2014 SNAP Conference Report

From August 1 – 3, Kerry Louderback Wood* and I attended the 2014 Annual SNAP** Conference, which was also its Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Celebration, in Chicago, Illinois.

SNAP was founded in 1988 as a self-help support group for those who had been sexually violated, primarily by Catholic clergy. Early on, SNAP founders learned that church officials were more interested in protecting predators and their reputations, not in helping victims, just like the officials of Jehovah’s Witnesses were and are still doing.

Why This Undertaking

Our mission in attending the SNAP Conference was to bring greater attention to the plight of Jehovah’s Witness (JW) survivors of child sexual abuse primarily committed by elders and ministerial servants—the clergy of Jehovah’s Witnesses—and to inform the public how this religion’s beliefs inadvertently protect Witness pedophiles.

Kerry’s interest in this subject originated when, as a youth attending congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she observed that the church protected pedophiles and silenced victims and their families. Much later she learned it was because of the church’s religious belief, based on ancient Bible texts that protected members after their transgressions were brought to the attention of elders by injured members. This teaching instructs that an injured party provide another witness to an incident of sin or misconduct committed by a fellow believer. In the case of two members in congregations Kerry had attended, each committed the crime of child sexual abuse, which was handled as a sin rather than a crime, and hidden from the authorities. In both cases, since there was not another eyewitness to the incidents (which there usually is not) and the accused denied the wrongdoing, the complaints went nowhere. And the victims understood the church’s requirement to remain silent or be excommunicated.

In general, because of religious belief, if the accused confesses to a charge such as molestation and professes repentance, the religion forgives the offender and the victim has to do likewise. Just as bad, if the victims speaks publicly about the abuse, she/he might be excommunicated for gossip. For these reasons, the two predators in the congregations Kerry attended escaped punishment and the authorities were not called. As a result of this application of two religious beliefs, Jehovah’s Witnesses victims of child abuse are intimidated and outrageously silenced.

As for me, I have worked for 20 years helping Jehovah’s Witnesses sexual abuse victims in many ways, and have seen first-hand the strenuous efforts by Jehovah’s Witness leaders to silence victims and their families, suppress free speech, roadblock attorneys and courts, and protect predators.

Benefits Gained

At the SNAP Conference we found group leaders who were extremely supportive of why we were there and willing to assist us in any way they could. In the future, we will endeavor to work with them to do something about removing statutes of limitations in all states and on other important issues that affect the lives of abuse survivors.

The SNAP organization helps survivors of abuse heal through meetings held at SNAP chapters throughout the country. SNAP organizes efforts to change laws to better prosecute and hold liable predators and organizations that protect them. SNAP and Bishops Accountability (www.bishopsaccountability.org) help expose and track the whereabouts of suspected or convicted predators. SNAP is largely a Catholic group, but has as members a number of survivors from other religious denominations. SNAP is not anti-religion but is against organizational policies that act to protect sexual predators within the organization’s ranks. In fact, many SNAP members still attend church. However, some survivors have given up hope on organized religion, while others hope their church will mend its ways and, if it does, they will return.

SNAP Highlights

The conference brought together survivors along with social workers, psychologists, philosophers, and attorneys. SNAP members understood that the conference could trigger memories and emotions, and offered a “quiet room” for victims who needed a break or guidance.

During the conference, when hearing of the ordeal survivors went through, it was obvious that they still suffer from the damaging effects of abuse. Men and women told personal stories of being groomed by clergy predators, leading to molestation. We heard about the paralyzing fear they faced when they knew they were about to be raped once again, and the darkness and terror they felt, unable to stop the abuse by someone their community and family respected.

Some victims told of bringing their abuse to their church leaders’ attention, believing that the officials would take swift action against those who committed abhorrent sins. Their hopes and faith were squelched as the churches marginalized them, kicking their stories to the sidelines and exalting their predators. Churches actively allowed the predators to remain within the flock, only to abuse others. Churches found ways to silence the victims, preventing the criminal acts from being reported to the police. Victims’ communities also silenced and marginalized them. Whether the stories were about clergy in the Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, or some other denomination, they were all the same.

Powerful? or Powerless?

