Clergy Abuse Victims Group Opens Meeting

ST. LOUIS – The same day a clergy abuse victims network began its first national convention with emotionally charged testimony, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss the dramatic possibility of a special council not convened since 1884.

About 200 members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests attended Friday’s convention opener, filled with disillusionment about Roman Catholic bishops.

“Who shall we count on? Three hundred men in black?” demanded Mark Serrano, a SNAP leader from Virginia. “Or shall we rely on ourselves and demand change from the civil authorities, and rely on the people in the pews with children who must take the church back?”

Across town, the nation’s bishops spent all day Friday behind closed doors discussing the idea of calling a special, nationwide church council, the first since 1884, to discuss church problems.

No decision about a “plenary council” will be made until a year from now, and Vatican approval is needed even if the bishops give a go ahead. The actual council would take place years after that.

Leaders of SNAP, which has been at the heart of the debate about clergy molesters the past 18 months, said a year after U.S. bishops approved reform policies to end the sex abuse crisis, victims still find it hard to get meetings with the national bishops’ conference and local church leaders.

But the group praised one prelate, proclaiming Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J., “the model bishop in America” whom his colleagues should imitate.

Bootkoski has initiated contact with victims, personally met with them and apologized, SNAP said. He also appointed three victims to the local review board that advises him on allegations against clergy, and cooperated fully with sex crime prosecutors.

The group drew 200 members to its meeting and President Barbara Blaine said the group now has 4,600 members. Since the abuse scandals broke in January 2002 SNAP has expanded from a handful of local victims’ support groups to 50.

SNAP, which operates on a shoestring budget, has a paid staff of three, compared with none a year ago.

On Saturday morning, SNAP members were to discuss a “healing and prevention” guide to future work. The goals include continuing help to victims and their families and lobbying to liberalize statutes of limitations that restrict the filing of abuse complaints.

The guide also asks lay Catholics to support victims and “join a group that is working for change in the church.” Blaine says about half the members still regard themselves as believing Catholics in some sense.

National Director David Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis, said SNAP is “95 percent Alcoholics Anonymous and 5 percent Mothers Against Drunk Drivers,” meaning that while SNAP has been visible in criticizing bishops, most of its time and energy goes to helping victims find healing.

The other national victims’ group is The Linkup, based in Louisville, Ky. President Susan Archibald, the only paid staffer, said her group has 3,000 members. This group has held annual national meetings since its founding in 1991.

Unlike SNAP, The Linkup includes adult victims of predatory clergy, and some Protestants as well as Catholics. The Linkup always has a Catholic priest among its leaders.

The U.S. bishops hold a final public session Saturday morning that includes a report from their ad hoc committee that deals with sexual abuse policy.