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. Prologue
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Rescue mission

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Teaming up to help survivors of abuse

Archbishop O'Malley with Sr. Mary L. Walsh of Worcester, Massachusetts (left), and GSSW conference coordinator Vincent J. Lynch. By Lee Pellegrini


By David Reich

On January 14, in his first public appearance on campus since his installation as archbishop of Boston last July, Sean O'Malley, OFM, welcomed participants to a conference on clergy sexual abuse of children, cosponsored by the archdiocese and Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work.

As the opening speaker at the daylong conference, which focused on the treatment of victims, O'Malley related his own encounters with abuse survivors, beginning in the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, where he served as bishop during the 1990s. Early on, O'Malley said, he learned that the survivors, by then grown men and women, came from deeply religious homes where priests were seen as "icons of the transcendent." Thus, he continued, "the abuse had consequences that went beyond the damage caused by similar cases of abuse which did not involve clergy."

Unlike many victims of abuse by laypersons, victims of clergy sexual abuse need spiritual as well as emotional healing, O'Malley said, a point echoed by several other speakers at the conference, which drew about 150 people, mostly mental health professionals, on a morning when the mercury was hovering around zero. Wearing a hooded brown cassock and speaking slowly and distinctly in a soothing baritone, O'Malley, a thin man with wispy, slightly unruly hair, said that many victims have left the Church. Many other survivors "have sought help from their parishes but have found priests unwilling or ill-equipped to respond," he said. The archdiocese and the University will soon cosponsor a second conference, O'Malley announced, aimed at educating priests and deacons in ministering to survivors.

O'Malley, who since his arrival in Boston has been meeting with survivors regularly, both in groups and one-on-one, said the encounters have "given me the opportunity to thank them for coming forward to help create a Church and society with heightened awareness of the evils of child abuse."

The morning's next speaker, Barbara Thorp, a clinical social worker, gave a brief history of the sexual abuse crisis in the archdiocese. Thorp, who directs the archdiocesan office of pastoral support and outreach, which works with survivors and funds their therapy, said that an early milestone in the archdiocese's response came two years ago, when the archdiocese agreed to pay for therapy for all survivors who requested it, including those who were suing for damages. Around the same time, Thorp said, the archdiocese decided to locate her office in a secular office building "devoid of any religious symbols that might trigger re-traumatization" of survivors. Since then, the office has filled a wide variety of needs. As part of treatment, for example, one survivor wanted to return to the site of her abuse. The office helped arrange the visit, and a staff social worker accompanied the survivor and her therapist. Other survivors, Thorp said, "had been given religious objects by their abusers and didn't know what to do with these terrible symbols [of their abuse], so they returned them to us."

Another milestone, a sort of crisis within the crisis, said Thorp, came near the beginning of 2003, when lawyers defending the archdiocese in the survivors' lawsuit asked to depose a survivor's therapist. "This was a truly horrific moment for those of us in the office," Thorp recalled. "Early in the process of establishing trust, [it] set us reeling." Thorp revealed at the conference that, at the urging of her office, the archdiocese in the end agreed not to depose any therapists.

Since September, when the lawsuits were settled, Thorp said, her office had seen a marked increase in requests for therapy. To date, some 400 abuse survivors and family members have had therapy paid for through the office. Thorp said she suspects that more will come forward after the abuse crisis moves out of the media spotlight. Between that and the fact that many survivors need years of treatment, she said her office's work is still in its "very early phase."


IN HIS opening remarks, O'Malley, like other conference speakers who followed, invoked the need to listen to survivors' stories as a crucial part of learning how to help them heal, and in keeping with this view, the conference featured two survivor panels. One panel included Bill Cratty, a longtime member of St. Francis Xavier Church in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, whose daughter Jeanne was sexually abused by a parish priest from age six to age 11, during the 1970s. Years later, said Cratty, when his daughter's memories of the abuse emerged in therapy, his and her mother's "first reaction was guilt. How could we not have known? How could we have trusted [the abuser] with our little daughter?" After the abuse was brought to light, the priest, a close family friend, told the media that Jeanne Cratty was unstable and not credible. "Jeanne felt re-victimized," her father said. "After that, she could no longer go to church." Bill Cratty is now on medication for anxiety himself, he said.

Jeanne Cratty, who also appeared on the panel, reeled off a list of her symptoms, including attention deficit disorder, suicidal tendencies, compulsive and self-hating tendencies, and severe nightmares. For a period, she said, she was unable to work. Survivors on a second panel also spoke of difficulties working, along with broken families, psychiatric hospitalizations, and struggles with addiction.

Survivors "deal with issues of control," said Jeanne Cratty. Memories of abuse, she said, bring back not only the abuse itself but the loss of control that accompanied it.

Cratty described her reaction to a chance encounter with her abuser at a Wal-Mart store. She fled to her car, but then, she recalled, "I forgot how to drive. I sat in the driver's seat, but my feet weren't reaching the pedals." To the therapists in the room, she said, "You're treating adults, but you're treating really more than one person. You're treating their child, or their adolescent. Their emotional life stops" at the age when the abuse begins.


AT NOON the conference, which took place in McGuinn 121, broke for an hour, during which O'Malley repaired to an upstairs lounge to meet the press. Television cameras and still photographers crowded in as he told reporters that when it came to helping abuse survivors heal, the archdiocese was in it for the long haul. He challenged the view that now that most of the lawsuits have been settled, the crisis is over. "The trauma and the effects are long-range," he said. "There is a need to try to continue services and to address the problems and suffering that is ongoing in people's lives."

When a local TV reporter asked why the conference had focused on survivor treatment and given no attention to the causes of abuse, an unruffled O'Malley said the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is sponsoring research into the causes. Also, because seminaries now do psychological screening of candidates for the priesthood, "the situation has been vastly improved," he said. Most abusive priests, he said, were admitted when little was known about pedophilia, and when "those kinds of tests were not routinely given, the way they . . . have been now for several years."

Another reporter, a well-coiffed man in a navy blazer and striped necktie, drew some chuckles from his colleagues when he asked whether O'Malley's presence at the conference signaled "a rapprochement between the archdiocese and Boston College, which from time to time has been viewed as a cauldron of dissent."

O'Malley, refusing to take the bait, said only that BC "has always been very welcoming to me, and we're happy to be able to work together with a Catholic institution on issues like this that we all share an interest in."

 

David Reich is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

 

Photo: Archbishop O'Malley with Sr. Mary L. Walsh of Worcester, Massachusetts (left), and GSSW conference coordinator Vincent J. Lynch. By Lee Pellegrini

 

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