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Lawsuit Faults Diocesan Therapist

Church Denies Claims By Alleged Victim of Sex Abuse That A Counselor Pressured Him Hot To Hire A Lawyer

Dec 31, 2002 | Albany Times Union A Capital Region man who said he was sexually abused by several priests filed a lawsuit against the Albany Diocese on Monday, accusing his church therapist of pressuring him to not hire a lawyer and making his psychological problems worse.

The lawsuit was filed by an unemployed man in his 30s who said he was repeatedly abused between the ages of 10 and 13 in the Albany Diocese, said attorney John Aretakis, who filed the suit. The victim is referred to in court papers as John Doe.

Between March and November, the man met with a nun and trained therapist, Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, nearly 100 times, but she made almost no notes or records of his treatment, according to the lawsuit.

Smollin asked the man to sign a waiver permitting her to discuss all aspects of his case with Bishop Howard Hubbard, according to the lawsuit. Smollin also urged him on several occasions not to hire a lawyer and said, "Bishop Howard Hubbard can no longer be your friend" after he did so, the lawsuit said.

"I returned to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany in 2002 for help in dealing with my pain and seeking their guidance, only to be mistreated by church personnel yet again. They used me for their own purposes once more," the man said in an unsigned statement provided by his attorney.

The diocese issued a brief statement on Monday, categorically denying the allegations, calling them "baseless and utterly without merit." The lawsuit raises questions about whether diocesan staff therapists can provide unbiased counseling to victims of sexual abuse who are in a position to file a lawsuit against the church or go public with embarrassing disclosures.

"If in fact that is true, that's a conflict of interest and that's malpractice," said Annette Crawford, a Glens Falls social worker who specializes in victims of sexual abuse. "The therapists need to advocate for the client. But here, we have to really define who is our client: Is it the person sitting in front of us or is it the diocese?"

The man who filed the lawsuit was previously diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome and contacted the church in March, responding to Hubbard's public promise to provide victims with counseling, the lawsuit said.

Church officials have repeatedly declined to say how many victims of sexual abuse have contacted them to ask for therapy. Victims can choose whether they want to meet with church counselors or a private, independent therapist whom the church pays for, said the Rev. Kenneth Doyle, chancellor for the diocese.

The man who filed the lawsuit said one priest molested him frequently during his prepubescent years and occasionally took him on trips when other priests would also sexually abuse him, Aretakis said.

Aretakis said he represents more than 24 victims who claim priests in the Albany Diocese sexually abused them. "We believe that there are five or six more priests on active ministry in the Albany Diocese who are a danger to children in the community," Aretakis said.

Earlier this month, Hubbard acknowledged some Albany Diocese priests accused of sexual abuse have remained on active ministry while church investigators conduct inquiries into whether new allegations are "credible" and warrant suspension from pastoral duties.

Aretakis filed the lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany and held a news conference Monday afternoon. The lawsuit names the diocese, Hubbard and Smollin.

The suit accuses Smollin of professional malpractice, but does not say how much money it seeks. It does not name any priests or seek damages for the abuse itself, which is extremely difficult due to statute of limitations barring lawsuits after a victim turns 23.

Smollin has a doctorate in psychology and serves as the executive director of the church-run office of Counseling for Laity, which she helped found in 1977, church officials said.

Smollin is not officially licensed by the state Education Department, which is not uncommon for mental health professionals, said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for the Education Department that licenses doctors and other health care workers.

At a national meeting of bishops in Dallas in June, Hubbard was one of the few outspoken opponents of the "zero-tolerance" policy. He advocated for a case-by-case review that would leave the door open for known pedophile priests to remain active in the ministry.

After the policy was adopted, Hubbard removed six priests who had sexually abused children. The 14-county diocese also acknowledged it paid out $2.3 million during the last 20 years in secret settlement agreements with victims of sexual abuse.

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