As parishioners streamed out of Our Lady of Grace Church after the first Sunday Mass of Lent, they were reminded of a dark period in the Catholic church’s past.
About 10 members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests handed out leaflets calling forth victims of past sexual abuse by a former priest, Father Robert Poncirolli. The longtime priest, who was recently arrested and charged with six counts of felony child molestation, worked as associate pastor of Our Lady of Grace in 1974-79.
Most parishioners read the fliers with quizzical looks as they walked slowly to their cars. Some stopped to ask the current pastor, Father Kevin Mullins, what the commotion was about. A few offered words of sympathy to the handful of self-identified sexual abuse survivors passing out the fliers.
According to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland records, Poncirolli served at nine parishes throughout the Bay Area from his ordination in 1969 until 1995, when the Diocese removed him by “enforced retirement” on suspicion of child molestation.
No victims of past clergy abuse stepped forward as Sunday’s crowd dispersed into the sunny afternoon.
Terrie Light, northwest coast regional director of SNAP, said the group plans to visit other parishes in search of people who may have been victims of Poncirolli’s alleged abuse in coming weeks.
Besides reaching out to past victims of sexual abuse, Light said SNAP tries to prevent abuse by alerting parishioners that child molestation can and may have happened in their churches.
Pastor Kevin Mullins, in the traditional black clerical robe, stood alongside SNAP members to help answer parishioners’ questions.
“You want to hope no more information is forthcoming about Poncirolli, but we need to confront the reality of what’s gone on,” Mullins said. “If people come forward it will be healing, for them and for us. It’s never about one person or one abuser it’s about what’s going on with the entire church.”
Light said the welcoming spirit of Mullins and other parishioners was a pleasant break from the icy stares and insults that SNAP members have received at other leafleting events.
Still, she and other SNAP members criticized the Catholic hierarchy as a whole for not trying to find and help victims of past abuse by publicizing the names of known sex offenders and the parishes where they were stationed.
“It’s like there’s a shipwreck in the ocean and instead of proactively going out to rescue the remaining survivors, the church has held them underwater by hiding and denying past abuses by priests,” said Paul Hessinger, 52, who said a priest tried to rape him when he was 13 in North Dakota.
Hessinger said he was unsure whether attending the SNAP speak-outs help him. He simply hopes they prevent other youngsters from suffering sexual trauma by helping purge the church of sexual predators.
After reading dozens of articles and watching countless newscasts about abuse by Catholic clergy over the past year, Hessinger felt compelled to tell his story, he said. But after years of therapy and a year of speak-outs, he wondered if anything would ease the pain, he said.
“The past couple months I’ve started to wonder whether my whole screen that I see the world through changed after that (incident of alleged attempted rape),” he said. “Maybe that led me to have this chip on my shoulder, to not like authority figures, to my workaholism. Maybe my whole life changed and every decision from then on was based on anger.”
But other self-identified survivors say every speak-out helps close decade-old wounds. Sofia Rubino, 46, was dressed in a white traditional Salvadoran dress with a garland of flowers around her head to symbolize the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered from ages 8 to 16 from a priest in her native El Salvador. Rubino said she feels privileged to stand in front of a church and denounce clergy sexual abuse, thanks to the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. In Latin America, denouncing a priest could endanger her life, she said.
“If we did anything like this a Latin American town, they might lynch us or treat us very bad,” Rubino said in Spanish. “Here in the United States we have the power of expression. Other victims need to know they’re not alone.”
As SNAP members called for church reform, Mary Atkins and her daughter Shannon sat at a nearby table selling Girl Scout cookies. Atkins said clergy sexual abuse is not a present-day issue at Our Lady of Grace, but she supported survivors who feel the need to discuss the past.
“I think they should do whatever it takes for them to feel whole again,” Atkins said.
A 44-year-old Castro Valley man who would not give his name also sympathized with the SNAP members. But the lifelong Catholic said he felt overwhelmed by the clergy abuse crisis because he didn’t know what he could do about it. Perhaps priests should be allowed to marry, he suggested with a shrug.
“I think we think like everyone else,” he said, as he and his wife walked to their car. “It’s a touchy subject. SNAP is here and we feel for the victims, but who wants to look into the past? It’s like opening a can of worms that everyone wants to forget about.”