Anger was in the room when the No More Secrets group met on March 31. The news had not been easy for them just days before this meeting. Once again, sexual abuse of young people by priests had been in the headlines. These were not new cases, but, like their own, decades old. But still the news stung.
The number of people, men and women, who attend these meetings varies from session to session, but the door is always open to newcomers.
There's Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, OP, chancellor of the Diocese of Oakland. There's Claire Jeannette, a Berkeley marriage and family therapist who facilitates the session. Two deacons — Albert Dizon and Larry Quinn — are dedicated to ministry to survivors of clergy sexual abuse. With their wives, Yolly Dizon and Marivic Quinn, they bring a prayerful presence, as well as a hearty lunch, to these gatherings.
On this rainy Saturday morning in Oakland, in the bright faculty room of St. Elizabeth Elementary School, survivors met with Sister Glenn Anne, Jeannette and the Dizons.
The group sat in chairs arranged in a circle. From the ceiling above, small banners offered encouraging words. Among them: "Be happy, be healthy, be kind to yourself." "Cultivate hope" and "Come spirit, bring peace."
Jeannette offered a mediation to begin the session. When eyes opened, the conversation began.
Supreme Courts, state and federal governments, got their share of anger. The state for its ruling on the statue of limitations; the federal for the health care debate the week before.
One survivor listed the news that had troubled her in the past few weeks — the courts; Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer; and women's rights.
"All the media comes home and sits on my lap," she said, adding later, "I'm not going to turn off the news."
The difficulty families face getting health care was troubling, and another example of people being victimized, she said.
"I want to create my own space," she said. "I want to walk above it."
Jeannette said: "It's one thing to hear the news, another thing to feel the news."
The first survivor said she had heard a story lately of a gymnastics coach accused of molesting little girls. "We know it's not just priests," she said. "We have to live with this," she said. "This isn't changing. Domination and submission required."
But the laws need to better protect the victims. "But if you're three days past your 26th birthday, forget it," she said.
"I think I'm tired of being angry," she said.
The other survivor said she felt bad for the men who had lost the Supreme Court case, even though, she said, she had not sought compensation for the abuse that had happened to her decades ago.
She said it took her 42 years to return to church. "When I came back, it was different," she said. When she left, she said, "The priest was standing at the altar, facing it." When she came back, she said, "I didn't know the hymns."
She has since joined the choir.
Her faith was reaffirmed in a moment she recounted.
"I thanked God for being here," she said. As she touched her hand to her heart, she told the group she had felt a little palpitation. "This is what heaven feels like — pure love."
She told a priest about it, who replied, "God sometimes gives us glimpses of heaven."
"If I ever start feeling bad," she said, "I tell myself, 'Don't forget that feeling.'"
During the conversation, they talked about their commitment to doing their part to assure the safety of others.
"Why do they become perverts and violate people? They're up there as a priest and privately do bad things to people," said the second survivor.
"The Oakland Diocese has done a good job," said the first, in conducting background checks on men entering the seminary. "I feel good about that part," she said.
The second added that support groups like No More Secrets help. "I don't know other churches that do this. If they knew what it does for people…"
But the Catholic Church needs to go further, they said, reaching out in the community to identify abusers and keep them away from children.
"Being active in church has helped me," said the second survivor, who is working with the Safe Environments ministry.
"The Safe Environment program is dynamite," said the first. "It's powerful and it makes me feel a lot better about the church."
But they expressed concerns for the future. They were never going to let down their guard.
One small anecdote offered a taste of the progress toward finding one's voice. One of the survivors had been in a church group meeting and felt a remark made to her by a member of the clergy had been unnecessarily harsh.
Upon returning home, she called him and left a message saying so.
She received an apology.
As the session progressed, participants took some time to gather at the table the Dizons prepared for lunch.
At the end of the two hours, they gathered in prayer and thanksgiving, holding hands and sharing insights from the day. They were ready to go back into the world. Sunshine greeted them at the door.
What if … we must listen, believe, act to prevent child abuse
"Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime."
• The students themselves knew and believed in their own right to be safe and secure.
• Parents knew to be proactive and ask their children about their days, keeping communication open, without judgment.
• Parents knew to teach their children to respect adults, BUT with the caveat that adults are not always right. An adult that makes a child uncomfortable by action or word needs to be avoided and, perhaps, reported.
• Children knew to recognize when touching, gift-giving, keeping secrets is not OK.
• The students were taught to recognize abuse in any form and how to take action against it by getting help.
• The students knew to report and to keep reporting until an adult LISTENED, BELIEVED AND ACTED.
April is Child Abuse Prevention month. The work of abuse prevention is on-going and the responsibility of every person. During this month parishes, schools and all diocesan organizations are asked to promote awareness and further education by providing information related to recognizing, signs and symptoms, responding and reporting abuse. At the website of the USCCB office of the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection there are several articles related to on-going education about abuse in all its forms.
Use this information, in whole or part, to educate and increase awareness, as well as, to provide knowledge and skills for prevention. The Safe Environment tab on this site offers materials including bulletin announcements, homily suggestions, brochures and other resources that may be copied and distributed.
Our work is rooted firmly and forever in the Gospel. The challenge of preventing abuse in all its forms is a vital part of our work for our children. We again commit ourselves to the promise to protect and the pledge to heal. While we cannot undo the past we can make certain that we have the training and knowledge to help prevent abuse in the future …that we are able to respond to the "what if" questions positively and proactively.
"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of overcoming it." — Helen Keller
(Marilyn Marchi is Safe Environment Project Coordinator for the Diocese of Oakland.)
New book, national conference to be hosted at SCU May 11
Santa Clara University Psychology Professor Thomas Plante and former FBI and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Child Protection executive Kathleen McChesney are editors of a book on sexual abuse in the Church.
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