Thursday, March 23, 2006


[The recent disclosure of the audit that showed wanton dereliction of duty by the Catholic archdiocese and yet another apology from Cardinal Francis George prompts me to reprint here another article I wrote for The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly in the nation. It deals with the national director of SNAP].

CHICAGO—David Clohessy, abused by a priest, has been a man with a fiery purpose: to rid the Church he no longer believes in of priestly pedophiles and bishops who protect them.

Clohessy was here not long ago to meet with a Chicago woman I wrote about last week—Barbara Blaine. Together they run an organization called SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Blaine founded it; I wrote about her last week. After a wretched experience as a child with a 45-year-old priest who fondled her and told her she was his own true love and that they would be married in heaven with Jesus Christ looking on approvingly, Blaine, a lawyer with two masters degrees, leads the charge in the media as critic of those whom, she says, protect abusive priests. Clohessy who lives in St. Louis is its national director and also is often quoted. Both are paid by SNAP; both call for the resignation of Francis Cardinal George.

The Cardinal has a residue of good will here because he is an articulate expositor of authenticist philosophy and theology which conservative Catholics relish after a long period of nihilism spurred by his predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. But no one man has a lock on all talents and George has lost many supporters by seemingly parsing his rhetoric to please all sides while not taking the situation in hand. He had said, after a priest was indicted for criminal misbehavior with three children, that he would tighten up the machinery and would adopt new procedures. That satisfied people for a time. In fact, a spontaneous demonstration in his behalf was held on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral with many authenticist Catholics calling for widespread support of the prelate.

But then, voila!, after the demonstration, the state of Illinois reported something that George had never divulged: that the Cardinal’s own Review Board had recommended the priest’s removal—and that George didn’t do anything about it, with the result that the archdiocese waited until the priest was indicted. Moreover the Sun-Times reported that the priest in question was referred by the archdiocese to a facility in Maryland that has been noted for giving a light once-over to accused priests and sending them back to their dioceses. That disclosure triggered outrage in some authenticist circles and a possible change of attitude toward what SNAP is all about.

The impression has gained wide currency here that George has bent over backwards to ingratiate himself with a species of liberal priest, a species that criticized him as “Francis the Corrector” after he was appointed archbishop.
One priest told me, “He was so traumatized by that criticism that he has leaned far overboard to placate these guys [the liberal priests].” George has not instituted a new and independent mechanism to root out abuse, relying on the Chancellor, a layman with the improbable name of Jimmy (not James) Lago. Lago is a longtime church bureaucrat who gained prominence under Cardinal Bernardin. His reputation never improved noticeably from his days as lobbyist for the Illinois Catholic Conference in Springfield when he seemed far more interested in parochaid than pro-life legislation.

Now there is some disillusion with George and the archdiocese over the issue of wayward priests, prompting questions about SNAP: could it be it is a radical undercover group that promotes radical changes in the priesthood ala “Voice of the Faithful?” Last week Blaine stressed to me it does not. This week Clohessy in a long interview with The Wanderer verified it does
not. The group takes no stand on celibacy or Church dogma, just insisting that offending priests be sent away until the nature of the offense is either validated or disproved. They are ambiguous as to whether homosexuality in the priesthood is the culprit (the priest who abused Blaine concentrated on young girls; the one who made advances to Clohessy dealt only with boys). But both are severely critical of George whom they call a vacillating bishop who delayed facing up to the problem of priestly sexual abuse. And both insist he should resign as archbishop of Chicago.

“It goes beyond incompetence,” Clohessy told me of George, “—because his behavior, we believe, has been deliberately deceptive. I can give you three very recent examples. Number one—a woman reported in writing and verbally, she says, to several church and school officials about [the indicted priest] in 2000. Cardinal George says he knows nothing.

