Abuse survivor: Some ‘victim advocacy’ groups ‘have their own agendas’

Washington D.C., Aug 2, 2019 / 12:54 pm (CNA).- This story is the second part of a two-part series about how one victim of sexual abuse found healing. The first part was published Aug. 1.

When Michael* was 15 years old, he was abused by a priest at his Catholic high school. He told CNA recently about the suffering he endured, and about how, seven years after his abuse, he confided in another priest – only to have his faith in God and the Church shattered again.

For nearly three decades, Michael struggled with the pain and trauma of his abuse. He spent years, and tens of thousands of dollars, in therapy. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He needed help.

The therapy was a beginning.  But Michael told CNA he found the most healing in the Church and faith that his abusers had driven him from. Healing did not come not easily.

Michael says he wants to see real reform in the Church, and to ensure no one suffers like he did. But, he urges caution against what he calls “predatory advocacy groups” and an “industry that trolls for victims.”

Michael spoke to CNA about his experiences with such groups.

In 2010, it had been 28 years since Fr. James Rapp had subjected Michael to the abuse for which he would eventually be sentenced to two decades in prison.

It has been 21 years since another priest, Michael’s confessor and spiritual director — and at the time the only person he had told about his abuse — left him a series of obscene messages on his answering machine.

Michael was a successful professional. He had two children and had been married for more than a decade. His sons went to Catholic school, and he sometimes attended Mass with his family.

During the Spotlight scandals in the early 2000s, he had spoken to a priest; he was trying to move on, but he was still in pain.

“My wife couldn’t understand why I couldn’t leave it in the past. Really, I couldn’t either.”

One day, he was asked to give a keynote speech for work. During the preparations, Michael lost the sense of control he had created through exercise and work.

“I had become an authority in certain aspects of my field. Authority, this was a bridge too far. Authority made me very nervous, I mean, unable-to-function nervous. I could not even be in a room with an authority figure if the door was closed. Now I had to talk to a room full of them – to be one myself….”

Michael became obsessed with the preparations, panicking about what the room would look like, what size it would be, if the doors would be open at all times.

He began to doubt himself, his work, everything.

“Before that talk, I broke, and realized I needed to get help.”

Michael started therapy, first with a counselor at his work, and later with specialists.

“As I entered into therapy, I became concerned about Rapp. Was he still alive? Was he still around kids? I was feeling guilty that I had not reported.”

An internet search led him to the website BishopAccountability.org, where he learned that Rapp had been arrested in Oklahoma. Also on the website, Michael saw two links to victim support and advocacy groups. One was called Road to Recovery, the other was Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

He was in therapy, but he still needed help. He decided to reach out.

Michael used a proxy email account to contact Road to Recovery. The group’s leader, a laicized priest named Robert Hoatson, responded immediately, applauding Michael for coming forward.

“How about talking to an attorney?” Hoatson wrote.

Michael was surprised by the question. “It wasn’t why I was reaching out to them. I declined and said I just wanted to get better.”

At first he welcomed his new contact with Road to Recovery. After paying up to $900 a week for therapy, Hoatson was available on the phone or by email, day or night, free of charge, though persistently offering to put him in touch with an attorney.

“He seemed more helpful than the therapist, and he was always available.  He said he had worked with hundreds of victims … I felt fortunate to have found such a resourceful person.”

The gentle but persistent invitations to meet with a lawyer continued, Michael says, but he declined each time.

Even as his therapeutic costs mounted, Michael resisted speaking to a lawyer.

“If I took money for my therapy, would I be taking it from finite resources?” Michael asked. “Someone less fortunate than I might need the help more.”

In emails reviewed by CNA, Hoatson assured Michael that there was “plenty of money for everybody’s therapy.”

Eventually, Michael agreed to work with a lawyer towards recouping some of the costs of his therapy – something he says he is glad to have done since it helped lead to the criminal case against his abuser.

But, he said, his experience of groups meant to support survivors of abuse was far from perfect.

Over five years, Hoatson became a significant influence on Michael. Looking back now, he says, he believes that an agenda shaped their relationship.

