Members of a U.S.-based international support group, the Survivors Network… (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GETTY…)
In 2005, David Lorenz, a 54-year-old NASA engineer and clergy sex abuse survivor who lives in Bowie, participated in a write-in campaign to the Archdiocese of Washington to remind then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick to focus on helping abuse victims. He says he had a couple of meetings at the archdiocesan offices, but he gave up on reform when a church official told him “not to come back until I was sacramentally healed.”
Four years ago, Lorenz left his parish, and now he worships with a breakaway independent group. He also leads a small, monthly group of survivors. With the church in the news as the cardinals meet in Rome to select a new pope, Lorenz said some survivors are calling him for the first time, seeking help.
As for the prospect of a new pope coming in and cleaning house, he said: “In 2005, I thought there might be some change. Now I’m hopeless.”
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese declined to comment.
Lorenz’s stance is emblematic of a community of survivors who have largely given up on changing the church.
Ten years after the abuse scandal exploded, creating a passionate reform movement, survivors who picketed cathedrals or launched write-in campaigns in 2005, the last time a pope was picked, say they have grown discouraged by a perceived lack of tough punishment and exhausted by the emotional toll the subject takes on them. Their efforts have shifted to changing civil laws or to general support for abuse survivors within and outside Catholicism. Or, in some cases, to simply functioning.
Ironically, this shift is happening as the topic of clergy sex abuse — once U.S.-centered — is bursting into the open in countries around the world and taking center stage in the conversation about Benedict XVI’s successor. The senior cardinal in Britain, Keith O’Brien of Scotland, resigned last week — less than two days after allegations surfaced that he had inappropriate contact with three priests and a former seminarian.
Many of the groups that appeared during the early and mid-2000s have shrunk or disappeared, and even groups whose purpose remains church reform are debating what that means: Holding individual clergy accountable? Focusing on more dramatic structural changes such as electing bishops and allowing priests to marry?
Bill Casey, a longtime national leader of Voice of the Faithful, once one of the leading reform groups dealing with survivors’ concerns, said the energy level “has diminished quite a bit.’’
“There has been a broad diminishment of expectations that these efforts will improve anything in our lifetime,” Casey said. Attendance at group events has plummeted, as have donations, he said.
Survivors have criticized the group because “it has had an interest in working within the structure,” Casey said. “Many people say, ‘You’re just dreaming; it’s a lost cause.’ ”
Terry McKiernan, head of the largest research database on clergy and abuse, said of the survivor community: “For a lot of people, it’s not a community anymore. . . . I think a lot of people who were involved in the early days, they’ve run out of steam.”
Survivors who are confronting the topic now face a very different culture than even a decade ago, when victims were accused of lying and scandals at other organizations such as Penn State and the Boy Scouts hadn’t surfaced. Fixing religious institutions isn’t as central to a society that has less faith in them.
And the epicenter of the crisis has moved from scandal-hit dioceses such as Boston, Philadelphia and Houston to places like Ireland, Germany and Australia. Some think that will pump energy into the movement and help yet-unknown victims, while others fear that some of those nations have limitations in dealing with the issue.
“I’ve never heard someone say: ‘Wow, I wish I’d been abused in Argentina or Ghana or India because there’s such a vibrant civil justice system there,’ ” said David Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the world’s largest support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse, with thousands of members. SNAP will hold its first world conference in April in Dublin. “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have our things going for us.”
Each survivor grapples with the trauma in his or her own way. Many can’t set foot in a church, and even hearing a rush of news about Rome triggers waves of traumatic memories. Others still worship at Catholic parishes and send their children to Catholic schools.
Even many who say they have zero expectation of institutional reform often admit, as they talk, that they can’t completely extinguish their concern about the church.