Saturday, August 25, 2012

Clergy Abuse Won't End Until Parishioners Step Up

I was in Eastern and Southern Oregon walking through small, rural towns and on scenic trails to raise awareness about abuse when the news came about an abusive priest, Fr. Angel Armando Perez, in Woodburn, Oregon.  The abuse was very recent and the child reported it, and his family supported him, and the police supported him, and the priest was arrested.

The family support and the arrest frequently did not happen in the past.

We’ve made progress, real progress.  The abuse happened, but at least most of the response to the abuse was appropriate.  

I could not comment on what had happened when I was walking through towns and on trails in the distant parts of Oregon.  My internet access was intermittent, and I had my two teenagers to care for and a schedule to keep, and the two teenagers didn’t want to share the computer with me.

When I returned home to Portland, I read Abuse Tracker and saw Randy Ellison's blog on the case.  Randy is the Board President of the child sex abuse survivor advocacy group, Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service (OAASIS).  Randy reported in his blog that a group of parishioners showed up to support the priest in court.  

No surprise there.  Everybody deserves emotional support, although I am sure there are quite a few survivors who believe that Angel Armando Perez belongs in hell forever and if not that, then the depths of a deep, dank prison forever.

Parishioners supporting an abusive priest sounds familiar to me.  Happened in my parish too in 2002.  An article about abuse perpetrated by the pastor of my parish, who I will call Fr. X, appeared in a Southern California paper on a Saturday in mid 2002.  The Fr. X announced the accusation during Mass on Sunday.

I remember his words.  I sat and listened to him at the end of Mass that Sunday, stunned and hurt, not wanting his words to be true.

“These accusations were investigated twice and found to be unsubstantiated.”


“Who knows where this will go?”

I knew what those last words meant.  There would be more accusations.  The accusations came out immediately in California and Nevada and resulted in lawsuits against the Fr. X and the Church.  The only accusations that came out in Oregon were quiet, behind the scenes accusations by adults.  I suspect the priest also abused teenaged boys in Oregon.  Those boys would be in their twenties by now, but they have not yet come forward.  It would have been hard for them to come forward in 2002.  A former Youth Minister from the parish came forward in 2002, with her accounts of suspicious behavior by Fr. X.  She was so badly harassed by other parishioners that she left the Catholic Church.

Who would come forward with stories of abuse when other parishioners will support the priest and harass you?

And coming forward is so very hard for teenaged boys.  So often the think they are old enough to know better and are filled with shame and guilt and self blame.  They don't want anyone to know and suffer alone and in silence.  Or they struggle with addictions, depression, outbursts of anger and other problems and don't know why.

At least in my parish we have had discussions and forums and have given out the Sackcloth Penance Patch during Lent.  The Sackcloth Penance Patch is a two inch square burlap path with a brown ribbon sewn to the middle.  The Patch signifies sorrow and penance for clergy abuse.  However, the lack of support for survivors of clergy abuse remains a significant problem at all levels of the Catholic Church.

In order to bring awareness and healing to this problem, I co-founded (with clergy abuse survivor Elizabeth Goeke) Compassionate Gathering in 2007.  We bring survivors of clergy abuse together with other Catholics for mutual understanding.  We could help those parishioners in Woodburn better understand their actions if only someone would ask for our help.  But we have not received a warm embrace by the local Archdiocese or by other parishioners.

In 2007, Fr. Armando Lopez, the pastor of my Catholic parish here in Portland, Oregon, instructed church personnel announce our Compassionate Gatherings in the Church bulletin.  When Fr. Armando went on pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, in 2008, the Archdiocese ordered Compassionate Gathering announcements out of the parish bulletin.  Later, when a survivor abused by a Franciscan priest spoke at our Franciscan parish, Fr. Armando was able to say this was Franciscan business and ordered the  event announced in the parish bulletin with my phone number as a contact.

The Sunday that announcement appeared in the parish bulletin, I received a phone call from a parishioner who did not want to hear the survivor abused by a Franciscan priest share his story.  Actually she did not want any announcements about clergy abuse in the parish bulletin at all.

She said to me, “There is something wrong with you.  You need to have your head examined.  You have to let go of this clergy abuse issue.”

I tried to speak, and she interrupted me, “There is something wrong with you.  You need counseling.  You need to let go of this clergy abuse issue.”

I tried to say, “It sounds as though you are hurt.”

Or at least I would have said that, but she interrupted me again to tell me once again that I needed to have my head examined for bringing clergy abuse up in our Catholic parish over and over and over again.

She never did let me speak, and when she was done telling me that I am mentally ill for caring so much for the clergy abuse issue, she hung up on me.  

I wonder if she she would have been in court supporting Fr.  Angel Perez if she had been a parishioner in his Woodburn, Oregon, parish.

