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The Silent Survivors

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  • Melanie Jula Sakoda
    Submitted by Melanie Jula Sakoda While this article focuses on the Catholic abuse problems, the questions this survivors attorney addresses can be applied to
    Message 1 of 1 , May 4, 2007
      Submitted by Melanie Jula Sakoda

      While this article focuses on the Catholic abuse problems, the
      questions this survivors' attorney addresses can be applied to
      Orthodox abuse problems as well.


      The Silent Survivors
      By Kelly Clark
      For The Register-Guard
      Published: Sunday, April 29, 2007


      Cases against the Catholic Church may end, but the struggles of the
      abuse victims go on

      [Kelly Clark is a Portland trial attorney who has represented nearly
      150 people abused as children. As a state legislator in 1989, he co-
      authored the law banning possession of child pornography in Oregon,
      as well as the law lifting the statute of limitations in cases of
      child abuse.]

      Amidst the congratulations going around concerning the long-awaited
      resolution of the bankruptcy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland,
      I have noticed a particular tendency among nearly all involved to
      want to "move on" and "put the past behind us."

      At one level, I wholeheartedly agree: It is time for this archdiocese
      to heal. As a lawyer who has represented more than 100 people with
      claims against the Catholic Church, including 41 in this bankruptcy
      case, I have pledged my assistance to the archbishop and to his
      lawyers in doing whatever I can do to facilitate that healing. The
      archdiocese needs it, the larger faith community needs it and our
      state needs it.

      At the same time, however, the duty I have to the courageous men and
      women I have represented requires me to remind people that, while it
      is all well and good to say "let us move on," it is not that simple
      for the abuse survivors. Between the long delays of the bankruptcy,
      the breathtakingly broad gag orders, and the natural tendency of
      child abuse survivors to stay silent, their voices have not been
      heard in many, many months.

      As I have listened over the last 15 years to the stories of boys and
      girls - now men and women - who were abused by priests, teachers,
      nuns and others they trusted from a church they loved, and then as I
      have heard comments from the community these past days and months, I
      am reminded that there is still much misunderstanding about the
      nature of priest sexual abuse and its impact. The people who came
      forward to name their abusers have struggled too hard for too long
      and too courageously to let any misconceptions about what happened to
      them go unanswered. For the record, as lawyers like to say, let there
      be no mistake that:

      • It happened. Recently, I heard a very skilled lawyer suggest in a
      public forum that the only reason the church settled many of these
      cases was "because they were not defensible due to the passage of
      time and the dearth of witnesses."

      This is but one variant of a comment I continue to hear nearly 15
      years after I started doing this work, nearly eight years after the
      landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Fearing vs. Bucher
      and the Archdiocese changed the legal landscape for child sexual
      abuse claims, and nearly six years since the first of the flood of
      abuse cases involving Fr. Maurice Grammond were filed.

      The suggestion - sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle - is that
      we cannot know for sure whether such abuse really occurred. Such a
      suggestion is irresponsible and foolish.

      The abuse occurred. Numerous priests themselves acknowledged that
      they abused children. To its credit, the church has acknowledged,
      publicly and privately, that a number of its priests were serial
      pedophiles. In negotiations, the church has made it clear that it
      found nearly all of my clients credible. The mediators - two trial
      judges with decades of experience evaluating witnesses - found these
      claims credible.

      Most importantly, the lawyers on both sides understood that the
      credibility of a survivor can be tested - albeit not scientifically -
      by placing his testimony before a jury of 12 citizens tried and true.
      While not a perfect system, the jury system is the oldest and surest
      route to the truth known to humankind.

      The best way to know that serious sexual abuse occurred to hundreds
      of men and women in this archdiocese is to recognize that the
      experienced lawyers for the church were convinced that a jury would
      find a particular claimant credible. So cases settled. Anyone who
      still does not believe that the child abuse claims against the church
      were true and tragic is simply in denial.

      • Child abuse survivors do not "wait" to bring their claims; most had
      intended to take their secrets to the grave.

      The single most wrongheaded question I hear in child abuse cases is
      this: "Why did they wait all these years?"

