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Grass-roots Network Flooded with Calls From Survivors of Sex Abuse by Clerics

Apr 11, 2002 | Mercury News As sex-abuse scandals rock the Roman Catholic Church from Boston to Los Angeles to Fremont and Los Gatos, a grass-roots network of abuse survivors finds itself swamped with phone calls from victims who feel the time is right to come forward.

Terrie Light, the Bay Area representative of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says she is being flooded with calls and e-mails in the wake of revelations about priests accused of abuse.

One of those calls came from San Jose resident Ray Peltier, an assistant manager at a propane company who recently contacted SNAP with the intention of becoming SNAP's point person in the South Bay.

Peltier says he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a teen living in another Western state but cannot discuss the details because he signed a confidentiality agreement after he successfully sued the church and received a financial settlement. He now wishes that he had pressed criminal charges, but the priest is dead.

``When you're a teenager going up against the Catholic Church, it's like going up against a huge monster,'' said Peltier, who worries other Bay Area residents have kept their abuse a secret. ``They are not survivors yet. They are still victims. I want to show them that someone cares. I have been there, and I believe them.''

Founded in 1991, SNAP is a volunteer-run organization that has no operating budget or paid staff. Light says she is hard-pressed to keep up with the volume of calls and e-mails.

``SNAP as an organization is totally overwhelmed,'' Light said.

Some of the people who contact SNAP have never reported their abuse and want to know whom to call first: the police, a therapist, an attorney, or the church itself. SNAP's Web site (www.survivorsnetwork.org) offers ``Survivors' Wisdom,'' links to other resources and a discussion board.

In January, the Boston Globe reported that church officials were aware of abuse by the Rev. John J. Geoghan and shuttled him from parish to parish. Last month, Silicon Valley was stunned by allegations that two mentally retarded men had been abused by priests in Los Gatos. On Tuesday, the Rev. Robert E. Freitas was arraigned in Fremont for allegedly molesting a 15-year-old boy in 1979. Freitas posted bail Wednesday.

Light, the director of the Berkeley Food Project and a licensed family therapist, is also a victim. She said she was raped when she was 8 years old by a Hayward priest who is now dead. Years later, the Oakland Diocese found that two other women had leveled charges against the same priest. But for decades, Light was convinced that her situation was unique.

``I'd heard about sexual abuse by priests, but I assumed that it had all happened on the East Coast,'' said Light, 50. ``I assumed that I was the only survivor on this side of the Rockies and the only girl.''

The diocese gave Light a financial settlement in 1994, provided that she sign a confidentiality agreement.

SNAP has created a strong working relationship with the Oakland Diocese, which spans Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Two years ago, before the latest revelations prompted the current wave of scrutiny, Oakland Bishop John Cummins took the rare step of apologizing to victims of clergy sexual abuse during a reconciliation ceremony.

The diocese is working with SNAP on ``No More Secrets,'' a vast outreach campaign. Posters bearing that slogan will be distributed to parishes across the East Bay in the coming weeks, and several events for abuse victims are planned this spring. SNAP says it hopes to start a similar dialogue with the San Jose Diocese, but has not contacted officials there yet.

Sister Barbara Flannery, the Oakland Diocese chancellor who has been investigating sexual abuse charges against priests in the Oakland Diocese, found a file on Light's abuse by the Hayward priest in 1994, and the two have since become close friends. It was Flannery who reported the Freitas allegations to Fremont police.

``Survivors have found their voice, and they are telling us what they need,'' Flannery said. ``This is the church's opportunity to restore some justice to these individuals.''

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