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Archdiocese Process Called Deceptive

Victims Group Criticizes Program

Feb 12, 2003 | The Times-Picayune In light of a scathing grand jury report about a similar program in Long Island, N.Y., local victims of clerical sexual abuse charged Tuesday that the Archdiocese of New Orleans' process for handling new sex-abuse complaints is a self-serving system designed primarily to hold down litigation.

They urged victims to contact their organization instead.

The archdiocese, meanwhile, defended the process and said its program is sincerely aimed at helping victims.

Members of a new Louisiana chapter of SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, decried the local archdiocese program a day after a Long Island grand jury issued a scathing report claiming that its nine-month investigation concluded the Diocese of Rockville Centre's process for handling sex-abuse complaints was a "deceptive" scheme to silence victims, hide crimes and limit costs.

Some local victims said they recognized their own experience with the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the Long Island grand jury's description of how the Rockville Centre's process worked, said Lyn Hill Hayward, a Covington artist and co-founder of the SNAP chapter.

An element that particularly caught Hayward's eye in the grand jury report, which was posted on the Internet, was a Long Island church administrator's boast that its process had served as a model for 200 other Catholic dioceses around the country, she said. The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the New Orleans archdiocese, said the New Orleans program developed locally, with no reference to the Long Island system.

Part of the Long Island process was a "legal affairs" team ostensibly set up to help victims but actually designed to protect the church's self-interest, the grand jury report said.

Hayward, who said she was abused as a 13-year-old by a priest who was a family friend, said she reported her experience to a new hotline the archdiocese established in May.

In time, she was interviewed by counselors who would not give their last names, she said.

"They repeatedly asked me, 'What do you want?' and sometimes asked me legalistic things, like, 'Did he use force?' " Hayward said. "When you're a counselor dealing with someone who was just 13, what difference in terms of damage does it make if there was force?"

She said she did not hear back from the counselors for weeks, then was told her report had been in the hands of lawyers, who deemed it beyond the scope of the archdiocese since the priest who had abused her was a member of a religious order with its own system of governance, she said.

"I thought it was nothing more than corporate threat assessment," she said. "And they didn't get back to me because I had told them I wasn't going to sue."

Maestri defended the sincerity of the archdiocesan process.

He said he could not speak to Hayward's experience. But he said that in cases in which a person approaches the archdiocese without having filed suit, the results of interview sessions are shared with Archbishop Alfred Hughes and top aides, but not with the church's lawyers.

He pointed out that the local sex-abuse reporting process was just part of a larger package of changes in dealing with victims.

Other elements include a pledge to no longer bind victims to secrecy when settling claims, a release of past confidentiality agreements, employment of a full-time victims' advocate and a pledge to cooperate with law enforcement in turning over names of abusive priests.

Nonetheless, Hayward urged victims to call SNAP instead of the archdiocese. The new group maintains a Web site at www.snap.laweb.org, where victims share news and communicate with each other.

"After just one meeting, we found a huge benefit in just talking to people who have been through this," she said. "Of course, that doesn't help them get therapy if they can't afford it.

"But at this point, where do we go? When you go to your father and he gives you a rock instead of a loaf of bread that's how we feel."

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