Message in a bottle: Letters need humble response, say abuse survivors

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

CITY (CNS) — Acknowledging correspondence and treating victims with respect is
the very least church officials can offer, said survivors of clergy sex abuse.

letting a letter or email languish unanswered was such a key “best
practice” of showing care and concern for victims of sexual abuse by
clergy and religious that Marie Collins, an Irish survivor, stepped down from
the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors over the issue.

When it
comes to whether an office should respond to a victim, “There’s an
amazing ability to take whatever is simple” and make it sound “as if
it’s highly complex,” said Declan Murphy, who was abused as an adolescent
by two Christian Brothers in Dublin in the 1960s. Murphy, who was in South
Korea, spoke to Catholic News Service via Skype in mid-March.

It’s a
“basic courtesy” to respond, even if it is just a brief
acknowledgment of receiving the letter with a general time frame of intended
follow-up. “That’s the way most people work when they value and respect a
person,” he said.

“if your starting point is not wanting to do it, you will drag in lots of
reasons” to justify why writing back cannot or should not be done, he said.

After 38
years of keeping his abuse hidden from everyone and “coping on my
own,” Murphy said he was back to relying on his own resilience, with the
support of family, to make sure his voice was heard with repeated calls and
arranging meetings with church leaders after he came forward in 2006.

The most
hurtful response he got, he said, was telling a high-level church
representative about being raped for three years by two religious priests and
“he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘I can’t help you,'” in “a cold and callous” way.

That kind
of dismissal only made sense, Murphy said, for someone who looks at
the issue from a legal or organizational point of view, in which
different people are responsible for their own separate jurisdictions — and
the problem gets volleyed back and forth over ecclesial lines.

In every
situation, he said, the thing that hurt most “was the fundamental lack of
respect for me as a human being whose childhood was taken away.”

one can go back and fix what happened to me,” Murphy said, and “I try
to remain fair, articulate and balanced. But what I’ve seen is horrendous”
when it comes to how people have responded to his coming forward.

said he had three objectives in all of his efforts to reach out to the church:
“Somebody to listen to my story; I wanted them to believe me and say ‘I’m
sorry’; and I wanted my costs back,” meaning medical and legal costs
incurred since 2006, the year his health broke down and he revealed the past

The best
responses he received, he said, were when someone said he was going to do
something and then actually did it. Another time, the same person “sent a
Christmas card. It was a small gesture, but it showed a human side.”

leaders and personnel should not be driven by legal concerns, fears of litigation
or self-interest, he said, but by a pastoral compassion that asks, “What
can we do to help you? Tell us what you need.”

McGonigle, a lawyer living in western Connecticut, told CNS in a series of
emails that she faced so many “obstructionist tactics at the local level
in the secular legal system, what choice do we have but to turn to the Vatican,
canon law and natural law,” since the sexual violence against children is
a crime against nature.

and her sister, who later died from a prescription drug overdose in 2005, were
victims of late-Norbertine Father Brendan Smyth when he was assigned to Rhode

He was
ordained and assigned to ministry in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Rhode Island,
North Dakota and other places, despite the knowledge and complaints by other
religious that he had molested children, as found in an independent Northern
Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. He died in prison one month
after starting his sentence for 117 counts of children molestation in Ireland
and Northern Ireland over four decades.

Father Smyth was a member a religious order, based out of an abbey in Ireland
and was sent to multiple dioceses, McGonigle wrote to numerous jurisdictional
bodies in her efforts to gain information and help.

tried the local route in every imaginable way and felt the need to
circumvent” the appropriate channels after letters went unanswered and
questions and requests went unaddressed. Her civil suit was dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

when recipient offices at the Vatican denied having “competence” in
the matter and redirected her to other authorities, McGonigle said she felt
“that an internal strategy of leaving survivors twisting in the wind seems
to have been adopted by the Vatican.”

There is
no way to know how many survivors are ever able to bring themselves to write or
even bother, she said, which is why “those who do choose to write should
be acknowledged in some way and provided some measure of assurance that their
concerns are being listened to. After having been raped and our rights trampled
upon, it is the very least these people could do. Are they beyond

The most
helpful responses, she said, came from a priest in North Dakota who confirmed
facts “in an open and candid way.” In fact, she said when news broke
in 1994 of Father Smyth’s crimes, the Diocese of Fargo “went door to door
in their outreach campaign.”

said she wrote to church leaders, not to be “listened to,” but to do
“the right thing. I did feel it was right to make an attempt to do my part
in exposing Smyth’s crimes and requesting honesty and transparency” in her
right to know the truth.

The very
heart of the correspondence, however, is not just about eliciting a reply
letter, she said: “What survivors want to see is action, child protection,
perpetrators prosecuted and removed.”

goes a lot farther than any one letter,” McGonigle said.

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