When Dolores Sharp Nelson called the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento last month to report being abused by a priest years earlier, she thought she would be talking to a counselor.
But after a series of calls to the toll-free hotline set up by Bishop William K. Weigand to deal with the crisis rocking the Catholic Church, she discovered she had been speaking to a woman trained as an attorney who now works for the diocese and who wanted to tape record their conversations.
“I’m feeling like, ‘You’re not an advocate for me,'” Nelson said. “You’re here for the insurance corporations.”
Officials with the Sacramento diocese dispute that, saying the fact that Nancy Milton is a trained attorney is irrelevant, that she is on inactive status with the State Bar of California — meaning she is licensed, but not currently practicing — and that she is not involved in legal matters at the diocese.
Instead, officials say, Milton’s role at the hotline is simply to help people with tales of abuse get their claims looked at seriously.
“My job is to provide pastoral care, exploring other ways to reach out,” Milton said. “I’m not in the whole lawsuit arena. I’m here for pastoral outreach only.”
Milton said she is not trained as a counselor, per se, but that her experience as an attorney helps her in that quest.
“I have mediation background and the listening skills,” Milton said. “The only time I use my attorney training is for the investigative part of the job.”
But some people who have come forward with claims of abuse by priests say the tactic is unfair and misleading. One woman filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday alleging, in part, that the diocese improperly presented Milton as a “victim advocate.”
Instead, the suit claims, Milton became involved in the case to “report the information back to diocesan officials” so they could defend themselves against the woman’s allegation that a Vallejo priest lured her into an affair.
A national advocate for victims of abuse by priests said the use of a hotline that leads to an attorney is unprecedented among Catholic churches.
“In the 11 years I’ve been involved in this issue, that is a new low,” said David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “That is just unconscionable. That just takes my breath away.”
The controversy stems from an effort Weigand announced April 5 as the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic church spiraled nationwide.
In a press conference, the bishop revealed that 14 priests in the Sacramento Diocese had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors over the past three decades.
He also announced the establishment of “the position of complainant advocate,” a job Weigand said would entail investigating complaints and making “sure any victim of misconduct receives the care and attention he or she deserves.”
Since the announcement, the hotline has received approximately two dozen calls, Milton said, and she has met with about 10 people who have made claims of abuse.
When people with complaints agree to be taped, she records the calls or sessions, Milton said, and provides copies of the tapes to the victims if they ask. Afterward, the tapes are transcribed and then erased.
“Basically, I do a little investigatory work and see how I can help them,” she said.
But Nelson, a 64-year-old retired teacher, has a different interpretation of her conversations with Milton, saying what happened to her “is pretty amazing.”
At first, she said, Milton asked permission to tape the conversations and then asked her to come to the diocese and tell her story to Milton with a nun present. She said the line of questioning Milton used indicated she was testing the story.
Finally, Nelson said, she began to feel suspicious and asked Milton, “Are you a lawyer?”
“I have a lawyer’s background, but I’m not licensed,” she recalls Milton telling her.
Nelson said she later canceled the interview.
“I was stunned, I was upset,” Nelson said. “They’re protecting themselves, they’re not thinking of the victims.”
Nelson said Milton called her back Monday and asked to set up a meeting next week. Nelson said she agreed on the condition both sides could record the session.
Another woman who called the hotline on a Friday after Weigand’s announcement said she got a call back from Milton the following Monday.
“At first, the woman was really nice and she seemed genuinely concerned,” said the complainant, who asked not to be named and who claims she was fondled by a priest in the mid-1960s when she was 7 years old.
“But I wasn’t comfortable with the line of questioning. I told her what happened to me … and she told me she wanted to talk to my parents.
“Well, they don’t know any of this, so I told her, ‘no,’ and she said she understood. But I just felt like she didn’t believe me.”
That woman said she did not pursue her complaint. But another, who claims she was involved in a sexual relationship with a priest in Vallejo from 1996 until last January, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court over the way the diocese has handled her allegations.
In that instance, Tavolia Roberts, 35, claims her alleged affair with the Rev. Edward Lewis was sparked by “his power and influence” over her as her counselor.
Lewis, who was chair of the diocese Council of Priests, which advises the bishop, was removed from his parish in mid-March after officials received an allegation that he was involved in a relationship with a woman.
Since then, Roberts has been arrested and charged with welfare fraud and is being held in the Solano County Jail.
Roberts claims she was visited at the jail recently by officials from the diocese, including Milton, and says in her lawsuit she was told Milton was a “victim advocate.”
Milton would not comment on the suit Tuesday, saying she had not yet seen it. But the Rev. David Deibel, the diocese’s vicar episcopal for canonical affairs, maintains Milton is not serving in a legal capacity and that the diocese intentionally has not involved its legal team in the hotline to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest.
Roberts’ attorney, Joseph C. George of Sacramento, said the suit seeks an injunction to stop the diocese from presenting Milton as a “victim advocate.” He said the hotline should use neutral mental health professionals rather than employees of the church.
“There should be a disclosure,” he said. “People don’t know who or what they’re calling.”
Nationwide, churches responding to the crisis have taken different approaches, with some urging victims to call the police or crisis lines.
But Clohessy, of the national network of priest abuse victims, said the Sacramento diocese hotline is unlike any other he has heard of.
“I feel terrible for people who call that line and are revictimized,” he said. “If they’ve gotten legal information that’s allowed them to dodge even one legal bullet, they’ve come out ahead.”