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Church Sex-Abuse Hotline Misleading, Lawsuit Claims

Jul 10, 2002 | USA Today

Two women who called a hotline set up by the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento for survivors of clergy sexual abuse have filed a lawsuit claiming they were misled to think they were talking to a counselor, when the person who answered the phone was actually the church's legal advocate.

''The church was using the victims' hotline to protect itself legally, and as a Christian, I find it appalling,'' said plaintiff Delores Sharp Nelson on Tuesday.

Nelson, 64, and another Sacramento woman last week sued the diocese and Bishop William Weigand for fraud, negligence and emotional distress. Also named in the lawsuit is Nancy Milton, who was hired to run the hotline.

The suit seeks general and punitive damages, and asks that callers be told their legal rights. The other plaintiff was identified only as Joan K., 52.

Church officials say they used the hotline only to help people cope with their abuse.

The diocese set up the line in April ''as a means of reaching out to people who had been victimized and to give them easy access so we could respond to them pastorally,'' said the Rev. David Deibel, diocese spokesman. About a half-dozen people have alleged abuse by priests there.

Deibel says he hired Milton ''because of her skills as a mediator and a listener,'' and that the church never hid the fact that she was trained as an attorney. But he says she never worked as an attorney representing the church. ''We don't use the hotline to build our cases. We just don't. The only litigation arising out of the hotline is this lawsuit,'' he said.

Nelson says she called the toll-free hotline number to finally deal with the emotional repercussions caused by a priest who she said molested her 52 years earlier. She thought she'd get counseling, or at least a referral to a therapist. Instead, she says, Milton interrogated her and never referred her for counseling.

''The words the woman was using were words attorneys use. She was not in any way compassionate. I was appalled,'' Nelson said.

After a few conversations, Nelson said, she asked Milton if she was an attorney. Milton acknowledged that she was trained as an attorney, but was not currently practicing. Records indicate that Milton was admitted to the California State Bar in 1994 but is an inactive member.

Nelson said that she's willing to drop the suit if the diocese shuts down the hotline in 10 days.

But Deibel says he has no plans to discontinue the hotline, ''as long as it's helping people.''

Last month, the Camden, N.J., diocese came under fire when its hotline was forwarded to an attorney's phone line, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says his organization has long warned people to steer clear of church-run hotlines. ''It takes so much courage for somebody to pick up the phone and report abuse,'' Clohessy says. ''It's hard for me to imagine a more hurtful response by the diocese.''

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