Michael said that Hoatson introduced him to Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer well known for representing victims in Boston, and encouraged him to attend a SNAP conference in Chicago. There, Michael says he came to a very different understanding of such organizations and their priorities.

“SNAP describe themselves as a support group, but what I encountered was very different. The conference was run by attorneys.”

Michael said he watched as another lawyer, Jeff Anderson, led fundraising efforts for SNAP among lawyers during the conference, offering to match donations.

“I sat next to Hoatson during this. I asked ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought it was supposed to be a support group for victims, but the focus was all lawyers and fundraising and lawsuits.”

Michael said Hoatson pointed at one attorney and whispered to him, “See that guy, all he does is sue the Church and he has a private jet.”

“He laughed when he said it. I was in disbelief, I felt like I was in a parallel universe.”

The conference broke into small groups to discuss victim support.

“I was looking forward to this part more than anything else, because I thought maybe someone could tell me how to break through, to get to the other side.”

Michael’s small group was led by a lawyer, another former priest, working for Anderson.

“I thought, ‘How is this possible, they have an attorney moderating the small group session?’ This was not the kind of support I was hoping for.”

Michael stepped into the hall, upset at the legal, rather than therapeutic, focus of the event. As he sat on the bench, a young woman came and sat next to him, asking if he was alright.  He told her the conference was not what he had expected from a group meant to help victims move past their abuse.

“I asked her if she was part of SNAP.  She said ‘No, I am an attorney here to learn how I can help.’” She handed Michael her card. “A wave of nausea swept over me.”

CNA asked SNAP’s executive director, Zach Hiner, about Michael’s experience.

“It is saddening to me any time that we fail to provide a survivor with the help and support they need,” he said.

“I was not involved with the organization at the time this survivor was, and so I cannot offer my opinion or view of that conference nor what he experienced. What I will say is that during my time at SNAP in this past year, we have tried very hard to ensure that we are talking not only about the problem of institutional sexual violence within the Catholic Church, but within other institutions as well,” Hiner told CNA.

While Michael was at the conference, he introduced himself to SNAP’s president David Clohessy, who had written an article about his abuser, Fr. Rapp.

“I wanted to know what he knew about Rapp, but he didn’t remember writing the article, or Rapp, or anything about him. I’d hoped he could point me in the right direction for finding out some more information as I looked for closure on what I had been through – it was why we were supposed to be there after all – but he did not seem interested in that.”

Michael said he feels organizations like SNAP commoditize victims in their campaigns.

“While SNAP hosted talks and sessions with titles that might sound helpful, I did not observe any activity intended to equip victims for recovery, their welfare, or advocacy.  It was a pure lawyer-fest.”

“I felt that the SNAP organization was weaponizing victims against the Church.  I felt it was a violation of vulnerable survivors.”

Clohessy told CNA that “First and foremost, I’m sorry I hurt or upset or disappointed a survivor.”

He also noted that SNAP’s national conferences “are a bit skewed toward activism over recovery.”

“We’ve found over the past 30 years that more recovery happens in our smaller, local, monthly support group meetings.”

Himself an abuse survivor, Clohessy said that there is a tendency to “oversimplify” his motives, based solely or largely on his public comments.

Following a lawsuit in 2016, in which a former SNAP employee accused the organization of taking kickbacks from lawyers representing abuse victims, Clohessy resigned as president of SNAP.

Michael said he felt “gratified” by the lawsuit against SNAP, and that it validated his own experience of seeing victims treated as a “resource” to be “bartered” between lawyers and advocacy groups.

“In my experience with Clohessy it seems he is mostly concerned with smearing the Church in any way that he can.”

Clohessy defended himself against that characterization, telling CNA that “If I wanted to ‘smear’ the Church, I’d constantly picket and protest. But I don’t. Like nearly every SNAP leader, I spend most of my time in one-on-one sessions with survivors, offering comfort, support and understanding.”

“When asked by victims, witnesses and whistleblowers, I help them expose wrongdoing in the hopes of protecting kids and deterring wrongdoing, not with the intent of ‘smearing’ anyone.”

Hiner told CNA that part of SNAP’s advocacy is demanding transparency from institutional authorities to make communities safe for children.

“This is not anti-Catholic at its core,” he said, “but it is easy to paint it as such in an effort to dismiss the valid criticisms that survivors and advocates have been bringing forward for years.”

In 2018, Clohessy returned to the organization as an official spokesman. Earlier this year, he appeared on television in Detroit, calling out Archbishop Alan Vigneron for not including some offending priests on a list published by the archdiocese.

The TV report highlighted the case of Fr. James Rapp, although the priest was never active in the archdiocese.

“It felt like my abuse, what I went through, was just a card to be played on TV. He wasn’t there representing Rapp’s victims, he was using us to attack a bishop who had nothing to do with it.”

Michael said that he made multiple attempts to contact the TV station and Clohessy, asking them to clarify the story, but received no response.

Clohessy told CNA said he recalled the event, but clarified it was in front of the archdiocesan chancery, not the cathedral, and that he could only remember an email in response to the appearance.

“It was six months ago, and I don’t recall that it was a survivor or someone else who complained, nor whether or not I responded.”

He also told CNA that he was more than willing to discuss the matter with Michael.

“I don’t remember meeting this survivor. I did not use ‘his abuse’ in any way but rather information that was already in the public domain because of Rapp’s criminal history,” he said.

“Over the years, I’m sure I’ve disappointed a number of survivors, I apologize to him and I’m sad that I’ve upset him and hope he contacts me so we can continue this dialogue.”

Last month, at a SNAP conference held in Virginia, Hoatson was presented with the 2019 “I Made a Difference Award.” During the presentation, he was introduced as “a true friend to survivors and a real leader in our movement.”

Michael said that while he was encouraged during his time with Road to Recovery and Robert Hoatson to sue the Church, he was discouraged from having anything to do with the practice of the faith, even as he was making efforts in therapy and to attend Mass with his family.

“Hoatson advised me to stay away from the Church, that it would just cause me too much stress,” Michael said.

“It was true, attending church was difficult for me while I was in counseling, and his advice helped trigger my departure from the Church – again.”

Michael says that Hoatson also advised that he get his family out of the Church as well, discouraging him from having his wife and children attend Mass.

“He said nothing good could come from them going to Mass; I didn’t listen to Hoatson on this point, but thanks to his advice, my family was going to church without me.”

This was in 2012. Michael opted for exercise as an outlet.

“I was hammering out long rides on my bike while my space in the family pew went vacant.  I deeply regret that time. I was worried about the effects on my marriage, I struggled with not going to church. I told Hoatson about a statistic that I once heard that 50% of married couples divorce, but of those who attend religious services together, only 25% divorce. He assured me, ‘That’s not because they go to church.’”

Michael told CNA that although he was discouraged from practicing the faith, good did come from his contact with the legal process: it put him in contact with the bishop of his home diocese, and the provincial superior of his abuser’s religious order. That contact started a chain of events that led to real healing and forgiveness for him.

He found that healing and forgiveness in the counsel of a good priest, Fr. Ken. Despite Michael’s past experience of confession, and how it figured in his departure from the Church, Fr. Ken steered him to the sacrament, with life-changing consequences.

Michael said he was reluctant to tell Hoatson about his reversion to the faith. When he did, he began to speak about the day he was drawn to the confessional.

“He told me: ‘Oh no, I hope you didn’t go!’”

Michael says that by September 2018, he was happier in his faith, in the Church, in his marriage, and in his family – happier than he had ever been.

The McCarrick scandal, he says, he took in his stride, but the Pennsylvania grand jury report was something else.

“Thinking I was recovered, and wanting to stand as a witness to fellow survivors, I read the first few pages of the report. I was not as strong as I thought. I had to stop reading it, and it knocked me down really hard.”

About that time, he received an email from Hoatson sharing a press release in response to the Pennsylvania report.

The scope of Hoatson’s press release, Michael said, “was to tell Catholics to stick together, to embrace homosexual and transgender priests.”