In the last month, seven new names of credibly accused Chicago priests have surfaced publicly in the news media. Three of those seven remained in active ministry until just very recently and two of those priests had allegations going back six years in one case and two years in the other case and yet they remained in active ministry. Beyond that, a nun says that she reported one priest in 2000. Cardinal George says he doesn’t know about that. A mother says she reported [the priest] in August to the archdiocese. Cardinal George denies that. So it’s not just the fact that kids have been molested…[b]ut beyond that we feel he’s simply being deceitful about how much he knew about these cases.”

But, I said, isn’t it fair to assume he actually knew nothing because the archdiocese is a big corporation?

“It’s conceivable but, frankly, we think pretty unlikely. Let me go to the other two. The Willowbrook [Illinois] mother whose son was [allegedly] abused by [the priest] says that she had at least two phone calls and one face-to-face meeting with the archdiocesean staff in August or September of last year. The Cardinal denies that. The third case is that the [archdiocesean] Review Board told the Sun-Times …that they recommended [the priest] be removed and again the Cardinal said nothing about that.” Conceding that the Board had made an informal recommendation, Clohessy said “at the very minimum we think that he has withheld crucial information that has led to the abuse of children—but beyond that, we think he has deceptively withheld information.”

Serious charge. He agreed and repeated it slowly. “Keep in mind again that in the last month in news accounts, seven names of credibly accused priests have surfaced but had never surfaced before and that three of those priests remained in ministry until very recently. Two of these priests faced multiple allegations that went back years. So fundamentally, we think he’s violating the number one promise the Bishops made in Dallas in 2002 and that they made repeatedly ever since.”

About the appointment of Lago as the point person on priest abuse, he said, “I think common sense tells you that when you have a severe crisis in your organization—in a thoroughly insular, tightly-knit, secretive organization—that’s not the time to promote someone in your inner circle. In other words, we believe that Jimmy Lago has already had a great role in sex abuse cases, whether formally or not, and so it’s a mistake to promote [him]. If you’re trying to reassure the flock that you’re trying to change course, you don’t take someone who’s already in the inner circle and elevate them.”

Clohessy repeated that SNAP has no agenda beyond clearing up abuse. “We are not the `Roman Catholic Faithful.’ We are not `Call to Action.’ We are a support group. We like to say we are basically 90 percent AA [Alcoholics Anonymous, the support group that leads victims to overcome trauma] and 10 percent `Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.’ There have been a handful of bishops—I’m going to say from 20 to 25 bishops—who we have praised for specific actions in abuse cases…In some ways, Bishop [Wilton] Gregory did a good job in Belleville [Illinois] but we also think that his role on the national scene [as head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops] has been vastly overrated. It is safe to say that virtually every bishop could do better.”

He said he has no illusions that “our call for the Cardinal’s resignation will, you know, prod him [or remove him]…It’s simply a statement of what we think would be best for the safety of kids and for the healing of victims.”

I asked him if it was true that his organization is funded largely by personal injury attorneys who bring charges in behalf of victims. He said that a recent study showed only 18 percent of the contributors are lawyers. “The last time I checked we got well over half our funds from lay Catholics and the rest from survivors and their families.”

Clohessy, in his mid-40s, was born in St. Louis, grew up in Moberly, Missouri in the Jefferson City diocese “where I was abused.” He was a good Catholic as a child and was 11 or 12 when it began which continued until he was 16. His brother Kevin was abused by the same priest. Kevin went on to become a priest and abused kids himself which led to his suspension. David Clohessy attended Drury College, in Springfield, Missouri, majored in philosophy and political science. He took a job as a community relations director in a suburban St. Louis school district, then worked for the St. Louis department of public safety. He was close to Democratic St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley, an African-American . He joined SNAP in 1990, has been national director of SNAP since 1991.

He has an interesting view of celibacy, saying that some candidates for the priesthood have troubled sexual identities and “convince themselves that `if I devote myself to a life of service to God and His Church through the gift of celibacy it will help me with the terrible urges I feel.’” His personal view (not that of SNAP) is that “celibacy contributes to perpetuate the abuse. In other words if no priest is allowed to have any kind of sex, then I suspect that many priests will have secrets.”

