Don Weber had no idea what he was getting himself into when he said yes to a request made by Diocese of Spokane Bishop William Skylstad nearly a year and half ago. In February 2003, General Vicar Steve Dublinski called Weber on behalf of Skylstad.
"He asked me to get a few people together from my congregation, those from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests [SNAP] and other interested parties like Voice of the Faithful [VOTF]," says Weber, who is the parish administrator at St. Aloysius Church. "He said Bishop Skylstad wanted the Diocese to have better communication with the victims and wanted me to act as an intermediary."
Just a month earlier, on a cold winter night in January 2003, Weber's parish hosted a meeting at St. Al's to discuss the American Catholic Bishops' response to the sexual abuse crisis that was rocking the church. They showed a video highlighting the charter -- the big document that had been drafted by the bishops as their defining response to victims of clergy sexual abuse. On the screen were these words from Article One: The first obligation of the Church with regard to the victims is for healing and reconciliation.
"Victims came to that gathering, and it was positive," says Weber, who is not a priest. "It was the beginning of a transformation for me. The biggest change for me, since that first meeting, was getting to the point where I call sexual abuse victims my friends."
At the request of the diocese, Weber created a Diocesan Sexual Abuse Committee, based at St. Al's. Wanting to do something concrete within the spirit of the charter, the committee discussed what healing might look like for victims of clergy sexual abuse. "We wanted to act on the victims' behalf and not just exist to make the diocese look good," says Weber. "We decided to find out how serious they were about the victims' healing and reconciliation."
It was seen as a way to create a conversation between the victims and those interested in pulling the church through the crisis. In theory, such an internal effort might lead toward the healing and reconciliation for all who have been wounded by the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal. In practice, however, the results have been mixed.
Having read the charter passages where the bishops asked each diocese "to provide counseling to victims of sexual abuse," the new committee began talking to Bishop Skylstad about changing its counseling policy of sexual abuse victims.
"One of the leaders of SNAP had been abused by a Yakima priest but wanted counseling here," says Weber. "But the diocese refused to pay for it, since it didn't happen in Spokane. Our thinking was, why not take care of any victim who was in our diocese now in good faith, instead of forcing the victim to have to deal with more red tape and seek reimbursement elsewhere?"
Weber says his committee immediately sensed it had crossed an invisible line with the diocese. They'd also asked the bishop to consider paying for Spokane SNAP co-founder Molly Harding's long distance phone bills, since she was the main person reaching out to sexual abuse victims in the church, and to support the local SNAP chapter by sending a couple of its members to a national convention.
"Skylstad told me he'd take it under consideration," says Weber. "But I never heard back from the bishop."
The silence from the diocese towards Weber and the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Committee continued, even as Weber and his new friends from SNAP and other interested members of St. Al's began to hold listening sessions in the basement of their church, where men and women of faith were able to tell and hear the details of lives forever changed by clergy sexual abuse.
"You can't fully understand the crisis until you hear victims describe their feelings that God sexually abused them," says Weber. "Because the priest represented God to them, their lives have been forever changed. I realize as a Christian, if we've taken God away from them, that's as terrible as it gets."
Still, Bishop Skylstad says he supports the work of the committee. "It has been one of my goals to reach out to victims of sexual abuse by clergy," says Skylstad. "As part of this effort, I realized that there were many victims that were unable to approach diocesan personnel or my self directly. We need to be flexible, to create avenues for victims to communicate with the diocese, even if only indirectly. Don Weber and the community of St. Aloysius were already building a relationship of trust with some victims who were finding it difficult to relate directly to the diocese. I am grateful to Don and the members of his committee who have worked diligently to help victims find paths to healing. We are hopeful that the path to reconciliation has begun. I continue to encourage victims to come forward so that the healing process can begin for them as well."
Of course, coming forward for many victims has resulted in lawsuits against the Diocese of Spokane. It's an extremely costly situation for the Catholic Church; in fact, the Diocese of Portland recently declared bankruptcy as a direct result of mounting legal costs associated with lawsuits alleging damages from abuse by priests. Weber says his experience is that if victims -- victims like Mike Shea (see "A Victim's Story," page 15) were embraced earlier, some litigation may have been avoided.
"From almost all the victims I've gotten to know, I'm convinced litigation was not on their minds initially," says Weber. "They went looking for attorneys because they were frustrated by the response of the diocese. They were looking for some sense of truth and answers to why this happened."
By the fall of 2003, Weber still hadn't heard from Skylstad regarding some of his committee's specific requests. But he did learn that auditors were coming to see how the Diocese of Spokane was doing at implementing guidelines from the charter.
"I told the diocese that the victims' voices must be heard," says Weber. "For their healing and reconciliation, victims must know that this audit is not a sham."
Weber was told that any victim who was in litigation would not be heard, but that three victims selected by the diocese could meet with auditors. He was also told he would be able to meet with auditors -- not as a representative of the diocesan-appointed sexual abuse committee, but as a key lay administration person.
"The auditors didn't really have a category for a person who was head of a sexual abuse committee," says Dublinski, the vicar general of the Diocese of Spokane. "But Don Weber is not a priest, which makes it easier for victims of priests to trust him, and we wanted to make sure he was heard."
Weber sees it differently: "I was shocked," he says. "The two ex-FBI men seemed to have no interest in listening to me." Weber claims their yellow legal tablets were blank when they left. "Instead of taking notes on my concerns about how victims were being treated, they were trying to convince me the diocese was doing a good job." When the audit report came out, it gave specific commendations to the diocese for "the way it has attempted to reach out to victims," but Weber felt his comments were not reflected in the final report.
Weber pulls out a letter that Bishop Skylstad published in the spring of 2003. Entitled "Commonly Asked Questions and Answers," one of the questions was, "How are your meetings with victims and their advocates going?"
The Bishop responded: "We are currently in the process of forming a joint committee of victims, family members of victims and diocesan staff for the purpose of improving two-way communications between victims and our staff. I'm cautiously optimistic that as victims, their families, and victim advocates see we really are 'walking the talk' they'll be even more willing to join us in our efforts to ensure these things never happen again."
As he reads Skylstad's words again, Weber shakes his head. As the leader "of the only joint committee with victims as members" he wonders "who gets to decide if the diocese is 'walking the talk?" From the moment he said yes to the Bishop a year and half ago, Weber assumed he'd find out the answer by talking to victims.
"The diocese has tried in different ways to connect with victims, but they have failed," says Weber. "Because they want to control the reaching out to the victims. It's a power thing, because they want to protect the institution."
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Publication date: 07/29/04