For victims of abuse by Catholic priests in South Carolina, the past month has opened up old wounds but also sparked new hope.
Since the 1990s, reports have surfaced implicating priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston in child abuse dating back to at least the 1950s — cases that for years were handled in isolation.
As in other dioceses across the country, most of these incidents were handled internally by church leaders. Priests quietly resigned or were shipped off to other jurisdictions. Many victims did not want the publicity of a criminal investigation or trial.
On March 29, the Bishop of Charleston, Robert E. Guglielmone, released four lists with the names of 42 priests who, according to a panel of South Carolina churches, had brought credible charges of sexual misconduct against them. children.
Many heralded the decision as a long overdue step in the healing process, a public acknowledgment by diocesan leaders of years of pain and betrayal felt by victims, and a chance for the church and her flock to begin to go forward.
In the weeks since the listings were released, however, lawyers, victim advocates and others have questioned whether church leaders have done enough and what should follow.
Guglielmone and other local church leaders have taken and will continue to take action to help victims heal, said Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the diocese. The bishop has held seven public meetings with parishioners across the state since November.
“During these meetings, he answered questions about the sexual abuse crisis within the Diocese of Charleston and the Universal Church,” she said. “Furthermore, he listened carefully to the pain that victims have suffered and the grief that Catholics have felt because of child sexual abuse within the Church.”
Parishioners have told church leaders that these meetings are an important step in the healing process, Aselage said.
Comments on the list itself have been mixed, she said.
“Several callers supported the Bishop and his decision to release the names,” Aselage said. “Other communications came from people surprised and hurt to learn that certain priests were on the list.”
A tough road
In March, as he released the names of the accused priests, Guglielmone said he hoped the decision would contribute to the healing of the victims and their families who were “grievously hurt by the betrayal of the priests and leaders of the church”.
“We must also honor the courage of those who have come forward to share the most intimate and painful experiences of their entire lives,” he said. “I am heartbroken for the victims and the damage this has caused to them and their families.”
Victims of traumatic experiences can face an arduous road, said Rich Robinson, senior chaplain and executive director of Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy in Charleston. In addition to psychological, emotional and other issues, many also face a crisis of faith.
“It really hits us when we see the evils of humanity in the sacred,” Robinson said. “Our healing comes when we invite the sacred back into our humanity. In our darkness, we must do it with God.”
Part of a chaplain’s job is to help victims reconcile what happened to them with God’s grace, he said. This journey involves a delicate balance between guiding a victim on their journey of faith without minimizing the abuse they have experienced.
Guilty or not?
A former priest on the diocese list says the accusation of abuse on his part is not justified. His lawyer tried to remove his name from the list, but only got a footnote.
Father Gabe Smith, who had been a program director at a Pittsburgh Catholic institute for emotionally challenged youth, had moved on to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Charleston when an allegation came through from the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The allegation alleged that Smith had given pornographic material decades earlier to a youth at the institute. Two years after the allegation, the Holy See of the Vatican cleared Smith, and he was reinstated until he retired from ministry last year.
As the Diocese of Charleston prepared to release its list, Smith was told his name would be on it.
Smith said he “nearly fell off the chair” when he first heard about the allegation more than a decade ago, but said he was not embarrassed when the last month’s list was released. Many former parishioners expressed their love and support.
“Does it hurt? He did,” he said, but “I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why be ashamed? Why be embarrassed?
His attorney Bill Runyon handled Smith’s appeal against the church’s findings. Although Smith was cleared by Vatican officials, Runyon was unable to remove Smith’s name from the list. Runyon said the list was the result of a flawed process.
“It’s not a transparent system,” he said.
Runyon noted that other church affiliates, such as Eddie Fischer, who taught at Sacred Heart in Charleston, were not named because the list only included priests.
Fischer, a teacher at several Charleston schools, was arrested in 1997 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison for molesting underage boys. He died while serving his sentence in 2002.
Other members of the church hierarchy also had allegations against them and were later cleared by the church, Runyon said. Unlike Smith, they were not named.
Asked why Smith was included, Aselage said the diocese did not provide any details about the allegations or specific information relating to the priests other than the list itself.
