The Silent Survivors
- 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
THE SILENT SURVIVORS
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
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
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,
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