I pondered that one for a moment and unsure what it meant resolved to get his view of celibacy one more time.

Barbara Blaine founded SNAP in 1989. The organization’s budget is roughly $500,000 a year with four support staff members that provide service to 62 support groups throughout the country which include about 6,200 members. The mission, he says, is “to heal the wounded” and “protect the vulnerable.” He added, “I really want to drive home, if you don’t mind…I really want to stress that 90 percent of what we do is self-help. Ninety-five percent of what we do never makes the headlines, never is in the public eye.”

Are priests often innocent victims of baseless charges?

He cited an August 28, 2002 New York Times story that quoted a lawyer who represented priests charged with abuse as saying that of the more than 500 priests he represented, fewer than 10 were charged falsely. He acknowledged that a Minnesota attorney, Jeff Anderson, who has brought law suits against dioceses has contributed to SNAP but not large amounts. SNAP is “pretty much the only” organization that gives support to sexual abuse victims, he said, and it doesn’t only concern itself with Catholic priests. Self-help groups have been formed within Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses and overseas missionary Protestant churches.

He came back to the question of how innocent accused priests are.

He’s met with “probably 15 bishops over the past 16 or 17 years. I’ve made it a point to ask every single one of them how many false allegations are in your diocese? The answer I consistently get from them is been zero or one or two.”

Now I asked him to re-state his view on celibacy, He tried one more time. “Some sexually troubled young men, devout but sexually troubled, use celibacy as a panacea that will help them calm their deviant urges.” Then I asked him the great divisive question that seems to open a chasm between authenticist Catholics and some leaders of SNAP: Are priests who abuse children for the most part homosexuals? Are you prepared to say that homosexuality in the priesthood is a problem? There was a time on television when Blaine challenged statistics that seemed to make that point.

Let us agree that Clohessy didn’t respond with total clarity.

“I think it’s a problem in the same way that celibacy is—in that it contributes to--. I think it attracts more men to the priesthood and it contributes to the overall culture of secrecy within the priesthood.”

I tried one more time. “Would it be fair to say that although pedophilia is commonly in the headlines, generally speaking, the actions of priests with young people are more of a homosexual nature in the sense that young, pre-pubescent boys or pubescent boys can be attractive?”

He responded: “That’s tough to say. Certainly the bishops tell us that 80 percent of the victims are male. [On the other hand] half the members of our support group are females who were abused as girls. So, to be honest, we don’t really know, nor does it fundamentally really matter to us what the sexual orientation of the priest is.”

He added, “Obviously, we’re concerned whether someone is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or sexually confused.” Heterosexual? He continued, “What we care about, obviously, is when they cross the line and sexually abuse a child.” Continuing on the issue of homosexuality: “You know, there is a real paucity of hard, objective data about this. Much of the data that exists comes from the bishops and we think it’s highly suspect. I guess that’s point number one.” He stressed the seriousness of abuse to the very young. “Point number two—I’m not a psychologist—but it’s hard for me to imagine that abuse can be as traumatic and devastating for a 14-year-old as it can for a 10-year-old. The law has to draw some clear lines along the age of consent.” But illicit sex is a sin for all of us, priest included, and sex with a minor is a crime. We never seemed to clear up the point on homosexuality.

In summary, he said, “Our position is that if a grownup coerces or manipulates someone under 18 into sexual behavior, the genders are irrelevant.” Yes but it does seem to evade a clear-cut answer. One famous social psychologist I know says flatly that homosexuality is the prime problem in the priesthood.

He discussed the ravages of that faces those abused by priests. “I would say that virtually every one of our members has struggled with some type of addiction—with depression, with—what’s the word I’m looking for?—intimacy problems, self-destructive patterns. In other words we’ve had many members who tried to kill themselves. We have many members who are in prison. In many respects what makes the crime so devastating is that these predators are often not overtly violent, hateful men. It’s a subtle, usually long-term manipulation in which the child does often feel guilty and responsible and to blame. Often the priest will give a child alcohol or drugs or let a child smoke or entice a child through ways that again make the child feel complicit.”

