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.
Richard Jangula, a carpenter from Bismarck, N.D., who was raped by a priest as a teenager, attended church and sent his three children to Catholic school even as he kept the crime a secret and was hospitalized twice for related breakdowns. Then when he went public about four years ago, he felt dismissed by the church’s response and stopped attending.
Now on Sundays, the 55-year-old grandfather watches church on television. He remains close with a priest friend and prays. “Oh, yeah, I pray, every hour.”
At the time of the last conclave, “I thought if I went public, the church would help me, would say: ‘We did Richard wrong.’ Now I don’t think the next pope will be any different. Do I hope so? God, you have no idea how much I hope so. I know this sounds dumb, but I’ll always love my church because my church is what made me.”
The last time a pope was picked, Ann Hagan Webb was one of the best-known faces of the demand for church reform. Today, the 60-year-old catches updates about the papal selection process on the news — and feels ambivalent even about that. “I shouldn’t watch, but I do,” says Webb, a Massachusetts therapist.
Webb now limits her activism to working with clients — some Catholic, some not — who suffered child sexual abuse.
“At this point, my opinion is they are corrupt to the core, and there’s not a single cardinal we can find who would be a good pope because there’s no such animal,” she said.
Gary Bergeron represents a different point of view. The Massachusetts antiques dealer dealt with his anger — over being abused by a priest who abused dozens of other boys — by becoming convinced that transparency can happen only in conversation with the church.
He has met with the past two popes, founded an international group for survivors and sees hope in the fast resignation of O’Brien and the recent admonishment of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony by his successor. Mahony protected priests accused of sexually abusing minors, recently released documents show.
“I think most of the groups have fallen by the wayside because it’s a long road to walk, it’s very tiring, and the public tunes out,” he said. “But right now is another perfect storm for us to again raise the level of awareness of child abuse.”
SNAP, the survivors’ group, didn’t initially schedule any events related to the conclave. It made a last-minute decision in late February to fly to Rome to protest.
Leaders of the group have since held five news conferences. On Wednesday, they issued a “dirty dozen” list of 12 cardinals who would be “the worst choice for children.”
“Regardless of what church officials do or don’t do,” Clohessy wrote in an e-mail from Rome, “we’ve always felt duty-bound to reach out to survivors who are suffering in silence, and one way we do that is by speaking out at key moments. . . . We’re not confident [about] changing the church, but one never knows.”