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Parishioners Reach Out To Sex Abuse Survivors

This weekend in Portland, a group of Catholic lay people have organized a symposium on clergy sex abuse.

The event is not put on by the Archdiocese of Portland or the traditional clergy abuse survivor groups.  Instead, several parishioners are trying to form a group that they say will fill an important need.   Colin Fogarty reports.

Virginia Jones of Portland is a convert to Catholicism.  Her devotion to the faith is so fierce that it could not be broken by the clergy sex abuse scandal.  It survived the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Portland.

Jones’s devotion even remained after the priest who baptized her was accused of sex abuse.  But Jones felt a deep connection to the victims of clergy sex abuse because she was abused too, although not by a priest.

So she’s organizing a group called Compassionate Gathering, parishioners who simply want to listen to the stories of people who have been abused by priests.

Virginia Jones:  "What I want to do is I want to get actual practical projects on the ground such as abuse listening groups in parishes to support survivors coming forward and also to encourage Catholics to listen compassionately to survivors.  I want to do active outreach."

Jones also wants to create a fund for victims having trouble paying their bills.  And she’s organized a symposium on the issue this weekend in Portland. 

In her mind, the very future of the church is at stake.  Jones says she took inspiration from a story about St Francis of Assisi, who in the 13th century stood before a dilapidated church.

Virginia Jones:  "And Jesus spoke to him from the crucifix and said 'Francis, Go rebuild my church'.  And a few years later, he realized it was 'I have to rebuild the Catholic church'."

Many victims of clergy sex abuse have found comfort in advocacy groups like SNAP — Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests and Voice of the Faithful.

Jones’s group  appears to be the first organization in Oregon of Catholic parishioners formed solely to reach out to victims.  But such efforts have been going on quietly across the country.

That’s according to John Allan, a reporter and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.  He was traveling through Oregon this week.  Allan says groups like the Compassionate Gathering step in between what has been an adversarial relationships between church leaders and the victims who are suing them.

John Allan: "It has been to some extent a very unpleasant dynamic.  However, away from the rattle and hum of public debate, I think there have been efforts many places to try put bishops and victims and sympathetic laity in rooms and to listen one another and see where those conversations can go."

The Archdiocese of Portland has not been involved in the symposium being organized this weekend.  But spokesman Bud Bunce says the church welcomes it.

Bud Bunce: "There’s definitely a place in the church for these people and you know even those that have sued, there’s still a place for them also.  So we hope that it’ll be a very positive kind of thing for those involved in this conference."

The clergy sex abuse symposium this weekend includes the showing of “Hand of God”, a documentary by the brother of a clergy sex abuse survivor in Boston.

In fact, the film makers will attend the conference.  The documentary presents a scathing view of church leaders and their handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Like the film makers, many victims say they’ve left the church for good.  So had another of the symposium’s organizers, Elizabeth Goeke.  She says she was sexually abused in her 20s in Illinois. Now she’s a mental health counselor and talks with other victims of clergy sex abuse.

Goeke says while all the attention on the clergy sex abuse drove many away from the Catholic church, it allowed her to return after a long absence.

Elizabeth Goeke: "It’s been over 40 years which is Biblical.  A lot of people wondered around for 40 years.  And I’m not alone.  There are an whole lot of us who are in our aging years who have wondered around for 40 years. At this point I am able to hold both the ugliness as well as the incredible beauty of this tradition.  It’s the one I was born into and it’s the one that shapes me."

The symposium on clergy sex abuse this weekend takes place at the historic Hollywood Theater in northeast Portland.  Organizers say they have no idea how many people will show up.

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