Portraits of Clergy Sex Abuse (Photo Essay)

Photographer Carmine Galasso's recent book, Crosses: Portraits of Clergy Abuse, shows the huge, personal price paid by survivors of clergy sex crimes and their struggle to seek justice from a Catholic Church intent on covering it up.

AlterNet is pleased to present the above multimedia show from Crosses and an interview with David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Nina Berman: There are many cases of individuals who are part of companies, or armies for that matter, who commit horrible crimes, and, invariably, the response by the institutional leadership is ... Well, it's just a few bad apples. How do you respond to the statement that the clergy sex abuse is just a few bad apples?

David Clohessy: First of all, no matter how you look at it, the word "few" is inaccurate. The church's own inadequate, inaccurate self-survey indicates at least 5,400 priests are proven, admitted or credibly accused child molesters. That's just the ones they acknowledge. Second, the crux of the crisis is the complicity of bishops, not the abusive priests. It's not "some bad apples." It's the barrel and the men who built and oversee the barrel.

Put another way, bishops cover up abuse because they can. Victims, parents, witnesses and Catholics who could call 911 instead report clear or potential abuse to church officials, giving those officials the time, knowledge, incentive and opportunity to hide the crimes. Those who instead turn to the justice system -- either criminal or civil -- often fail to expose predators and protect kids because of the archaic, arbitrary and dangerously restrictive statutes of limitations or because of timid, deferential or inept police or prosecutors. In either case, bishops end up, again, with the chance to abuse their power, protect their reputations, hide their assets, circle their wagons, consult their lawyers, and activate their public relations maneuvers and plans.

It is these men, the bishops, and their nearly unchecked power, that is the problem, not the "bad apple" priests.

Berman: In Crosses, there are many stories of victims being violated once by the priest/nun and then by the church, which fails to acknowledge and rectify the abuse. Why do you think the church does this?

Clohessy: The shortest answer is Lord Acton's observation that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The church is a worldwide monarchy. Each bishop is the king of his own kingdom. He answers to virtually no one. There are nearly 5,000 bishops across the globe. Their "supervision" comes every five years, when in small groups they meet face-to-face with the Pope. So there is no real oversight or monitoring of bishops. They can practically do anything they want and get by with it.

Any other institution -- a corporation, a nonprofit, even a government -- must eventually respond to pressure from its constituents. The Catholic hierarchy doesn't. Thousands of horrific felonies, callous cover-ups, distracting lawsuits, expensive settlements, and stunning media exposes have had little, if any, impact on the men at the top. No bishop takes fewer vacations, eats fewer restaurant meals, does his own laundry, or risks losing his prestigious job because of the ongoing clergy sex abuse and cover-up scandal. Given that fact, why would we expect them to change?

Berman: What dioceses are currently facing lawsuits?

Clohessy: Dozens of unresolved clergy sex abuse and cover-up lawsuits are still pending in Boston, Kansas City, Colorado, and elsewhere.

Berman: Can you describe a current or ongoing situation where a diocese has been notified of a problematic priest or nun and done nothing despite enormous evidence?

Clohessy: Consider Fr. Donald McGuire. As far back as 1969, his crimes were reported to his Jesuit supervisors. Last year, he was criminally convicted of molesting two boys. Twice in the last two months, he's been accused in civil lawsuits of molesting boys in Chicago as recently as 2003 and 2004.

Yet McGuire remains free while he appeals his conviction, and the Jesuits let him live with friends in a Chicago suburb. SNAP has repeatedly begged the Jesuits to force him into a secure, remote treatment center so that kids can be safe and that he can get therapy. They ignore our pleas.

Twice in the last three years, St. Louis' archbishop has put out-of-state, sexually troubled priests in an inner city parish with a parochial school, with no warning to the parishioners. (One had sexually assaulted a female parishioner who had got a settlement from the priest's home diocese. The other had been found with child porn on his computer.)

Today, Fresno's bishop has a parish priest in active parish ministry who was found, by a jury in a civil trial last year, to have molested a boy. After the jury verdict, the bishop publicly said, "I still believe the priest is innocent."

Berman: SNAP has called for Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani to fire his friend and employee Monsignor Alan Placa. Why have you made that statement, and can you tell us about Monsignor Placa?

Clohessy: Placa is a priest at the Rockville Centre diocese in Long Island, who stands accused of molesting at least three boys. In 2003, in a thorough grand jury probe, Placa was found to have concealed dozens of molestation cases. (He wasn't charged because of the statute of limitations.) There's ample evidence showing that Placa consistently protected predators, shrewdly deceived victims and covered up horrific clergy sex crimes. By his own admissions, he never reported these devastating crimes to law enforcement, and he advised dozens of other Catholic officials across the country on how to do likewise. (Read the grand jury's report at BishopAccountability.org.)

He's also Rudy Giuliani's longtime friend and on Giuliani's payroll at the ex-mayor's consulting firm. We believe Giuliani has a moral duty to fire Placa and to publicly apologize to Long Island Catholics and Placa's victims for knowingly hiring a man who clearly, repeatedly and intentionally helped hide child sex crimes by clergy.

Berman: Can you tell me when SNAP was formed?

Clohessy: SNAP was started in 1989 in Chicago by a survivor named Barbara Blaine. SNAP now has roughly 8,000 members and self-help chapters in 65 cities.

Berman: Sexual abuse by clergy has been going on a long time, but in the past few years, it seems to have captured the public's attention. How did this happen, and what has SNAP's role been in keeping the issue alive?

Clohessy: Only very gradually and partially have thousands of clergy sex crimes and cover-ups finally begun to surface publicly in recent years. This crisis has started to garner widespread attention because of the courage of survivors, the outrage of parishioners, the persistence of journalists, the reforms of lawmakers and, to a lesser degree, the determination and creativity of police and prosecutors. But make no mistake about it: Everything starts with the courage of an individual survivor.

To put it another way, Martin Luther King said, "No lie lives forever."

Berman: Taking on the Catholic Church is a huge challenge. How do you do it, how do you win and what is the hardest or most frustrating part of the struggle?

Clohessy: Complacency, timidity and naïveté are the most frustrating parts of our work.

Some are complacent and comfort themselves by assuming that increased public awareness automatically means fewer offenses and deceit. That's a dangerous assumption. Molesters always have and will seek positions of access to and power over kids. Institutions, especially old, hierarchical, secretive, all-male ones, always have and always will tend to "protect their own."

Some are timid about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. If they share what they know, many Catholics even now say things like, "I may lose my church job." Or, "My kids may be kicked out of parochial school."

Finally, some are terribly naïve and believe bishops' relentless public relations claims that they've "learned" and "reformed."

We can engage in wishful thinking, foolishly believing that some policies and panels are "fixing everything." Or we can engage in realistic thinking, realizing that virtually none of the underlying causes of the crisis have been addressed. We can accept that the bishops' "reforms" are largely window dressing and keep pushing for real, effective remedies.

The Crosses book launch, an exhibition, will be held Nov. 1 from 7 to 10 p.m. at Gallery@Spencerlofts, 60 Dudley Street, Chelsea, Mass.

Crosses is published by Trolley Books. For more information, or to purchase the book, go to www.trolleybooks.com.

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