Ongoing legal battles
On March 18, Gregg Meyers, a Charleston attorney who has represented numerous clients in cases related to abuse by Catholic priests, filed a federal lawsuit against the diocese on behalf of Michael Cassabon – an ordained Catholic priest in the Diocese of Charleston which is currently on leaving the church. Cassabon brought abuse charges against one of the 42 priests appointed by the diocese, Hayden Vaverek.
According to the lawsuit, Vaverek sexually abused Cassabon on multiple occasions in 1997 and 1998 while Cassabon was a student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville.
A teacher there, Neil O’Connor, “facilitated the complainant’s sexual abuse by repeatedly driving him to Vaverek in Greenwood,” according to the suit.
Neither the school nor O’Connor are named as defendants in the case.
“We are aware of the lawsuit, and although we are not a party to it, we will monitor its progress through the justice system,” said Keith Kiser, director of St. Joseph.
O’Connor resigned from his position at the school on March 5 after press inquiries about his connection to Vaverek, the lawsuit said. Vaverek could not be reached for comment.
The former priest had been the subject of complaints since the mid-1990s and ‘ceased to function in his ministry’ in 1998, but was reinstated by the Bishop of Charleston Robert Baker in 1990 or 2000 without serious investigation into abuse complaints, alleged costume.
Cassabon first reported Vaverek’s abuse to diocesan officials in 2013, according to the lawsuit. The abuse left Cassabon with lasting injuries and his mental health suffered enough that he became suicidal at one point.
Cassabon submitted further reports of his abuse in 2017, to Guglielmone in 2018, and on January 14 this year to the papal nuncio in Washington, DC, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in the United States.
On February 15, Guglielmone responded to Cassabon with a letter offering “pastoral assistance” but stating that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to discuss his request, and with a canonical warning, which begins a process that could revoke the priesthood of Cassabon.
Copies of correspondence between Cassabon and Guglielmone were included in the legal documents.
Bishop and Cassabon exchanged emails in which Cassabon said he believed Guglielmone’s response was retaliation, and Bishop said the action was not personal and he was coerced into accept it because of a communication from the papal nuncio.
The lawsuit alleges that Guglielmone intentionally caused emotional distress to Cassabon and retaliated against him for reporting to the papal nuncio.
Meyers said he believed the church’s failures stemmed from the belief that the protection of a priest is more important than the protection of the laity and a desire to avoid scandal.
“I think there won’t really be a fundamental change in the organization until bishops start being punished for any act of tolerance (by abusive priests),” Meyers said.
Responding to the lawsuit, Aselage said the relationship between Cassabon and Guglielmone “involves internal canonical procedure and is confidential.”
Lawyers for the diocese will formally respond to the lawsuit, she said.
Blake Warenik, director of communications for the National Children’s Alliance, said there are important steps anyone can take to support victims, the most important of which is to believe them.
“At the heart of this story is a child who was hurt by someone he trusted,” Warenik said. “The simplest thing people can do is believe (victims).”
The actions taken so far by the Diocese of Charleston are commendable but need to be followed by further action, he said.
The church must have clear guidelines in place for reporting abuse, Warenik said. There needs to be a culture change in which abuses are first reported to law enforcement or other civil authorities.
“Every failure stems from the initial failure to prioritize the needs of the victim and to try to limit the damage to the institution,” he said.
“For this to work, there has to be a culture where you’re not going to see the boss. You personally call to report (law enforcement). Everyone has to understand that you’re not going to have a trouble for reporting – you’re going to get in trouble if you don’t report it.”
And on an individual level, it’s important for victims to come to terms with what happened to them so they can ultimately come to a place of forgiveness — a process that can be incredibly complicated and arduous, Robinson said.
“Forgiveness is deeply rooted in our theology,” the chaplain said. “When I forgive, I release myself (but) forgiveness only happens when we hold the truth in our hands and recognize it. Forgiveness should never be a false peace. We still have to face what is ‘has passed.”
The diocesan Office of Family Life has planned a series of workshops aimed at helping all victims of child sexual abuse, including those abused by priests, Aselage said.
Local church leadership hopes to give victims the tools they need to lay the foundation for healing in an environment where they can share their stories and build community with other victims, she said.
The first workshop was held in January in Rock Hill, Aselage said. A second will be held Saturday in Charleston at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in West Ashley from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.