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Pedophilia board focused on victims first.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The board of inquiry that produced the sexual abuse findings in the St. Anthony's Franciscan Seminary investigation here (NCR, Dec. 10) could serve as a national model for other troubled communities.

It was outraged parents who demanded creation of the task force that formed the inquiry board and shaped its approach. This followed an October 1992 letter from the Franciscan community advising parents of choir boys that there had been a molestation case.

Coordinator of that task force was Ray Higgins, a retired businessman and parent of a former St. Anthony's student, who later became one of six board of inquiry members. The investigative process was markedly influenced by information obtained from national organizations for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and from the experience of other U.S. and Canadian communities where sexual abuse had occurred.

Of the board's findings Higgins said, "We didn't want a witch-hunt or a whitewash. ... The most important thing we did was to get help to the victims."

A major requirement, Higgins said, was that the board be independent, otherwise it would lack credence. "We developed four goals," Higgins said, "to locate as many victims as possible and to help them in any way we could; to identify the perpetrators and make recommendations for their evaluation, treatment, monitoring and disposition; to make policies to ensure it won't happen again; and to recommend a permanent board to assist victims as they continue to come forward, as well as to monitor implementation of our recommendations."

When the board began its work almost a year ago, and victims identified themselves by telephone, mail or in person, they received a "victims' resource packet" that included a list of recommended therapists, methods of evaluating therapists, a recommended reading list, and directives for requesting therapy and obtaining compensation from the province for the therapy.

Victims were guaranteed anonymity by use of code numbers. Each victim and each family member was entitled to 50 sessions of therapy in an 18-month period followed by a review of the victim's well-being.

The other board members included:

* Chairperson Geoffrey Stearns, an attorney who for 21 years has represented hundreds of children in juvenile court abuse, neglect and family-law custody cases. He is a trained family and civil disputes mediator and has agreed to serve on the permanent board.

Stearns, who is not a Catholic, observed that the seminary system appeared to suppress discussion and awareness of healthy sexuality. Such a system, he said, tends to encourage a climate of sexual abuse.

* Eugene Merlin, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor who specializes in the treatment of male survivors of sexual abuse and of offenders. He has a doctorate in systematic theology. He trains child welfare workers, probation officers and therapists in the treatment of sexual offenders.

Merlin, who has worked with an estimated 700 sexual offenders in the past eight years, described his approach as "hard-nosed and confrontational." He said there was enough clinical skill among inquiry board members to weed out false accusations.

Said Merlin, "The problem in sex abuse cases is that everyone except the offender blames themselves. Empathy is a difficult thing for offenders to arrive at."

* Keith Mars and Kathleen Baggarley, a married couple, clinical codirectors of the Aspen Center for Therapy in Santa Barbara, have been treating child abuse victims for 14 years. They are authors of A Handbook for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

Said Mars: "Parents of victims have a lot of grieving to do. They have to let go of the guilt for not recognizing the behaviors of their children that indicated that abuse had occurred, forgive themselves, and do their best to support their children as they share these traumatic memories."

Baggarley said the board was very careful not to ask leading questions of the victims who came forward. "We have no reason to deny the veracity of their experiences," she said. She discounted the so-called "false memory syndrome," a theory that suggests that therapists have manipulated clients to make false statements.

* Franciscan Fr. Dismas Bonner, priest of the Sacred Heart province in St. Louis, is spiritual director of St. Michael's, a treatment center for priests and male religious operated by the Servants of the Paraclete.

Bonner recommended changes in the formation process of both diocesan priests and religious orders. "We have to deal with sexuality concretely with ongoing instruction and review about sexual ethics, intimacy and boundaries. I would say the former approach was repression."

Bonner said it was important that formation directors "have adequately integrated sexuality into their own lives and are capable of expressing and experiencing intimacy in a celibate, nongenital way."

He would also welcome, he said, more networking among treatment centers and dioceses regarding evaluation and treatment policies and protocols.
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Title Annotation:Santa Barbara, California
Author:Johnston, Rosemary
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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