Working on the clergy abuse issue has been a lonely effort all these years.  First I tried attending Voice of the Faithful meetings.  At first meetings were well attended, but then attendance dwindled, and the group folded in 2005.  Then I helped Elizabeth Goeke run a support group for SNAP.  Then I was told that I could no longer attend SNAP support group meetings because I am not a clergy abuse survivor, and Elizabeth was told that someone else would lead the group.  That is why we formed out own group -- Compassionate Gathering -- to gather together people from all sides to listen to anyone wounded by abuse compassionately.  In the meantime the SNAP support group became dormant.  Later Jeannie Cratty came to Oregon and became the SNAP support person.  She shared her story with Compassionate Gathering in 2010.  Unfortunately, it has been tough to attract Catholics who care about clergy abuse and want to support the survivors

I’ve been told by different Catholic parishioners that they did not need to do anything about the issue.

One said, “The bishops have taken care of everything.”

Another said, “SNAP has taken care of everything.”

Survivors also struggle about the issue of clergy abuse.  Few survivors seem able to take on the advocacy role.  Most want to move on with their lives.  Some go through strugglers too deep to advocate for others or connect with other Catholics. 

One can argue about what is the best way to raise awareness about abuse and advocate for survivors.  I tried handing out newspaper articles in my parish -- an act that got me thrown out the parish until Fr, Armando Lopez (not Perez) welcomed me back in.

Church leadership need not have bothered to throw me out.  Positive responses to my efforts were few.  One third of parishioners were concerned but did not want to get involved or rock the boat, or, if they acted, they simply left the Catholic Church.  One third didn’t know what to think, and one third were mad at me for bringing up the issue and insisted that the newpapers were printing lies.

Despite Catholic parishioners' desires for the issue of clergy abuse to go away, it hasn't.  Fr. Angel Perez has just reminded us that clergy abuse still happens.

These current accusations against Perez brought back memories of what happened in my parish in 2002, when Fr. X was removed.  Fr. X was dynamic.  His Masses were standing room only with people gathered in the vestibule to hear the his  humorous and meaningful homilies.  After Fr. X announced the accusations against him, he was removed very quickly, never to be seen again by most parishioners.  At first parishioners clung to the church in their pain and their confusion.  Forums were held, but facts given out to parishioners were murky and allowed for lots of interpretation.

I met elderly parishioners who thought Fr. X could not be guilty of anything more than a misunderstood hug.  I was not so naive, but I could not imagine Fr. X raping anyone.

But I did two things that parishioners rarely do.

I read all about the clergy abuse issue and eventually learned much more about Fr. X than other parishioners, and then I reached out to clergy abuse survivors, especially Fr. X's survivors.

A year and a half passed before I learned more details about what Fr. X had done.  One of his survivors told his story to a newspaper in California around Christmas of 2003.  Fr. X had gotten him drunk and forcibly raped him.

Stories like that try your faith in the Church.  Church leadership should have told us.  They knew the accusations from 1980 that they did not tell us about until the survivor managed to get his accusations printed in a newspaper in 2002.  I let my son sit on Fr. X's lap.  I think he would have been abused by Fr. X if the clergy abuse scandal had not exploded in 2002.  Why did the Church keep the accusations against Fr. X secret for so long?  I still feel that sting of betrayal although I learned about those accusations so many years ago.  My son, my precious son, what would have happened if he had been abused?  He is a hardworking student who scores well in school.  What would have happened if Fr. X had not finally been removed?

I suspect that Church leadership knew in 2002 about the additional accusations against Fr. X that were printed in a newspaper on Christmas 2003, the ones about Fr. X getting a boy drunk and raping him.  I think it would have helped if they had told parishioners these painful and ugly truths.  But they didn't

Without complete information about the accusations against Fr. X, the parish became very divided between the parishioners who loved Fr. X and were convinced he had simply hugged a boy too tightly, and those who felt that we were lucky to be rid of a pedophile.

At first, after Fr. X was removed, parishioners clung to the parish in their pain, but when the answers to their questions about Fr. X never came, parishioners drifted away.  Attendance dropped by close to 30% within six months.

I eventually met the survivor who came forward in May, 2002.  I found out from an Archdiocesan press release that he had come forward the fist time around 1980.  His accusations were not reported to the police.  His family sided with the Church.

The survivor came forward again in 1993.  Once again Fr. X was not removed.  The survivor came forward yet again in 1995 and 1996.  The Church continued to keep Fr. X in ministry.  Only when the clergy abuse scandal became so overwhelming in 2002 that newspapers finally printed the survivor's allegations, was Fr. X was removed.  However Church leadership never acknowledged the truth of the survivor's allegations publicly.  

