Priests' Victims Feel Vindicated
Molestation: For years they were dismissed and disdained. But now the world and the church are
By WILLIAM LOBDELL
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 21 2002
After years of being disdained, dismissed or simply ignored, longtime crusaders against sexual abuse by
priests suddenly have entered a kind of promised land. It's an unfamiliar place where Catholic bishops
apologize, prosecutors and politicians listen, and a friendly media army helps fight their battles.
And, perhaps most soothing to the victims' scarred souls, people finally believe them.
"I'd never thought I'd see this day," said David Clohessy, national director of the St. Louis-based
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, one of the nation's two largest such
groups, with 3,500 members. "We've been crying from the rooftops for someone to notice what's going
on for so long."
Clohessy is among the 10 or so original activists who found each other a decade ago and became bound
by phone calls, e-mails and anger.
They quickly got used to losing: Catholic dioceses avoided many potential court fights and messy
publicity by writing settlement checks on the condition that the victims remained silent. Some priests
implicated in abuse cases were quietly transferred to other churches. Other victims were told their
complaint was an isolated incident and that the priest was now rehabilitated.
Those defensive tactics began cracking two months ago with newspaper revelations in Boston that a
priest had molested more than 130 boys while being moved by superiors from parish to parish.
Since then, a flurry of other news reports, claims by victims and dismissals by dioceses in 11 states have
alleged child sexual misconduct by nearly 100 priests.
In Southern California, a number of priests have been ordered to retire or resign, church sources say.
Since the Boston case broke, the victims have watched the dominoes fall in ways they scarcely imagined:
Dioceses are combing through personnel files to rid their ranks of any priest with a molestation in his
background. Politicians are introducing legislation to eliminate the statue of limitations for sexual abuse
of minors. Priests are attending mandatory classes on sexual abuse of minors.
Says Peter Isely, a 41-year-old victim of priest abuse from Milwaukee who entered the battle 10 years ago:
"The dioceses spent tens of millions of dollars on the highest-priced lawyers from across the country and
hired the best public relations firm to fight us. And what did we have? All we had was the truth."
When Isely talks about the frustration of not having his allegations taken seriously, he remembers a day
in 1991 when he visited the Catholic school in Wisconsin, where he said he was abused for three years in
the 1970s, starting at age 13. It was winter break. Fresh snow had fallen, leaving a blank white slope on a
hill on the campus. Isely said he began writing a large, profane message to the friars in the snow with his
hands and feet.
Today, he and other advocates, long convinced that no one believed them, are sought after by the media
and other victims who have finally decided to come forward.
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who pioneered sexual abuse litigation against the Catholic
Church in the mid-1980s, estimates he has gone from half a dozen messages a week from possible victims
to more than a dozen a day.
A SNAP volunteer finds herself in trouble with her boss at work because of the number of incoming calls
from victims. And another victims' rights advocate simply can't answer all the incoming calls each day.
"To the church," said one California victim who recently filed suit against a priest, "I guess it appears like
a scene straight from 'The Night of the Living Dead.' Injured zombies slowly inching their way toward the
The activists have had significant help from a handful of people they refer to as "their angels." Father
Thomas Doyle, a church-law attorney, co-wrote a controversial report in 1985 that predicted the current
sex scandal. He has testified for victims in scores of cases and apologized when the church would not.
Former Catholic priest Richard Sipe researched and wrote books such as "Sex, Priests and Power:
Anatomy of a Crisis" that gave weight to the victims' arguments, as did journalist Jason Berry's book
"Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children."
The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly, began aggressively reporting on the scandal in
1985. And attorneys such as Anderson sued the church years before representing victims became a
lucrative business--and in the process become targets of community hatred.
Anderson has a bulletin board in his office that displays the most vicious letters. For example: "It's a
good thing you were a draft-dodging weasel, for it was unanimous at my Legion Club that a piece of
garbage like you would have been fragged in about five minutes. You are the scum maggot of this
The victims, for the most part though, have had to go it alone--and suffer ridicule and scorn from
everyone from their parish priest to their mothers and fathers.
