Is there a Survivor’s Community?

The past year has seen some spectacular events that have given some hope to survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands pedophile predators in our society.  Indeed this crisis knows no borders and is not limited to those of a certain faith.  We have seen the conviction of a Catholic Bishop for covering up sexual crimes committed against children, the conviction and imprisonment of Jerry Sandusky for committing those crimes and a monsignor in Philadelphia for carrying out a program of protecting pedophiles at the expense of innocent children and parishioner’s money.   Large institutions still are willing to sacrifice the innocent in order to protect the privilege of the few at the top and to prevent scandal from coming to light.

For me personally, I have had to come to grips with the death of the predator who counted me as one of his many victims.  He was prolific throughout his life in targeting boys in dysfunctional family situations from alcoholism to catastrophic illness.  He hid behind his Roman Collar and he found the protection of a Diocese that was willing to move him around to different parishes and ultimately out of the diocese and the state to keep him safe from prosecution.

With the announcement that the Pope has offered his resignation, something not done in over 600 years, just as the documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa” has aired on HBO (see the promo here), I wonder what the future of the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church will be.   I can safely say that the entire College of Cardinals who will be voting in the next few weeks were elevated to helm of their respective curiae by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  In a word, they are very conservative in the mold of the men who hoped to shape their church by selecting Cardinals who shared similar conservative outlooks on the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

The one piece of the puzzle that continues to vex me is the Survivor Community.  The community that speaks for the victims.  There isn’t really a strong confederation of groups in the United States that networks survivors and promotes an agenda in the State Capitols.  There is no larger, worldwide organization that stands up for the survivors, that is a solid united front for the people who have been neglected all these years.

At this point I will say, again, that I don’t think SNAP is effective because its national leadership seems disconnected from the rest of us.   The organization is not a network, despite its name.   There is a vocal element out there that feels that the organization is an arm of the Catholic Church because of the way it is formed.  They base this claim on the letter that follows:

snap incorporating paper

Personally, I am not convinced this is a smoking gun.  I think this was more of the birth of an organization that did not know how to chart its own course at its genesis.  But I will let you come to your own conclusions.

During the last week I have been having a heated electronic correspondence with another survivor who has accused me of rolling over on the survivor community and stunting a dialogue between us.   I have been accused of many things in the past few years from all sides of this issue.  But, as much as I hate to admit it, my correspondent has got me thinking.  We talk about a survivor community as if it really exists.   We talk about networks but we are not networked as a community.

I need to know what the expectations of survivors are (I hate the word victim).  I need to hear the thoughts of others with similar experiences on what needs to be done.  I need  to know what expectations are out there.   If we are going to be a community, a network there is needs to be a common philosophical and pragmatic basis to gather the various groups into a confederation, an alliance or a coalition.

There are a lot of egos in this community.  Mine to be counted among them.  There has to be a way to come to some kind of accord in order to optimize the talents, energy and, if need be, the anger that resides within the universe of survivors and their supporters.

If no accord can be reached, is there another way to harness the energy of survivors to achieve tangible goals for our society so that we can remove the veil of protection that pedophiles in large institutions have enjoyed in the name of saving the reputation of those institutions?  I have said it before and I will continue to say that I had to keep my great terrible secret alone for all those years, my perp had help keeping his.

My questions are not rhetorical, I need to know.  I need you to tell me.  I think we all need to have the discussion in a civil manner.  But the discussion needs to be had, by the entire community, if there is really a community out  there.

I am waiting to hear from all of you.

If it is July, It must be time for the SNAP Conference

The SNAP Conference is coming up this weekend in Northern Virginia.  Beginning Friday evening at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City, just south of Washington, D.C., SNAP members from all over the country and perhaps from around the world will come together to listen to speakers, mix and exchange stories and try to draw some comfort and strength from other victims of sexual crimes committed by clergy.

I attended the conference a few years ago when after I went public with my own story of abuse.  The weekend was eye-opening.  There were people in the room who had made great strides towards recovery while others were still on their personal journeys.

At the conference I sought out some of the leaders of SNAP and talked to them about really networking the membership, setting up a blog roll for the people blogging on the topic of sexual crimes committed by clergy and lay employees of religious organizations and finding a way to use social media to bring this group together.  There was lots of enthusiasm, but no action.

I withdrew my support for SNAP after I started seeing a pattern of odd behavior and  an effort by the National Director to stifle any kind of initiative to do new things or come up with a more coherent strategy to lobby for changes in the laws of states that have not extended statutes of limitation to allow for more time to protect the rights of children or vulnerable adults who have been the victims of crimes committed by clergy.

