Election Section

Oakland and Boston dioceses handle abuse differently

By Kim Curtis, The Associated Press
Saturday May 04, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. — “No More Secrets” is the motto of a groundbreaking effort by Roman Catholic priests and survivors of clergy abuse in the Oakland diocese to work together to forgive and heal. 

A priest is leading a “survivors retreat” this summer. They also have an official Web site and the whole effort is headed up by a nun. 

When Oakland’s Catholics began this endeavor two years ago, they thought every diocese in the country would soon do the same. 

The reality is that in many other dioceses, church officials and laity remain bitterly divided when it comes to opening up about abusive priests. 

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law’s reluctance to involve lay people in discussions of abuse is disturbing, according to Svea Fraser, member of a grassroots church reform group called Voice of the Faithful. 

“There’s great confusion because there hasn’t been dialogue,” she said. “We have no structure or arena to be able to talk to him. We hear from him through the front page and he hears from us the same way.” 

A spokeswoman for the Boston diocese did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on this story. 

Since the scandal broke, most bishops have either publicly apologized for abuse, held penance services or urged victims to come forward. But advocates for victims continue to press dioceses to give them a greater role in overseeing the church’s response to abuse claims, to ensure that victims are treated with sensitivity and given proper support. 

Fraser ooh-ed and aah-ed when she heard about Oakland’s cooperative efforts. 

“It sounds to me what’s happening in Oakland is the very thing we’d like to make a reality here,” she said. “It feels like we’re bleeding, we’re hurting, we need some help. We’re not hearing anything back (from church leadership) and the things we are hearing aren’t very supportive.” 

In Oakland, one former priest and two inactive priests have been investigated since the nationwide sex abuse scandal broke in January. One of the inactive priests is the Rev. Robert Freitas, charged with molesting a teen-age boy 23 years ago. 

In Boston, nearly 500 people have claimed they were abused by priests, and the archdiocese has given prosecutors the names of 87 accused priests. 

Law, who stands accused in lawsuits of ignoring evidence of abusive priests, has reiterated the archdiocese’s commitment to protecting children and reaching out to victims. 

But when some church members floated the idea of forming a coalition of lay people and priests to foster communication about the handling of the scandal, Law ordered his priests not to cooperate. 

“I would love to hear, ’We’re in a terrible crisis. How can we all help and move through this? We’d like your help,”’ Fraser said. 

“We’ve got energy. This is not a faith crisis,” she added. “People are beginning to understand what authority we do have. We have rights and responsibilities.” 

That sort of empowerment is exactly what happened in Oakland, where Bishop John Cummins plans a service Sunday marking the creation of a special ministry dedicated to providing support to sex abuse victims and to reviewing diocesan abuse policies. 

Terrie Light, who was sexually assaulted by her pastor in Oakland in the 1950s, called the diocese an “oasis” that only began implementing changes after years of increasing pressure from victims. 

“This is where we got hurt,” she said. “The church is supposed to be this warm, compassionate, consoling parent. If the church can provide that forgiveness it feels better for a lot of us.” 

Light met other church abuse victims through the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national support group. She was sought out in 1994 by Sister Barbara Flannery, who had just been appointed the diocese chancellor, the Bishop’s top aide. 

Flannery said she believed Light — who got so frustrated by the church’s official response that she began picketing in 1993 — had been treated poorly. They began meeting regularly, and reaching out to survivors in other dioceses. 

“When you begin to hear their stories, you begin to get a glimpse of their pain,” Flannery said. “We decided we’re not going to just say the words, we’re going to follow up with actions.” 

Light was delighted. 

“She was willing to meet and willing to listen and willing to have a couple of us hammer at her,” Light said. “She’s not part of the good ol’ boy network and these are not her compadres that she went through seminary with.” 

Since then, the diocese has kept in constant contact with its parishioners about abuse issues, and Flannery, one of very few women in the United States who holds such a high position in the church, has kept her boss informed about abuse cases. 

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Flannery and Cummins had hoped that these claims were isolated cases, but they soon realized that nationwide, hundreds of Catholics had stories of abuse to tell. 

“When I first heard about it I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was unimaginable. It’s a monstrous thing,” said Cummins, who made a point of listening more than talking in his meetings with survivors. In Oakland at least, “there was a kind of openness to the seriousness and magnitude of the issue.” 

In 2000, Cummins apologized for past abuses and for the church’s “tendency to retreat into denial and self-protection.” 

Now, the effort has developed into a Web site offering resources to survivors of abuse, the upcoming retreat and a steady stream of updates through letters and articles in the diocese newspaper. 

“We’ve been willing to go there, but they’ve been willing to open the door,” Light said. “In other places, they have the gates pulled up and they have archers at every entrance and they’re knocking people off as they get there.”