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Survivors Unite 

by Pia K. Hansen


Michael was 12 years old and collecting money for his paper route in Yakima, Wash., back in 1967. On his route, there was one household that paid more than any of the others. It was the house where his priest, Joseph Sondergeld -- then the only Monsignor of Yakima's St. Paul's Cathedral -- lived with his sister, Bertha. Michael knew he'd leave the priest's kitchen with a crisp $20 bill in his pocket. He also says he knew the priest would fondle him, "like he was a doctor." Months could pass between the molestation episodes.


"We always had to meet in the kitchen, because whenever his sister was home, she'd be in the kitchen," says Michael, who requested that we not use his full name. "So as long as we were in the kitchen, he'd know she wasn't in the house."


Sondergeld has passed away.


"He was 82 when he started molesting me. I'm just asking: How sick is that?" says Michael, adding that he was molested as many as seven times, sporadically, until he turned 14.


The last time the priest molested him, his sister came home unexpectedly in the middle of everything.


"She slammed the door open to the kitchen, and there we were. I had my pants down," says Michael. "She screamed, 'Oh no, Joseph, you're doing it again' and his face turned all red. I ran."





As is so often the case, Michael, who now lives in Spokane, kept his memories completely to himself, until he entered into counseling for other reasons in December 2000. During his counseling sessions, the question of abuse and molestation came up, and Michael again came face to face with what happened to him more than 30 years ago.


"It's hard to explain how you don't deal with something like that," says Michael. "I mean, you put it out of your mind. Away. You don't look for it. It's gone."


The last three months have brought Michael closer to understanding and remembering his own story, as he's been trying to dig up the details. At the same time, he has met many other people -- both men and women -- who say they were molested by priests as teenagers.


"I don't think I can explain what this does to people. Some come out of it, they face the molestation or the molester and get through it and become stronger people for that reason," Michael's voice trails off. "But some don't, and that's why we are starting this support group."


Together with another survivor, Michael is starting a local chapter of the national organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). The group meets for the first time on Tuesday, Sept. 24.


SNAP existed in relative obscurity for many years, until the molestation cases involving the Catholic Church started popping up across the nation earlier this year.


SNAP's Web site now averages more than 1,000 hits a day -- 10 times more than it did before the Catholic Church was hit with allegations of protecting priests that were also known child molesters.


Today, SNAP has about 4,000 members and is the largest organization in the country of its kind. There are at least two other survivor networks that cater to victims of molestation at the hands of priests: One is known as the Linkup, while the other, which also maintains a database of alleged perpetrators, is called Survivor Connections.


SNAP's Web site has several links to Internet-based discussion and support groups, archives of news stories and lists of alleged and convicted perpetrators. It also contains tips for survivors who consider talking to the press and advice on how to find a good therapist.





In the wake of the national scandals and recent allegations of abuse in Spokane and Rosalia, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane is also offering free counseling to victims of clergy abuse.


"This is evolving for us," says Maryann Heskett, development director for Catholic Charities. "Catholic Charities is not doing the counseling, but the Diocese is making counseling available to at no cost to victims who have been abused by clergy."


A list of local therapists victims can chose from will be provided by the Diocese.


So why doesn't Michael just go there?


"In June they agreed to give me counseling," says Michael. "But if they pay for it, they are entitled to a copy of the counseling report. Then it's no longer confidential. Who needs that? I don't."


Reverend Steven Dublinski, the diocese's vicar general, is in charge of the counseling program and he says any counseling reports are strictly confidential -- between the counselor and the client -- regardless of the fact that the Diocese is paying for the counseling.


"We just get the bill, we do not get the report," says Dublinski. "I think any counselor who handed over a report to anyone other than his client would have his license revoked."


A review board is set up within the diocese to determine who is entitled to counseling.


"Usually, people tell me a little of their story, and we go from there," says Dublinski. "But we respond pretty generously to people's needs. Yes, there are some people we are providing counseling for right now."


Obviously frustrated with the Catholic Church and its unwillingness to "come clean," as he puts it, Michael would rather rely on other organizations to help survivors. Two local counselors who are specialists in sexual abuse cases will facilitate the local SNAP meetings.


"The reason we formed this group is that we feel like we can't get anywhere with the church," says Michael. "They profess to be a moral and spiritual organization, but they have done nothing to help me or my family as a survivor of priest abuse."





SNAP meets on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7 pm at the Providence Building, Room 14, at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Call: 991-8834. For information on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane's counseling program, call Steven Dublinski at 358-7303.

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