There are some people who have contended that SNAP is controlled by the church while others say it is an organization that funnels clients to attorneys who make a lot of money suing the church.  I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.   I also think that the current leadership is rehashing a strategy that is not working.  If you look at the schedule of events for the upcoming conference you do not see any sessions in the main room, or as breakouts, about how to actually network the community through social media or to encourage blogging or other modern methods of harnessing the power of the community.  You don’t see sessions on enabling survivors to work on local and state lawmakers to lobby for changes in existing laws.

You also do not see an open discussion of the organization’s budget, the decision-making process of National Leaders or the selection of board members out of the people who allegedly make up the membership of this organization.

You do see a lot of diverse groups talking about victimization and you will most likely hear a request for donations.  What we have is not activism, it is passive submission to an agenda set by a very few, with those few having a direct financial stake in the agenda.

I would attend a SNAP Conference where the state of the organization to include a detailed discussion of budget and financial issues is encouraged.  I would like to see an organization that would see the election of board members out of the membership in good standing.  I would like to see National Leaders held accountable for their methods, tools and strategies.  If they fail to meet goals agreed to by the membership, it should be the right of the members to demand a change in leadership.

There are many questions that don’t seem to be answered.  There are many who would like to ask questions without fear of retribution from the National Leaders and their more zealous disciples.

I find it ironic that many of the tactics that the Catholic Church has used to control and isolate victims are part of the SNAP leadership strategy to remain firmly in place, collecting a paycheck and controlling a dialogue that is not really theirs to control.

Have a dialogue with all Survivors, encourage a conversation and realize that there is value in differing opinions.  Take time to discuss the business of SNAP and establish procedures that will encourage confidence in those who donate to non-profit organizations that comply with established standards and best practices.  Make this organization a true network and you will see results.

Finally, stop wasting everyone’s time changing the church.  It is never going to happen.  This fight will not be won in the pulpit or the pews, it has to be fought and won in the state legislatures and the courtroom.  I have said it before and will continue to say it.  There will be no profound change in the way the Catholic Church deals with pedophile priests until the church, as an institution,  has to pay a price set by civil society that is so terrible that it has no choice but to change as an institution or perish.  SNAP can be on the leading edge of that change or remain a self licking ice cream cone that does little more than offer a paycheck to a select few who may not really know where to lead the organization.

We will see what happens in northern Virginia over the weekend.  Unfortunately, I do not hold out hope for any new direction!

Parting Company with SNAP

Update:  If you are coming into this blog post from click here to see my response to Mr. Pierre’s use of my post to support his attack on SNAP.

I began writing this post over a month ago. It was put aside as my attention went to other, more important events in my life. But now I have a moment, so I thought I would finish my thought process and assess my relationship with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

I sent a note to the National Leadership of SNAP to request that my name be removed from their website as the Point of Contact for the Southeastern Virginia area. In effect, I was removing myself from SNAP because I no longer think that the organization speaks for me as a survivor. This is a decision I made after a great deal of thought and it was not easy for me. But I have decided that for me, personally, I am more comfortable being on the outside of the organization than within. I have too many questions and I have some concerns about leadership, vision, and technology as well as the tone of the conversation between the leadership of the organization and its members.

SNAP is not a network, as the name of the organization would lead you to believe. In the time that I have interfaced with the organization (I reported my abuse in 2007 and started searching the web for organizations of people like myself), I have been frustrated by the lack of communications with other members. My perceptions have been that in order to communicate within the organization, all conversations seem to flow through the National Director. Most of my experience with the National Director seems to surround him squashing any ideas or initiatives that did not originate with the National Leadership. The organization is not networked to facilitate communication between survivors, it does not make use of the various forms of social media to bring an important story to a larger audience. Instead, SNAP seems to be focused on handing out leaflets outside of churches, writing letters to editors and many other methods of discourse that are not as effective today in the digital age as they may have been 22 years ago when SNAP was born.

I find the tactic of holding short notice press events that seem to be focused on promoting the National Director at the expense of survivors with ties to the community where the hit and run event takes place to be pretty odd. I also think that holding vigils and protests that more resemble prayer meetings than actual protests is ineffective. It almost seems that the Catholic Church has a hand in the organization. I am beginning to believe some in leadership positions in the organization may be trying to keep the survivors separate and without an effective way to communicate. Funny, that is precisely what the Catholic church does to victims.

Last spring, when I promoted a letter writing campaign to the Pope organized by an Irish activist, the National Director made a point to email me to tell me that writing letters to church leaders was ineffective. A few weeks later I see that the National Director, in contradiction to his own admonishment, had a letter to the Pope published for all the world to see. The message I take from all this is that any effort by survivors outside of the organization is frowned upon, but when the National Director pens a letter, it is newsworthy. Mr Clohessy was quick to express his concern that the Irish letter writing campaign was a waste of time. So what? If it makes people feel like they are participating in getting the word out, especially to the boys in Rome, that they are not going to sit by and allow business as usual from the bishops, I think it is a good thing. Mr. Clohessy knew better than all of us and recommended that others not participate in letter writing.

A SNAP event I did attend was a vigil in front of the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C..   Billed as a show of solidarity with the victims in Ireland, we stood outside of the embassy with candles while a Catholic Folk group from Maryland played spiritual songs. The embassy was dark, no media was in attendance and only passing motorist and the law enforcement officials that safeguard foreign embassies watched from a respectful distance. We should have been in front of the Vatican Embassy, only a short distance away, expressing our continued outrage very loudly at the Holy See’s inaction.

Although the technology is available, the SNAP website does not promote the blogs of people, many of whom are survivors, that regularly discuss the challenges of survivors, pass information to survivors or provide information on predator priests and others involved with the ongoing cover-up of the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church. The discussion boards are old and outdated and the list of points of contact is not updated on a regular basis. (despite my request to be removed from the listing, my name still appears). The website, for the most part has become a cob-website.

There is some buzz out there about the origins of the organization. Was it a formed by the church itself? I don’t think that really matters. Is it funded by lawyers? Is it funded by the Catholic Church? Good questions! We don’t really know because financial records for this non-profit are not available for review.  But, I am not sure if the source of funding is really relevant. When it comes right down to it, this organization has the potential for doing so much more for survivors and to force a public discussion that could lead to real change and progress in the development of laws that will force organizations to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. It could work with other like organizations to try to open a dialogue or force a change in the Catholic Church. It has the potential to force the truth out in the open. Instead it seems to have become stagnant.

The other complaint I have concerns SNAP’s lack of information for local points of contact or leaders. When I volunteered to be the SNAP point of contact in Southeastern Virginia, I was promised a binder of information on the organization, information on what was expected of local leaders and a listing a resources that I could pass along to survivors in my area. That never materialized. I did have limited contact with the leaders in Northern Virginia, but not a lot of support from the National folks. I was invited to attend a 4 hour leaders training in Ohio recently. That would have been a 12 hour trip to attend 4 hours of training.  SNAP needs to train local leaders, especially in areas that do not have active chapters, allow the organization to grow and to allow for effective communications with survivors.

After thinking about the organization and the way they conduct business I am increasingly uneasy with what I see as a disconnect between the organization’s mission and their methods. I would like to see a change, maybe one or two fresh faces on the national scene. (That does not equate to removing existing leaders). I would like to see an overhaul of the way technology and social media is used as a tool. I want to see this organization actually network survivors. If the national leadership would embrace such a change I will return, volunteer again and do my part to keep the network going.

For now, I will continue to blog my ideas and talk to the survivors that write to me after they find me on-line. I welcome a discussion on SNAP, I just won’t take dictation from the organization.

Child Pornography in the Rectory at Lords Valley, Pennsylvania

In case you are one of the people who believe that the worst of the sex scandal in the Catholic Church is over, I have more bad news.  Another priest in the Diocese of Scranton has been reported, this time for child pornography.

Father TimchakAccording to news reports, and this is a story that is just breaking this evening, Father Robert Timchak was in court in Milford to begin answering charges for possession of child pornography and tampering with evidence.  According to news channels in Scranton, the investigation has been ongoing since December 2008 when someone tipped off the Diocese of Scranton that he had child pornography on his computer.

According to Channel 16 in Scranton, Timchak has served as pastor at several Catholic churches in the area, including the Transfigurations Church in West Hazelton, Saints Peter and Paul in Hazelton and most recently Saint John Neumann in Lords Valley

On the St John Neumann website this evening is a note to parishioners that reads:
Due to the recent problems in the Catholic Church,The Church has provided information for any individual that may have questions about the Bishop’s decision in Dallas. Please go to the following web site of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops

You will note that the Diocese has not put any information that tells you that your priest has child pornography on his computer nor does it tell you to contact the Pennsylvania State Police if you have information that would benefit law enforcement or the Pike County District Attorney. There is nothing on the website for the combined Transfigurations Church and Saints Peter and Paul in the Hazelton area. No need to let too many people know that a potential predator was in their midst. That is the way the Diocese of Scranton rolls!