The lack of support deeply wounded the survivor.  He received a year of therapy from the Church, but it wasn’t even close to what he needed.  When I last had contact with him in early 2005, he remained fragile, but he never stopped seeking the justice that he never fully received.
In 2003, Fr. X was placed into a friary attached to a parish, not to serve in the parish but as a place to live while he went to school and found a job and tied to restart his life.

But the Church made a mistake.  They didn’t tell parishioners that Fr. X was there.
How do you think you can keep such scandal a secret?  Fr. X's survivor could not rest as long as Fr. X was near children.

I learned from that situation that the best way to support an abusive priest is to support his survivors.

I repeat.

The best way to support an abusive priest is to support his survivors.

The best way to support an abusive priest is to support his survivors.

I am convinced that the survivor abused by Fr. X had such a difficult time healing precisely because for so long all the support and belief was given to Fr. X and not him.  I realized that Fr. X and the Church would never know peace until the survivor knew peace.

Sadly, because the survivor was not listened to in 1980, the Fr. X went on to abuse many others.

How does denying abuse help the perpetrator of that abuse?  Is he better off being left out there to abuse again?

I was determined to give the survivor whatever justice I could, so invited him to come to Portland to share his story in my parish.

“I can’t,” the survivor said, “I will be hurt if I do that.”

I didn’t fully believe him until I shared his story in a forum in my parish.  The forum was moderated by Church personnel.  I was interrupted by other parishioners who criticized me and put me down.  The church employed moderator limited how long I could speak and did nothing to stop other parishioners from criticizing me and interrupting me.
I was depressed for a while after that.  The experience was so awful.  I believed in citizen diplomacy, but I found out you can’t bring survivors together with other Catholics because the Catholics will hurt them.  
If Catholics don’t support survivors of clergy abuse, how can there be an end to clergy abuse?  

I discovered how to teach Catholics to support survivors of abuse.  I learned how to listen and respond to promote healing and reconciliation and it worked beautifully.

Compassionate Gathering facilitated a reconciliation between Steve Fearing, who was abused by a former Franciscan priest named Mel Bucher, and his brother Franciscan, Fr. Armando Lopez.  I facilitated other reconciliations between survivors and other Catholics.

We have some modest support from lawyers representing clergy abuse survivors, but none at all from Church leadership.  We have received a modest amount of participation from a limited number of Catholic parishioners and priests, including Call To Action members, and three Franciscan priests serving in Oregon.  A few other priests have been sympathetic but have not participated in our Gatherings.

But that isn't the point of this blog.  I really haven’t gotten to the point.  I’ve just circled around it.

Responses to clergy abuse in the Catholic Church are much better than they are in the past, but there is still much that needs to be done.  For example, some people may notice that I have removed some of my blogs.  These blogs concern another priest accused of abuse that took place after 2002.  Church leadership contacted me and hinted at legal action for libel and basically told me things about the case that were the opposite of what I had been told by the survivor.  I don’t think the survivor lied abuse.  
I think the survivor told the truth about the abuse.

The same thing happened with Fr. X and his survivor who came forward in 1980.  In 2002, parishioners were told that the allegations against Fr. X had been investigated twice and found not substantiated.  In 2002, I believed what Church leadership said.  Then I met the survivor who made those “unsubstantiated” allegations.  Eventually I even heard through the grapevine that Church leadership privately acknowledged the truth of the allegations made against Fr. X in 1980, and doing the wrong thing at that time, but that acknowledgement as never made public and there never was an apology for the survivor for the repeated public denials of his accusations.
To end clergy abuse, Church leadership must tell the complete truth all the time.  I doubt that will happen any time soon, so the rest of us Catholics have to take responsibility for ending clergy abuse.  Clergy abuse won't end until we do  

We, the people of the Catholic Church, have to stop saying, "The bishops have taken care of that," or, "SNAP has taken care of this.”

Rabbi Hillel, a great Jewish teacher who lived around the time of Jesus said,  “If not me, who?  If not now, when?”
Why does everybody keep on waiting for someone else to act?

What can we do?  Well, we can bring up the issue over and over.  One way of doing this is to give out Sackcloth Penance Patches during Lent.  The Patch is a gentle reminder to parishioners to support clergy abuse survivors.  It has yielded few negative responses.  In addition, we managed to get permission from Church leadership to give it out, which makes it easier to approach parish leadership with the idea.

The patch is made of burlap with a brown ribbon sewn to the middle.  We give it out with a prayer and a parish bulletin insert explaining what it is for.

