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Speakers at Georgetown dialogue on child sex abuse look at 'path forward'


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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Some 60 years later, sexual abuse by a trusted priest is still vivid for Michael Nugent.

His 2002 accusation against Father Marion Snieg, who abused him at the parish school of St. Jane de Chantal in Chicago in 1959, when he was in the eighth grade, was part of an $8 million settlement in 2003 by the Archdiocese of Chicago involving 12 priests and 15 victims.

Father Snieg retired in January 2002 and withdrew from all public ministry in May of that year. He died in 2005.

But the pain has never left Nugent, he told a gathering called "A Path Forward: Conversation and Dialogue on Clerical Sexual Abuse" March 24. The event was sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

Nugent is now a member of the child protection advisory board of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Father Snieg, he recalled through tears, "specialized in abusing boys around the age of puberty. He had a bunch of seventh-graders that he would groom. He was very smooth. Very experienced."

The priest was even known to take certain boys on vacations. "So he would take two boys on his honeymoon. Every year, practically."

Father Snieg's abuse of Nugent involved pinning him up against shelves in the sacristy, with his considerable bulk blocking any view from anyone else who might walk in.

It took decades of blocking out the painful memories, in addition to an interview with a skeptical Chicago police officer who asked, "Why did you want so long?" and the painful disclosure to Nugent's wife and sons for him to process his anguish.

Finally, he was told, "It was not your fault. It was the beginning of my healing."

Nugent, a retired international representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has presented his own list of recommendations for clerical conduct to the advisory board.

Touching a child's shoulder is fine, but "no hugging." Also, no contact with children on social media unless a parent is copied in on the conversation.

And finally, citing the bitter memory of his abuse, "If there is only one altar server -- say Mass alone."

The abuse crisis has had its effect even at his current parish, Holy Trinity in Georgetown. Asked by an audience member if he had hope for future change, Nugent replied, "I don't know. I need evidence. I know just from my own count, the (Sunday) 9 o'clock Mass is not as well attended as it used to be. They're gone now. You can't get them back."

U.S. Catholic dioceses and eparchies have followed, since 2002, protocols for addressing abuse spelled out in the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The document spells out strict procedures for removing credibly accused abusers from ministry, for training children and all adults who work with them, and also created diocesan and national mechanisms to monitor compliance.

Last June, the report on the implementation of the charter showed a decrease in allegations of clergy sex abuse from the two previous years while indicating the need for continued vigilance since charges were raised by more than 650 adults and 24 minors. But accusations against former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick made public last year, even though they were from many years ago, have made many American Catholics feel that cover-ups have continued. Pope Francis laicized McCarrick in February.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Pontifical Gregorian University, praised the testimony from Nugent and Holy Trinity's compliance.

"I feel that if each and every single parish does what this parish has done, and so impressively, then things will change," the priest said.

The numbers of credible abuse cases "have dropped dramatically, and this is the result of the watertight system that you have established."

Kathleen Coogan, a member of the parish pastoral council at Holy Trinity, described efforts to make it "a possible model parish" for reporting abuse, even though there have been no accusations there for the past 40 years.

Father Zollner said Pope Francis realized, almost from the beginning of his papacy in 2013, "that the Catholic Church ... needs to face the issue head on," adding, "He wants to the whole church to own the issue."

Before the February Vatican summit on child protection, this had been problematic, Father Zollner observed, since bishops from Asia and Africa, particularly, believed "this is a Western issue. This does not happen in my country." But testimony of abuse survivors at the summit showed this to be untrue.

"I believe a lot of them never listened to stories of loneliness, rejection and hurt" that sexual abuse brings, said Father Zollner, one of the chief organizers of the summit.

In a March 15 interview with Vatican News, Zollner said he expected results "soon" on a couple of Vatican projects: the promulgation of guidelines for Vatican City State; and a "vademecum," or handbook, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explaining, how bishops and religious superiors should handle abuse allegations and how they should prepare the relevant documents for the doctrinal congregation when an accusation is found to be credible.

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