Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Next step for church: 'Listening sessions'
By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Bishop Joseph Gerry and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Maine will participate in a series of meetings with people who say they were sexually molested by priests.
The meetings - including two that will be open to reporters - represent something of a departure for Gerry and other church leaders in Maine, who have made few public comments about the abuse scandal. The meetings also represent the first opportunity for a victims' group in Maine to collectively express its feelings directly to church leaders.
Described as "listening sessions," the meetings will be moderated by a facilitator to be chosen by mutual agreement of the church and advocates for victims. No dates have been selected for the meetings. Interviews with facilitators are expected to be completed by the end of this month.
The sessions will offer members of the victims' group an opportunity to tell Gerry directly about the abuse they suffered, and to make demands that they say are necessary for their healing.
The demands include the public release of the names of all Maine priests alleged to have abused children, and an end to what victims say is a practice of protecting abusers by asserting legal protections. Group members also will ask Gerry to waive settlement agreements that prevent victims from talking about their abuse publicly.
Individual victims have met with Gerry and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote, but the church officials have never met with a group of people who say they were abused.
Ground rules for the meetings were set at a negotiating session Friday in Augusta. The session included Sister Rita Mae Bissonette, who represented the Diocese of Portland; Cyndi Amato, director of Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine; and Cynthia Desrosiers, the Maine coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who represented victims.
Desrosiers said the session was a positive step in what has sometimes been a rocky relationship between the church and abuse victims.
"I am very encouraged," she said. "Obviously we have differences, but something is going to be done here that will be healing for victims."
Diocese spokeswoman Sue Bernard said Bissonette agreed with Desrosiers' assessment. "She said it was just a real positive meeting," Bernard said.
Bissonette offered to hold the upcoming meetings in the chancery offices in Portland, but Desrosiers said it is not a place where victims feel safe. Both sides are looking for an acceptable neutral site, although Desrosiers did not rule out meeting at a church.
Two sessions will be open to the media and a third will be a closed session, Desrosiers said. Public meetings have been a priority for SNAP members, who have criticized the church for using victim confidentiality as a cloak to protect priests who have abused children. The closed meeting was included at the church's request for victims who do not want to be identified publicly.
The next step is to finish interviewing facilitators from a list provided by rape crisis agencies, and find two who are acceptable to both sides. Desrosiers said they hope to finish that process by the end of May, and have at least one session before Maine church officials go to the National Conference of Bishops meeting in Dallas, Texas, which begins on June 13.
Desrosiers also plans to go to the conference with a delegation of SNAP leaders, who will advocate for more public disclosure of the names of priests who have been accused of abuse.
The listening sessions are the latest step taken by local church leaders to address the way the diocese responds to the problem of priests who are accused of sexually molesting children.
Three priests, the Revs. John Audibert, Michael Doucette and Leo Michaud, have been removed from their parishes under a new policy that disqualifies a priest from active ministry if he is subject to a "credible allegation" of sexual abuse of a minor.
Gerry has written letters to church members discussing the issue, and last month bought full-page advertisements in Maine newspapers, expressing sympathy for victims and offering to pay for counseling.
In a recent letter to a victim, Gerry announced that he has authorized the creation of an "assistance ministry" within the diocese to provide spiritual counseling for the victims of abuse.
Still, Gerry has been criticized for not speaking publicly about the crisis, or in the view of some victims, not taking responsibility for the actions of priests who were under his supervision.
Desrosiers said the recent meeting gave her hope that the church and molestation victims would be able to work together.
"I thought we got a lot accomplished," she said.
Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at: email@example.com http://www.portland.com/news/local/020521churchupdate.shtml