Isely said he has experienced repeated harassment by Catholic Church representatives, ranging from
court summonses delivered to his wife late at night while he was out of town to threatened libel and
In 1993, an attorney for the church told the media he would seek a gag order to keep Isely from
commenting about a priest-abuse case. "We want him to zip up until the case is over," the lawyer said.
Isely, a psychotherapist with a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, said it was typical of the
"Their strategy from Day 1 is to scare and to terrify," he said. "All they have to do is make these veiled
threats. Victims are a scared group of people. Their policy had been very effective--until people started to
Church authorities take issue with the idea that the majority of victims have been mistreated after coming
forward, especially over the last 10 years as church policy has evolved.
These leaders have acknowledged past mistakes in dealing with priests involved in the sexual abuse of
minors, saying the church had misunderstood the causes.
"[First] we saw it as a moral failing, to be addressed by penance," wrote Bishop Wilton D. Gregory,
president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a widely disseminated statement released last
"Later, we viewed these tendencies as mental illness, which doctors suggested could be controlled, if not
cured. Most of today's specialists believe otherwise."
The church's official position now more closely mirrors what victim rights' advocates have been lobbying
"The law rightly makes it clear that sexual abuse of minors is a crime," Gregory said. "We have all been
enlightened. We continue to learn from our experiences and, hopefully, even more from our mistakes."
Terrie Light, a resident of the Bay Area who went public with her allegations of priest abuse in 1993,
remembers the venom of loyal laity.
She said she was leading a protest outside a Hayward, Calif., parish a few weeks after the high-profile
funeral for a priest who allegedly had molested Light as a girl. "A woman came up to my son and yelled,
'Your mother never got abused by Father Francis!' " said Light, a 50-year-old mother of six who works
with the homeless in Oakland. " 'She's a liar!' Then they called the police on us."
And then there are reactions from some parents who cannot believe that their favorite priest was capable
of sexual abuse.
When one victim told her mother of the molestation, "She said, 'Oh, but he was such a good
administrator!' " the victim recalled. "She was not angry for me, though. My mom never has gotten past
this. She's a Catholic first; that's what it appears, at least."
The low point in the victims' movement happened in 1994, when Steven Cook, then 34, recanted his story
that he had been sexually abused by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Cook withdrew the charges,
saying he couldn't trust the repressed memories that had surfaced.
Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore said at the time, "Without impugning the seriousness of
authentic cases of sexual abuse, important questions remain concerning the role of certain attorneys,
psychiatrists and media in bringing reckless charges against innocent people."
Said Mary Grant, who founded the SNAP chapter in Southern California: "People started to question the
victims. [Cook] recanted, but that didn't change what was happening in the church."
Isely said that Bernardin was impressed enough with the victim advocate movement that he requested a
meeting with him and SNAP founder Barbara Blaine.
"He wanted to see what else we all could do" to prevent further molestations, Isely said. "No important
person in the church has done that for us."
But Bernardin died in 1996.
So the handful of advocates kept at it, graphically retelling their stories of sexual abuse. "It [stinks]
talking about it," Isely said. "But when you give details, it's harder for them to run away from it."
Adds Clohessy of St. Louis: "It's wonderful that people who have been bottling up this stuff for years are
getting it out. But then I think, there's so much pain that could have been avoided."
For perspective, some activists offer a venerated priest's warning about the clergy's sexual abuse of
minors: "Unless the [Catholic Church] intervenes as soon as possible, there is no doubt but that this
unbridled wickedness, even though it should wish to be restrained, will be unable to stop on its headlong
Those are the words of St. Peter Damian, a Benedictine monk writing in the 11th century.
The 21st century reformers lament the fact that they had no priests like St. Peter Damian to protect
children from sexual assaults by fellow clergy members.
"Where are the good priests?" Isely asks. "When they turn in one of their own, they'll start to make me a
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