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Report questions motives of clerical sex abuse victims' groups

Catholic League release alleges an anti-Church agenda, but organizations deny such claims

By Brian Fraga - OSV Newsweekly, 9/11/2011

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and their allies have “decided to wage war on the Catholic Church,” says a report released last month by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Catholic League President William A. Donohue said he sent two trusted friends in July to observe SNAP’s national conference in Washington D.C. What they reported back, said Donohue, was an event marred by open hostility toward the Catholic Church.

“For three days, people were talking about an evil institution,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Participants in the conference told OSV that the Catholic League report misrepresented their statements, and unfairly labeled them as anti-Catholic because they are engaging a sensitive and controversial topic.

“It just makes me incredibly sad and frustrated when some people assume the worst about survivors’ motives. The easiest way to dismiss a message that’s uncomfortable is to impugn the messenger’s motives,” said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director.

Terence McKiernan, the BishopAccountability.org president who spoke at the conference, said the Catholic League did not accurately reflect his statements or the gathering’s overall tone. “[Donohue] has a theory that hatred for the Church motivates us, but that’s not true,” McKiernan told OSV.

Questioning authority

The Catholic League report — titled “SNAP Exposed: Unmasking the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests” — underscores long-running suspicions in some quarters about victims’ groups’ true intentions.


Critics say these groups are less interested in promoting authentic reform and caring for victims than they are with undermining the Catholic Church’s moral authority and changing its moral teachings.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan told The New York Times last year that he regretted his early overtures to SNAP while he was archbishop of Milwaukee. During a parish visit in Milwaukee, Dolan told the Times, a SNAP member spat in his face and yelled that he “would not rest until there was a ‘going out of business’ sign in front of every Catholic parish, church, school and outreach center.”

Clohessy said SNAP gatherings attract people who express outrage over the scandals and the cover-ups committed by Church authorities.

“There is a level of anger coming from victims. There’s no question about that,” he said. “But in all the years I’ve done this, I’m always stunned by how little malice there is in the hearts of survivors that we deal with. The single fact is our movement is providing the Church an incredible gift, and helping to expose and purge the Church of devastating criminals.”

Ignoring improvements

Others are not convinced.

“If the Catholic Church were to put out a press release today saying that they were going out of business, SNAP would say, ‘Why didn’t they do this sooner?’” said C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. “No matter what the Church does, it will never satisfy SNAP.”

Dave Pierre, author of “Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church,” is also critical of SNAP and other victims’ groups.

Members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests protest outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington, D.C., May 18. CNS photo by Bob Roller

“You consider everything the Church has done in the past decade, setting up abuse panels, screenings, protocols, but SNAP puts out press releases saying nothing has changed,” Pierre said. “Wait a minute, what organization has taken up these steps to protect children as the Catholic Church has?”

Pierre lists on his website, TheMediaReport.com, several examples of what he points to as evidence of SNAP’s desire to destroy accused priests, whether they are guilty or innocent. Pierre noted the case of Father Bohdan Borowec, a Ukrainian Catholic priest who was acquitted of kidnapping and sexual assault charges Aug. 8 by a Hawaiian jury.

Pierre said the evidence showed the accuser lacked credibility, but that did not stop SNAP from issuing a press release praising the “brave woman” for having the “courage” to report a “horrific crime.”

“It’s disingenuous for [SNAP] to say they’re not out to get the Catholic Church,” Pierre said.

Conference speakers

Joe Maher, president and co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Michigan-based organization that counsels priests in crisis, said he has seen 1,000 priests exonerated of abuse unable to return to ministry because SNAP manipulates public opinion against them.

“SNAP has an unceasing blood lust for going after priests and the Church. Whether the allegations are founded or not, it doesn’t matter to them,” said Maher, who told OSV that he sent two representatives last year to SNAP’s conference, but that they left two hours later because they were put off by the anger and foul language.

The Catholic League report reaches similar findings.

Donohue told OSV that his two sources — whom he declined to name — who visited the SNAP conference this year said the speakers fabricated or exaggerated examples of the Church’s mishandling of sex abuse cases.

They said noted Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, known for filing thousands of lawsuits on behalf of sex abuse victims and winning millions of dollars in settlements, led a legal panel that called for lifting statutes of limitations worldwide to make it easier to sue the Church.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented abuse victims, also reportedly said, “This immoral entity, the Catholic Church, should be defeated. We must stand up and defeat this evil.” Garabedian did not return a message from OSV seeking comment.

The Catholic League report says McKiernan “went on a rant” against Archbishop Dolan, accusing him of refusing to release a list of 55 “predator priests” and saying he hoped to “find ways of sticking it to [Dolan].”

McKiernan — who told OSV he is an orthodox Catholic who attends Mass, prays the Rosary and goes to confession — said he may have been “too opinionated” in his Dolan comments, but stood by his statement that the archbishop is not releasing names of accused priests.

The conference’s “most incendiary” panel, Donohue said, was a session that featured A.W. Richard Sipe, a mental health counselor and former Benedictine monk and priest; Dr. Marianne Benkert, a psychiatrist; and Dominican Father Thomas P. Doyle, who is known for his criticisms of the Church’s handling of sex abuse cases.

Painful reality of abuse

Donohue’s sources said each presenter “exhibited a high level of hatred and anger toward the Catholic Church.”

Sipe told OSV he presented the outline of an article that will be published in a psychology journal. He took issue with the Catholic League’s portrayal of the panel as anti-Catholic.

“I think Bill Donohue’s prejudices come through in this report. He’s projecting findings that aren’t there,” Sipe said, adding that the panel addressed the painful reality of clergy sex abuse.

“If we can’t take hold of our own problems, I don’t know what we can do,” he said.

Donohue acknowledged the realities of the crisis, and added that SNAP and similar groups may have started out with sincere motives, but he argues evidence shows they have evolved into anti-Catholic groups.

“What you have here is a movement. It’s an agenda. It’s ideology,” Donohue said.

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

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