During Lent in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, we gave out patches in several parishes in Portland, Oregon.  The Patch inspired several survivors to come forward and yielded some media coverage of the issue.  Most important of all, it kept the issue of clergy abuse in the open for discussion by all.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Would an Angel Do? Or Why I am Walking With the Homeless

One day a dozen years ago or so I pulled my car into my driveway after grocery shopping to find a middle aged woman rummaging through my recycling bin and placing my used soda cans and bottles in a shopping cart.  Instantly I felt annoyed that someone was taking my stuff even if it was my garbage.  So I honked my horn at her.
She looked up, her eyes wide with humiliation.
By the time I parked my car at the top of the driveway I experienced a change of heart.  I wondered the woman or her husband had lost a job or if someone in her family was struggling with a major illness.  So I opened up the hatchback and grabbed a loaf of bread from a grocery bag and ran to the base of my driveway.  My driveway is short, and I live in the middle of the block, but the woman and her grocery cart were gone.  I peered up the block and down the block and across the street, but I couldn’t even see any sign of her anywhere.  I wondered how a middle aged woman pushing a grocery cart could run so silently and so quickly.
Carey shared a similar story with me recently.  Carey lives at the Right2Dream2 Rest Area at 4th and Burnside in downtown Portland.  The day we spoke, he sported a closely shaved head and face and clean, khaki colored pants and shirt.  He recounted how he was out and about in downtown Portland some days earlier when he overhead two men talking about the Right2Dream2 tent community of homeless people.  Members of the community prefer the word “unhoused” as they have a home with each other.

Right2Dream2 Rest Area

“Why does the city of Portland allow those people to stay there?  They bring drugs and crime to the city,” one man said.
The other man concurred, “Yes, they are so dirty.”
Carey felt compelled to share with them.
“Do I look like a criminal or a drug addict?”
“No,” the two men replied.
“Well, I live at the Right2Dream2 Rest Area,” Carey said. 
While there are people who have struggled with drug addiction and other problems living at the Right2Dream2, the community tightly controls what comes in through their hospitality gate.  Every member is expected to serve a 2 hour shift once a day or 14 hours a week monitoring that gate.  If people behave in disrespectful or irresponsible ways, they lose their right to shelter for 12 hours.  If they commit repeated infractions, they lose their right to shelter permanently.  These rules are self imposed; the community is run democratically.  Every member participates in decision making during weekly meetings.   Because they are expected to take responsibility for themselves, Right2Dream2 members develop new skills. For example, members organize fundraisers and other events designed to raise awareness about homelessness.  They are even trying to organize employment opportunities for themselves by offering their services such as lawn mowing, house painting and garden installation. Truthfully, the members of the Right2Dream2 shatter many of the stereotypes of homeless people such as the homeless being too lazy to get a job.
People struggle with joblessness and houselessness for many reasons, including suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by child abuse or combat, job losses caused by poor economic conditions, domestic violence, and records of felony criminal convictions.  Symptoms of PTSD include depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, low self esteem and self medication through drug and alcohol use.  These symptoms make finding and keeping employment and housing difficult.  Healing wounds of one sort or another is a major issue for many unhoused people.
Leo Rhodes, a founding member of the Right2Dream2 community, says, “Homeless people are the best support group for each other.”
He recounted something another community member told him.  She was seeking help from a counselor, but the counselor was there for her once a week while other community members provided her emotional support every day.
In addition to emotional support from peers, rules against drug and alcohol use implemented by the Right2Dream2 community may be more effective than those imposed by a Social Worker.
Unfortunately, the Right2Dream2 Rest Area exists in legal limbo. It violates city zoning laws and restrictions against overnight camping.  Every day it remains in the vacant lot at 4th and Burnside, it racks up fines it’s residents have no hope of ever being able to pay.
Government and not-for-profits provide many valuable services to unhoused and other low income people, but need greatly exceeds capacity.  
I don’t have all the answers.  I only know what is in my heart.  I think of the woman rummaging through my garbage and how I honked at her because I didn’t want to give her my garbage.  How do I explain that to Jesus?
As a Catholic Christian I am reminded of what Jesus says in the book of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 25 to 40:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

For this reason, I am choosing to walk with the members of the Right2Dream2 community to raise awareness about the causes of homelessness, to celebrate the dignity and humanity of the homeless, and to heal the wounds of homelessness by having fun together in our beautiful city of Portland.
Please come with us as on August 24.  We will begin at 9 AM at the corner of 4th and West Burnside Street in downtown Portland, Oregon, and walk around downtown Portland and the Willamette Waterfront distributing t-shirts, meal tickets for Sisters of the Road, and Rose City Resource Guides from Street Roots to the unhoused people we meet as well as being good neighbors and picking up some garbage along the way.  We will end by sharing a potluck of food from street vendors.  Donations will help us pay for more meal tickets, clean t-shirts and food from street vendors.  Please walk in small groups of 4 to 6 people so we don’t block sidewalks or businesses.
What would an angel do?

Steel Bridge over the Willamette River

Me, Virginia Jones, wearing a Walk Across Oregon T-shirt and walking along Willamette Waterfront in downtown Portland.

Copyright 2012 Virginia Jones

Please donate to help pay for food and T-shirts for unhoused people.