Agostino Bono

As the bishops of the United States design new programs to prevent sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, they also are seeking ways to deal with the human pain of victims. One bishop has washed a victim’s feet on Holy Thursday. Others have cried with victims. Some have prayed in silence with people who say their lives were wounded forever by the priests who abused them. These symbolic gestures have resulted from unpublicized private meetings between bishops and victims. Such meetings are part of the church’s pastoral outreach to balance monetary compensation with human compassion in seeking solutions to the crisis.

I show concern for them and their well-being. I listen to their stories. I apologize and offer to be of help in the healing process, said Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, who has held 22 meetings, mostly one-on-one, with victims. The bishop represents the church, and they see this [sexual abuse by clergy] as an offense of the church, he said. Bishop Pilla added that after meeting with one female victim, he saw her in the cathedral and invited her to be one of the 12 people chosen to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. She was there with her family, and afterward they all came back to the sacristy. It was a real reconciliation, he said.

The bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People encourages bishops to meet with victims to listen with patience and compassion to their experiences and concerns. Current audits of dioceses to verify compliance with the charter include gathering data on the number of bishops who have met with victims. This information will be included in a national report to be made public at the beginning of 2004.

Bishops and victims interviewed for this article said that private meetings can be an important step in the healing process. Agreeing was Timothy Conlon, a lawyer who represented 37 clients who settled with the Diocese of Providence, R.I., for $14.25 million last year. Handing out a check is not the end of the story. Conversely, saying I’m sorry’ sounds hollow if you don’t make reparations, said Conlon. A face-to-face meeting is instrumental for a victim to move forward and to have some healing.

Bishops said that these meetings are also learning experiences. You are very humble after these meetings. We can’t understand what they [victims] are going through, said Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J., who has had six meetings. I asked them for forgiveness, he said. Bishop Bootkoski said he did not get involved in discussing litigation issues with victims. That was not my role as pastor, he said.

Bishop Robert E. Mulvee of Providence agreed that litigation was not an appropriate topic at such meetings. He said that the victims were the ones who do most of the talking, with the bishop listening. They talked of injury, of harm to their faith, how it’s difficult to go to church, said Bishop Mulvee. The bishop, who has had about 10 meetings with victims, said it is important that victims have a sense that the bishop is reaching out to them and listening. Victims feel betrayed. They were betrayed, he said. What can I say: I sense your pain. I want you to know we are ready to help’?... In some cases we went into the chapel and prayed together silently. Then I would close with a prayer.

What does a bishop say when victims place blame on the church? I asked that they not let these incidents get them away from their relationship with God, Bishop Bootkoski said. The bishop said that he stresses that priests are men with flaws and sometimes these flaws offend.

One victim, Ben Cotton, praised his two meetings with Bishop Bootkoski, saying the church leader understood the urgency and the long-term pain suffered by victims. We need to heal with resources from the institution that put us in harm’s way, said Cotton, a computer programmer and the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Bishop Bootkoski understood this and made it a priority to use diocesan resources and personnel to help sodomized victims, said Cotton. Just receiving money through settlements can’t fix us, he said.

Cotton added that meetings with other bishops have not gone well for him. Other bishops have been retarded in their response and did not understand the urgency in removing pedophile priests from ministry, he said. We are in trouble. We were incapacitated by them [pedophile priests]. Youngsters need to come to understand sex on their own terms and not have it forced on them by someone, said Cotton.

Michael Bland, a clinical psychologist and a member of the bishops’ National Review Board, which monitors compliance with sex abuse prevention policies, said bishops must understand that the effects of sexual abuse of a child are long-lasting and can often carry through a lifetime. To minimize the pain and the effect is to revictimize the victim, said Bland, a victim of sexual abuse as a child who is now the clinical-pastoral coordinator of the Victim Assistance Ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Private meetings between bishops and victims can be useful, but it is important that the victim is in healthy control of the situation and that the meeting focuses on the healing needs of the victim, he said.

Bland supports one-on-one meetings, with the victim allowed to bring a support person if he or she wishes. The abuse occurred alone with one person. In a similar way the bishop and the victim should meet alone. Each individual has a story, and it is healing to tell it and be listened to. It’s hard to do this in large groups, he said. Bland warned against premature use of theological terms like reconciliation at such meetings, pointing out that church terminology can cause distrust, since it was a priest who committed the abuse. First a victim needs to find a sense of healing therapeutically and to come forward out of a position of strength, he said. Religious healing may occur later, but it cannot be assumed that all Catholic victims will come back to the church, he said.

Agostino Bono is a writer for Catholic News Service.