By John T. Gillespie
Special to the CS&T
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is considering plans to create an independent entity to provide services to victims of sexual abuse by Church personnel.
The organization would be funded by the Archdiocese but run separately so that victims, often estranged from the Catholic Church, would not have to deal directly with the institution.
Services to victims of sexual abuse will still be made available by the archdiocesan Victims Assistance Program, and it will also support victims who opt to use the new separate entity.
The plan is part of a broader strategy urged by Mary Achilles, the victims’ services consultant for the Archdiocese, to separate the investigation of sex-abuse allegations against priests or other Church workers from the care for victims of abuse.
The strategy includes the recent naming of Al Toczydlowsky as delegate for investigations and a soon to be named new director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection. Previously, that office had combined both the investigative and victims assistance functions.
In a wide ranging interview last week, Achilles said the revised strategy reflects a fundamental change in the Archdiocese’s approach to the abuse scandal.
“It’s changed from an overwhelming preoccupation with the impact of the scandal on the Church’s reputation to a stronger focus on victims and their needs,” she said.
The new approach confronts one of the most persistent criticisms of the Catholic Church’s response to the sex abuse scandal: that it has been more concerned with shielding its reputation and potential liability than helping victims, many of them traumatized by their experience.
As a measure of its changed attitudes to the needs of victims, the Archdiocese now spends far more money on therapy for victims than it used to, according to Achilles.
In 2006, the year Achilles was first hired by Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Archdiocese spent $475,334 for victim therapy and counseling. So far in the 2011 fiscal year, which runs from July 2010 to June 2011, the Archdiocese spent $1.2 million. And that figure, Achilles said, is climbing. Payment for counseling expenses is given more or less unconditionally, she added.
“Victim assistance is about empowering the victims,” Achilles said. “If they don’t want to talk to us but only want us to pay for their counseling, that’s fine. The important thing is they drive the bus.”
In the past, the Archdiocese reported allegations of abuse to law enforcement authorities. But some adult victims working with the Archdiocese did not want to report their allegation to authorities. In such cases victims were asked to sign a so-called “prohibition to report” form, in effect prohibiting the Archdiocese from reporting the cases.
Critics called the practice an example of the Church’s attempts to conceal the extent of sex abuse and limit its liability. Achilles proposed a new initiative in which the Archdiocese has ceased using the form.
Achilles was hired as a consultant by Cardinal Rigali after the first grand jury report on sex abuse in 2005 and then rehired her last January in anticipation of the second grand jury report.
As the first ever Victim Advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, she was part of a team that worked to develop standards for services to victims of crime. She wants the Archdiocese to adopt similar standards.
“We want to build and frame a victim assistance program that stands shoulder to shoulder with other award-winning victim assistance programs in Pennsylvania,” Achilles said. “Whether these are inside the Church or outside it are secondary.”
Achilles was candid is discussing the Archdiocese’s attempts to regain the trust of the faithful and of those who have been victimized.
“For Catholics there’s an added layer for those who have been sexually abused by a priest. Their faith is intrinsically linked to the crime committed against them. I never want to say that one victimization is worse than another, but there is a uniqueness about clergy sex abuse,” she said.
The creation of a victims’ assistance unit that is separate and independent from the Church administration, she said, “tells victims there is no requirement to trust the Church.”
“This will be an organization where they can go and get counseling, where their confidence and privacy are maintained and where the only thing that really matters is what happens to them as victims,” she said.
Achilles understands that victims often do not trust the Church “and that creates a barrier to service,” she said. “The Church has a moral obligation to recognize that and to create a path past that barrier.”
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse may obtain assistance in the Victims Assistance Program at 1-888-800-8780 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish.