|For Priest Abuse Survivors, a Painful Search for Closure
By Trey Bundy
April 23, 2011
At a quiet church in the Sunset district of San Francisco last weekend, about 15 sexual abuse survivors gathered for what they said they thought would be a climactic meeting with the three bishops of the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of San Francisco.
The survivors, who were abused by local priests in the decades before priest pedophilia became a global scandal, want the local church to go further than it has in accepting responsibility and making restitution.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has settled 101 abuse cases and paid $68 million in settlements since 2003. But the continuing pain and anger of many survivors and the fact that even serial abusers have escaped criminal punishment have led the church to engage in a series of highly emotional meetings with Bay Area victims.
There have been six gatherings since September, which have produced mixed feelings among survivors — some see progress, while others said they suspected the church was merely using the meetings as a form of public relations.
“It’s difficult to deal with the church hierarchy, given their history of cover-ups and in some cases complicity,” said Tim Lennon, a survivor of clergy abuse and the San Francisco leader of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “I’m skeptical because of 30 years of bad practice.”
The meeting on April 16 was supposed to be the culmination of the group’s work, but it did not get off to a good start: just minutes before it was to begin, Archbishop George H. Niederauer said he was concerned that he might have a blood clot. Bishop William J. Justice insisted on driving the archbishop to a local hospital, leaving only Bishop Robert W. McElroy and Barbara Elordi, the victim-assistance coordinator for the archdiocese, to meet with the survivors. (Doctors determined that Niederauer did not have a blood clot and released him the same day.)
The survivors, after an initial spate of disappointment, presented McElroy with two documents that the group had been working on for months that contained 12 proposals. Among other things, the survivors — some of whom have received settlements from the church — requested that the archdiocese offer more therapeutic support to victims, admit to the long-suspected practice of protecting predatory priests, support secular victims’ groups, work to abolish the statute of limitations around child abuse and disclose the names of priests who have been sued or credibly accused of abusing young people.
“If they were sincere, they would make a list of all the accused priests in San Francisco and where they are right now,” said Joey Piscitelli, an abuse survivor and the Northern California director of SNAP.
Piscitelli said his abuser — Stephen Whelan, who was found guilty in civil court in 2006 of raping Piscitelli repeatedly in the early 1970s but escaped criminal prosecution because of the statute of limitations — is currently living in the Bay Area. The archdiocese kept Whelan in ministry in San Francisco during Piscitelli’s court battle with the church. Piscitelli received a settlement from the church and Whelan was taken out of the ministry after the verdict, but he lived in a local church residence for the next three years.
When Piscitelli asked Elordi at the meeting if she knew where Whelan was now, she said no.
“He’s been convicted, guilty of being a child rapist, and you don’t know where he is?” Piscitelli said, his voice rising.
Piscitelli showed up at the meeting carrying enlargements of one of his therapy bills and a letter from his therapist requesting that the church pay it.
“I’ve been in therapy since I was 16,” Piscitelli said. “My abuse was violent. The doctors said, ‘You have the symptoms of someone who was in Vietnam.’”
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