“He placed great emphasis on the idea that homosexuals don’t rape minors, only predators rape minors. He did not include any statistical data on the overwhelming majority of the homosexual predation of minors.”

Michael said he felt that his experience was, once again, being treated as a commodity. That what he went through was being repurposed to support a political agenda.

“I felt it was a great injustice to all of us survivors who were raped by gay men to deny that we were. It was like trying to change history to fit an agenda. Hoatson was disenfranchising all of us victims who simply want the truth told about what happened.”

Michael wrote to Hoatson about those points.

“I told him that I found his piece hurtful in denying the truth. I asked him to add facts and to tell the truth, but he only reaffirmed his position on the subject and told me that I was the only survivor that felt that way, that he owned me no apologies.”

Since then, Michael has contacted the apostolic nuncio in Washington, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark – where Road to Recovery is based – to report what he considers to be the exploitation of survivors by Road to Recovery and similar organizations. He says the responses he received have confirmed that he is not alone in feeling victimized by groups supposed to advocate for victims.

Michael told CNA the Archdiocese of Newark disclosed that others had been in touch about Hoatson with similar stories. He said the archdiocese put him in contact with a lawyer they had recommended to others who felt taken advantage of.

The Archdiocese of Newark declined to comment on any complaints it may have received regarding Road to Recovery.

Hoatson told CNA that he has “the deepest respect for survivors of clergy sexual abuse and will continue to have their best interests at heart.”

“At times, unfortunately, emotions get in the way of accurate reflections and recollections of situations and events. It is my honor to advocate on behalf of clergy sexual abuse victim/survivors.”

Michael told CNA he has been in contact with the website where he first found links to Road to Recovery and SNAP, BishopAccountability.org, and shared his experience about how the groups treated survivors with the site’s managers.

The banner links have since been removed and a new page added, with links to a number of survivor support groups, including SNAP and Road to Recovery, as well as agencies that encourage spiritual healing.

The new page on Bishopaccountability.org cautions that the site is “not recommending or endorsing these organizations” and encourages survivors to “exercise due diligence” before making contact with any group.

Michael says that the response of groups like Road to Recovery and SNAP to the Pennsylvania report has affected him profoundly.

“Under all of the talk about victims and advocacy, these groups have their own agendas. On the one side, there are the lawyers and the money, on the other is a whole agenda about the Church and its teaching on gay priests. Where are the victims in all this?”

Michael said he is far from alone in his experience, but when victims are hurt by the very campaign groups meant to help them they have few places to turn or ways to get in contact with each other.

“There are groups out there, though,” Michael told CNA. “One’s that really do put the victims first, and are committed to healing abuse sufferers.” He named the Grief to Grace organization which, he said, “has put together the most comprehensive healing program imaginable.”

Michael works with the Daniel Coalition in Michigan, and said that he would encourage any abuse survivors who have had adverse interactions with victim advocacy groups, particularly if they felt pressured to take action against the Church like he was, to contact the group via their own website.

In 2016, Michael testified against his own abuser, who is now in prison. The last time they saw each other was in the courtroom. But the last contact they had was a letter Michael sent to Rapp in prison. Michael explained God had given him the grace to heal and to forgive. In two short paragraphs he wrote “forgiveness” eight times. He signed the note “Victim A”, the name under which he had testified.

“We all want justice, and we deserve that. But what I received, I needed most was healing. I found it. I found it in therapy, in my family. I found it most powerfully in the Church, in God’s grace. That is what put me on the true road to recovery.”

Michael told CNA he hopes that other victims will find healing too, and that the Church can as well. During his first confession in nearly thirty years he learned to understand his own suffering in the light of the Cross.

“Christ prayed on the cross, and then commended his soul to the Father. I learned to do the same – that is how I forgave, that is how I really began to recover.”

Michael added he regrets that some of those from whom he sought help and healing almost kept him away from the place where he finally found it.

“That’s what the Church is, isn’t it? A place to heal?”

 

*Michael’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

 

 


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