I have to ask the obvious question here, why did it take the Pennsylvania State Police 11 months to check this guy’s computer and arrest him? Why did the Diocese of Scranton leave this “priest” in the parish since December 2008? I would love to ask if the Diocese of Scranton went into the community looking for possible victims. I wonder how many families in the parish where close to Father Timchak? Of those families, how many had young boys that were left alone with Father Timchak? Are any of the photos on the computer children of the parishes to which he was assigned?

Once again the Diocese showed the blinding speed with which it deals with potential child molesters wearing Roman Collars.  I imagine it took Bill Genello that long to practice the line “the Diocese has no comment” in front of the mirror in the bathroom. It was, no doubt, Bill Genello that put the brilliant and totally useless line on the church website. In case you are reading this Bill, I did a screen grab to document your referral to an organization that your most recent Bishop, Joseph Martino claimed did not have any authority in his diocese.

I am very familiar with this area. I served mass at Good Shepherd.  I lived in Hemlock Farms from 7th grade through my graduation from high school in 1978. I also lived there during the first two summers when I attended the University of Scranton.St John Neumann draws parishioners from that development. I lived in Hemlock Farms during the time frame where I was abused and raped by Father Gibson.

I am sure that there are a lot of parents in Lords Valley, West Hazelton and Hazelton who are having some very difficult conversations with their children tonight. If I may offer advice, please be supportive and don’t overreact if you child starts to tell you about things that make you uncomfortable. If your child has had a noticable change in personality, attitude, school behavior or has been withdrawn, moody or depressed seek help. I strongly recommend you do not go to the Diocese of Scranton. As kind and gentle as Joan Holmes may seem to you, the Diocese will try to collect information and spin this to their advantage. Do not let them control any aspect of this process, they will turn on you.

The Diocese of Scranton has an adversarial record in dealing with victims and their families over the years. Don’t let them re-victimize you, your family or your community. Believe me when I tell you from first hand experience, they will not make you a priority. They will protect the Diocese, the Diocese’s bank account and the priest before they will do anything for victims.

The SNAP Conference in Washington DC

I arrived yesterday afternoon to the Hyatt in Crystal City for the SNAP 2009 Conference.  The theme is “Coming of Age! Prevention, Healing and Justice”  This is the 21 anniversary of the founding of SNAP, so the “Coming of Age” theme is prevalent as the group declares a maturity and expansion beyond just the universe of Catholic victims of sexual crimes.  (Last night I learned that the word “assault” does not cut it, more later.)

Not without hiccups, I arrived at registration to find that my name was not on the list of attendees.  I guess I signed up to early!  That issue quickly resolved I headed in and sat with a table of complete strangers.  If you know me, this is not the kind of thing I generally do.

The first presentation was meant to get the crowd warmed up for the slate of speakers.  That first Speaker was Barbara Blaine who gave a presentation on the development of SNAP from a small group of Mid West survivors to an organization growing to other faith and  secular groups while transcending international borders.

Second up was Victor Vieth discussing the five obstacles keeping us from significantly reducing child abuse in the United States.  (More on that very soon, I promise).

The final speaker of the evening was a very interesting woman named Wendy Murphy.  She gave a discussion entitled “Redressing Problematic Language in Sexual Violence Narrative to Fight Eroticism, Victim Blaming and Harmless and Vague Terms in Social and Legal Discourse.  An attorney and law professor from Massachusetts, Ms. Murphy was animated and direct.  I thought her presentation was thought provoking and enlightening.  I was amazed to later find several participants who were not as enthusiastic with her discussion.  She may have been a little on the shocking side to some, but considering the audience in the room, what can be more shocking?

What may be the most useful point of the conference is meeting and networking.  SNAP is, after all, a network.  I think it time that the network re-energizes the base of the organization and gets the dialogue going strong so that we can move on to the changes that need to be made in society to protect children and vulnerable adults.

A quick side note,  Kim Fischer is here making a documentary.  She has made a few very good short documentaries on the subject of the sexual battery in the Catholic Church.  I am looking forward to seeing what she comes up with out of this conference. Check out her website to see some of her work.

More later.