A group of people who say they suffered sex abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy have formed the first local group to reach out to others and press for changes in the way Louisiana’s Catholic church handles sex abuse victims.
Despite recent efforts by the Catholic Church to improve its response to those who claim abuse, the response of Louisiana’s seven dioceses still is deficient, said Lyn Hill Hayward, a Covington artist who is among the founders of the Louisiana chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
“It’s taken this long for people in this area to finally give up believing that the archdiocese would respond in a pastoral way,” she said.
Eight months ago, a hotline was established to report past or current abuses. Hayward said she called the hotline last summer to report that she was assaulted at home in 1960, when she was 13, by a Benedictine priest who was a close friend of her family. She said the church’s response was cold, slow and legalistic.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans said he was unaware that the local group had formed. In general, however, the archdiocese has said it is determined to reach out to victims and hear their stories sympathetically.
In recent days Hayward said she and a core group of six others have started a Web site (www.snap.laweb.org) and a hotline. They also arranged for the group’s first public meeting Monday in Metairie, she said.
The group is pushing a 10-point program to improve action by Louisiana dioceses and local law enforcement.
Several points urge Louisiana’s bishops to fully disclose their handling of past sex abuse complaints, including the names of accused priests and an accounting of past lawsuits against the church or various religious orders.
The group also asks the church to end its legal and financial assistance to abusive priests, cooperate with local prosecutors, release sex abuse victims from gag orders associated with their out-of-court settlements and help SNAP with financial assistance.
The group also urges victims to step forward and the state to consider extending the statute of limitations on prosecuting old sex crimes, as California has done.
Locally, Archbishop Alfred Hughes has released abuse victims from confidentiality agreements in their cases and has said he has met in private individually with several victims to apologize, as he has done at least three times in public.
Last summer, the Archdiocese of New Orleans revamped its sex abuse reporting policies and for the first time gave lay people the job of interviewing those complaining of past abuse.
After a review of an estimated 1,000 priests’ and deacons’ records, the archdiocese said it found credible or seemingly credible complaints of sexual abuse against 12 priests.
The archdiocese named only one priest, however, after he was removed from his parish assignment until the charge could be investigated further. He recently was reinstated on the advice of a lay review panel that said the evidence against him was insufficient.
The other priests were never named because they were dead, retired or not in highly visible ministries, the archdiocese said. Given that the cases were old and were brought by people still valuing anonymity, “we didn’t see what good would come from naming their names,” said archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. William Maestri.
But Hayward says naming accused priests empowers their victims to come forward and encourages healing.
Nationally, SNAP is a victims’ advocacy group. Since its formation in 1989, SNAP’s relationship with the church has been tense because many SNAP members, though upset with the church, stay involved in a quest to seek reforms. A high point for the organization came in Dallas last summer, when bishops opened their semiannual meeting to SNAP members and heard some of their stories and their anger before enacting changes in the way they would handle abuse cases.
SNAP, however, felt that many of those changes fell short and has remained a consistent critic of the bishops’ programs.