I asked if in his opinion there is such a thing as repressed memory, something which my friend, the famed doctor of social psychology maintains is fictional.

He responded, “Yes. It happened to me…Here’s what happened, long story short. I came from a wonderful, devout Catholic family, six kids. My Dad traveled a lot. I was sort of a light, curious child. This parish priest took an interest in me and took me on out-of-town trips, skiing, canoeing, camping. The first time I ever saw the ocean, first time I ever saw the mountains. What would happen is that the two of us would be alone and I would be asleep or sometimes falling asleep—and I would wake up and he would be on top of me or he would have his hands in my pants. I would freeze.”

How old were you?
“Starting when I was about 11 or 12. Went on till I was about 16. He never said anything. I never said anything. But…the way I coped with it , not voluntarily but involuntarily, was that the next morning when I woke up I had no recollection of it at all. Frankly, that’s why I kept going on trips with him.”

Why didn’t you say. hey, cut it out?
“Because I was terrified. I was confused. I suppose in part because I was taught and trained to revere and respect priests. I didn’t know what to say…I didn’t know what to think much less what to say. I knew it felt creepy and awkward and uncomfortable. But literally—so fast forward—I’m in my early thirties…There is not anybody more amazed than me. I thought I was a pretty smart guy.”

He confronted the priest when he was an adult. “I know of probably eight or nine other victims of this priest. He has been suspended and civilly sued. He admitted it to me basically. I had a face-to-face meeting with him after I had my memories…I could go on and on. He basically said `I’ve been in a lot of therapy.’ He never said, `I abused you.’ But he said, `I’ve been in a lot of therapy. I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life. I had a very rough childhood myself. I’ve got things under control now. I’m still in therapy. I’m taking this real seriously. [He said something like] `I’m never going to do anything inappropriate again. You can trust me.’ That kind of thing.”

Clohessy filed a civil lawsuit in 1991 against the diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. It went before the Missouri Supreme Court but was thrown out in 1993 on the basis of expired statute of limitations. Leaving the Church as he did voluntarily was “the one of the toughest things about having been abused.”

Why? The answer probably will make sense to another abuse victim but is not entirely clear to me.

“Forgive me if my analogy seems simplistic but if you break your leg as a child and it doesn’t get set properly, you limp for the rest of your life but you know that. And when you have a stomach ailment you don’t think, `well, I wonder if that’s connected to the leg thing.’; When you’re abused it’s very hard to understand the links between what that person did to you and your own psychological behavior.”

About 40 percent of SNAP members are still Catholic or at least still consider themselves Catholic. “But even so,” he said, “even that 40 percent, a big chunk of them, had long periods of spiritual estrangement or isolation before they felt like they could try to come back to the Faith.”

He said the same thing as Blaine did: handling relationships is difficult for the victim. “I’ve been married for 16 years. I have two wonderful, wonderful kids.” He thought for a while and then talked about his earlier relationships with women.

“I would, for example, get close to a woman and then, when it was clear she was very close to me, I would just suddenly pull away. I was a very difficult employee for years and years. I had and still have a very tough time trusting male authority figures. I’ve certainly had problems with anger.”

Just before we parted, he said: “I think about my abuser every day…Nothing will ever restore my shattered trust. Nothing will ever erase the betrayal. Again, that doesn’t mean I have to obsess about it.”

As he walked away, I thought about some Catholics who instinctively defend a prelate or a bureaucrat like Jimmy Lago because they think the institution will suffer from bad public relations. But evasive, overly qualified answers from prelates who obscure the truth won’t do here any more.

And if they stonewall with bureaucrats guarding the door and publicity flacks spinning the media, the Church will be harmed greatly.

Which is what I’ve learned after talking to David Clohessy and Barbara Blaine.

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