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Spotlight Report

O'Malley vows to help heal those scarred by sex abuse

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/15/2004

Saying that sexual abuse by priests is particularly damaging because it causes spiritual as well as psychological harm, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday vowed a long-term effort to help heal the hundreds of people abused by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Speaking at a conference of about 150 mental health professionals gathered at Boston College, O'Malley said that too many priests have been "unwilling or ill-equipped" to help victims of sexual abuse, and that the archdiocese will sponsor, with Boston College, a workshop for priests and deacons on how to reach out to victims.

O'Malley also reiterated the church's commitment to paying for long-term therapy for victims. An archdiocesan official said the church is currently subsidizing therapy for about 400 people, and that the number of people seeking help paying for therapy has increased as a result of the settlement of 541 legal claims last year.

The daylong conference on clergy sexual abuse was the first result of a new collaboration between the Archdiocese of Boston and the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work aimed at researching the treatment of clergy sexual abuse victims. Officials said the collaboration will also lead to the workshop for clergy, to a program for helping parishes where abusive priests had served, and to the publication of research about the spiritual care of abuse victims.

The efforts won praise from Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This is an opportunity to inform therapists a little bit more about the unique circumstances of victims of clergy sexual abuse, because they are not like other victims of sexual abuse," said McChesney, who attended the conference. "What's wonderful is that everybody has the same goal -- healing -- and we cannot lose sight of the need to heal these people and the people who haven't come forward."

At the conference, the director of the archdiocese's Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach, Barbara Thorp, revealed that shortly after his arrival in Boston last summer, O'Malley put an end to several practices that had angered victims. After some records kept by her office became public through the legal process, she said, her office stopped writing down the details of victims' histories; and after many victims and therapists had objected to the decision by a church lawyer to depose a therapist, the archdiocese agreed not to depose any church-financed therapist, she said.

Thorp said her office has provided a variety of services to victims, including paying for therapy, setting up meetings with O'Malley, and escorting one victim to the church where the abuse had taken place. She said her office also held gatherings with victims in June and October 2003 to identify areas of concern.

O'Malley said many of those who had been abused had come from "very religious Catholic families" who were actively involved in parish life and who had granted priests important places in their lives.

"The priest occupied a very, very important place in their lives -- the priest was an icon of the transcendent -- and hence the abuse had consequences that went beyond the damage caused by similar cases of abuse, which did not involve clergy," O'Malley said. "The wound which was left by the abuse was not only to one's psyche, but also to their spiritual life and identity, because their Catholic identity had been so important and so central in their existence, and now that had been seriously damaged."

O'Malley said many victims abused by priests have abandoned Catholicism. But he said the church has not done a good enough job welcoming back those who are interested in reconnecting with the church.

"In many of these occasions it's quite palpable to see the desire of the survivors for spiritual wholeness, for prayer, and to be connected with a community," he said. O'Malley said he has met with Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to discuss the church's efforts to reach out to victims.

The conference focused on treatment issues, featuring workshops on the impact of clergy sexual abuse on anxiety, sexual identity, substance abuse, and family relationships, as well as a workshop on "helping clients to forgive."

Boston University psychiatry professor Terence M. Keane said that although there has been little research about clergy sexual abuse, studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse can lead to depression, sleep problems, anger, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, and interpersonal problems, and that many victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Bowling Green State University psychology professor Kenneth I. Pargament said sexual abuse by clergy is a "profoundly spiritual trauma," and that many victims suffer a loss of trust in church and God. Both researchers called for greater attention to the spiritual suffering of clergy abuse victims.

The conference also featured two panels of victims. Jeanne Cratty, who said she was abused by a priest from age 6 to 11, said at the conference she still is troubled just seeing priests in collars. But several victims said they welcomed the church's efforts at spiritual healing.

"Woe to us when we can't turn to God," said Christopher Zicuis.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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