      The answer is best given in the words of a client of mine: "You
      misunderstand; I wasn't waiting. I never intended to speak of this to
      anyone. I planned to carry it to my grave. But when my son turned 12,
      which was the age I was when I was abused, I realized that I had to
      do something, that I could not keep it inside."

      Most child abuse survivors do not ever consider bringing legal claims
      or even obtaining counseling. They carry too much shame and guilt;
      they still believe that it was somehow their fault.

      Then something happens - psychologists call it "a triggering event" -
      and they begin to understand. They begin to see the connection
      between their childhood abuse and their damage: a lifetime inability
      to trust, or to maintain intimate relationships, or to experience
      religious transcendent faith, or to stay unaddicted.

      Before that, they say: "I kept it stuffed away," "I kept it on the
      back burner," "I stuffed it under a rug," "I didn't allow myself to
      believe it had occurred," and similar phrases, all indicating that
      the pain, guilt, confusion and shame of the event was too great for
      them to house these thoughts in their conscious, analytical mind. The
      psychological literature is loaded with the science explaining this
      dynamic, but the reality on the ground is that child abuse survivors
      do not "wait." They have a mental block that unblocks later in life.

      • The justice sought by the survivors is more than monetary.

      It is deeply unfair to a child abuse survivor to say that because
      they seek justice for their pain and betrayal, they are "only in it
      for the money." I can assure you that if we had the "blue button
      system" - whereby nine of 12 jurors could push a blue button and undo
      everything that had been done to these survivors - every client of
      mine would be seeking the blue button justice.

      But we don't have that system, and so they cannot be blamed for
      seeking the only kind of justice that our system allows.

      Moreover, for every one of my clients, this was about more than
      money: it was about telling their stories, finding accountability,
      and changing an institution that they had once loved. Many
      specifically negotiated non-monetary terms of settlements.

      One poor soul, so mentally ill that he resides at a state hospital in
      another state, simply asked that he be allowed to pray with the
      archbishop and ask for forgiveness, since he was so sure, still, that
      what had happened was his fault.

      Many asked for letters of apology or pastoral counseling, or other
      such non-monetary items. And all were insistent that the evidence we
      obtained in the course of this litigation be made public, so that the
      truth is out and the past archived, never to be repeated again.

      So do not tell me or my clients that it was "only about the money."

      • Child abuse survivors are not the enemy.

      While many do not, many of my clients still love the church. They
      want to be invited home. And none of them is or ever has been "the
      enemy." They simply wanted to be heard, healed and made whole by
      their childhood church. Too often they have been treated by some
      Catholics like enemies. Those scars - a kind of second abuse - will
      also take a long time to heal.

      To paraphrase the parable of Jesus, the good shepard leaves the 99
      sheep to find the one that is lost; he does not stay with the 99 and
      leave the one to die in the wilderness alone. I urge the church now
      to go find that sheep - the least, the last, the little, the lonely,
      the lost.

      • What else they want.

      I have often heard church lawyers and clerics say, "What else do
      these people want? We have acknowledged wrongdoing, we have paid
      money, we have changed our policies: What else do they want?"

      It's a fair question. Here is the answer I have given: First, they
      want the secrets out. To that end, the historic agreement reached
      recently between lawyers for the claimants and lawyers for the
      archdiocese, assisted significantly by the promptings of the
      Committee for the Parishes, that the church will release significant
      historical documents concerning priestly abuse, is a good first

      The era of secrecy is and should be over. My clients are entitled to
      the very great satisfaction they now feel, knowing that their courage
      and persistence has resulted in the opening of the files and the
      truth coming out.

      The second thing my clients want is for the Catholic community and
      the archdiocese, which has begun the earnest process of apologizing
      and asking for forgiveness, to complete it. This is a church that
      knows the power of sacramental words. Let these words now flow like a
      clean river and watch their healing power: "We are sorry, we are so
      sorry, for what we have done and what we have failed to do - mea
      culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Please forgive us."

      My clients need to hear those words spoken often, repeatedly and
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