experiences and feelings, she said. A handful of people have signed up for the first session, and Webb hopes the number will grow.
The sessions address coping with memories of the abuse, mourning the losses, coping with and channeling anger, mending relationships, breaking old patterns and looking forward with anticipation.
David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, reacted guardedly to news of the diocesan support group.
"I guess we would just urge survivors to be very, very cautious," Clohessy said. "It is important for victims to break their silence and reach out and get help. But it's also important that they do it carefully.
"The last thing in the world we want to see is someone who's been deeply hurt by an abusive priest and hurt again by an insensitive church official and be hurt by a third time by this untested new group."
Janet Patterson, coordinator of SNAP's Kansas chapter, offered measured support, saying "There's room for many, many different kinds of support groups."
She has become a vocal spokeswoman and advocate about clergy sexual abuse since her oldest son, Eric, committed suicide in 1999, months after confiding to family members that a priest had molested him when he was an altar boy in Conway Springs.
"There are few survivors that I have met that feel comfortable in a church environment or a church-sponsored group setting," she said.
Paul Schwartz, one of four males that the Rev. Robert Larson admitted molesting while he was the priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton in the mid-1980s, said it's "ridiculous" that Reclaim is trying to do so much in such a short time period.
"It's a token trial by people who don't know what they're doing," Schwartz said. "They don't appreciate the impact of what happened, or the severity of it.
"What a mistake. What a joke. It could cause more problems than it will help."
Schwartz said it took him more than three years, six different counselors and tens of thousands of dollars to get where he is now. Survivors need time, he said, to work through intense emotions.
Joe is much more optimistic about what Reclaim can do for survivors.
"It's important that they know there's an option for healing," he said. "They can go beyond just masking, putting the Band-Aids on day after day after day. They can actually heal and feel free to live their lives."
He wasn't repelled by the diocese's offer to help, he said. He was grateful for it.
"I would want my church to be the one that spearheads that and offers healing and offers hope," he said. "It wasn't the church that did the abuse, it was my priest."
Church involvement makes his recovery "much more significant," since his suffering came at the hands of someone representing Christ, he said. It was as if a wrong was being righted, he said, and as a result "this actually heals."
"My whole life has been completely turned around," he said. "I just think there's a lot of 'me's out there, and I think that would be a wonderful thing for all those folks to have the opportunity to heal."
SUPPORT GROUPS FOR SURVIVORS OF CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE
• Reclaim is an eight-week program for survivors of childhood sexual exploitation or molestation by priests, ministers and church leaders of religious institutions. For more information, contact Joyce Webb at (316) 263-6941 or toll-free at (866) 839-4327.
• The Kansas chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has a support group that meets monthly. For more information, contact chapter coordinator Janet Patterson at (620) 456-2330.
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