Some survivors’ power became immediately apparent as we listened closely to their stories. To get through extreme abuse and torture, their brains repressed abusive memories, but the repressed memories came alive upon a triggering event, such as the death of the abuser. Other survivors never repressed their abuse and lived each day trying to deal with it. For those abused in the worst ways imaginable, they loathed goodhearted comments such as, “Just deal with it,” “get over it,” or “the past is the past.” We learned that the abused find coping skills to ground themselves to the present. Whether it’s wearing a special ring they touch or simply feeling the ground beneath their feet, they have found ways to remind themselves they are safe today.

According to one expert, survivors who admit their maltreatment to someone they trust can regain their power, which many feel they lost by being abused. And those who are honored to receive a survivor’s story respect confidentiality. Even if the ability to prosecute a clergy molester has long passed or the perpetrator is deceased, filing a police report serves as a way for the survivor to regain power that what was done to him was a crime. Reporting to the police also serves as an important tool to publicly document the abuse and to bring together other abuse victims. Many lawsuits can be started, not using the victim’s name, but in the name of John or Jane Doe. By doing so, the victims aren’t identified within their communities, and other victims realize that lawsuits can be brought without compromising their privacy.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who handles many sexual abuse cases, boiled it down to this: The victim’s healing transformation from being powerless to powerful is achieved through applying heat to the perpetrator through reporting to the police and utilizing the media and judicial system. Anderson stated that organizations that hide pedophiles are very afraid of victims who are willing to speak; thus, if a victim understands this, it gives them power and the upper hand.

Failure and Success

Some survivors have turned to addiction or have committed suicide. Many have a condition known as Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome.

Sadly, in some countries such as Poland and Chile, we heard that merely accusing a priest of sexual abuse has led to loss of jobs, friends, and community. Even the media shames victims by calling them troublemakers. In South America, victims and witnesses have died under suspicious circumstances. In Australia, the Royal Commission’s investigation of sex abuse in many organizations and churches led to information about the “Red Mass.” Red Mass is an event in which the Catholic Church meets with judges, attorneys, law school professors, students, government officials, politicians, and even police officials to gain strategic alliances. Until the Royal Commission investigation, authorities were unwilling to investigate or prosecute religious denominations for sex abuse. Steven Unthank, a former Jehovah’s Witness, has long complained about this perplexing situation in Australia.

SNAP’s pivotal achievement was to partner with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR; www.ccrjustice.org/snap) to bring the Catholic sex scandal to the United Nations (UN). The Vatican, known as the “Holy See,” is an observer state in the UN. The Holy See can be subject to UN committees. CCR brought complaints to two expert committees, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture. CCR submitted its report, which contained more than 22,000 pages of documented sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church. The committees met privately with CCR and victims. The Convention on the Rights of the Child issued a report, which the Holy See is supposed to follow and report back to the UN. The mandates recommended that the Catholic Church can no longer lobby to adopt laws that would prevent victims from bringing suit and which require them to sign confidentiality agreements. In addition, the Church must help parents locate children the Church took away for adoption, must financially support children whose fathers are Catholic clergy, and must not impose confidentiality agreements on the mothers. To understand how the Church took children away from their parents, on Saturday evening the movie Philomena was shown.

Change Comes

The new Pope, Francis, has made a formal apology for the Church’s “sins of omissions” and met with five victims. This effort is more than other denominations have done and is a ray of hope for all abuse victims. However, Pope Francis has an uphill battle changing the Catholic Church, which has a long-standing history of permitting predator priests and nuns to remain in positions of authority and of silencing dissent. For instance, Pope John Paul II appointed “yes men” to the position of bishop based on their stand against contraceptives, gay marriage and married priests. Further, Pope John Paul II set an environment of hushing dissent and of not airing the Church’s dirty laundry.

While Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded Pope John Paul II, defrocked more than 400 priests for sexual abuse, critics point out that he did not report the abuse to the police nor help victims. Many hope that Pope Francis may be able to change the uncaring in-house environment at the Vatican. Now bishops are wondering if they should change their ways, like giving up living in mansions or flying first class, in order to prove their humility to the Pope. Until Pope Francis sheds errant clergy, the culture that accepts and covers up abuse will continue.

Pope Francis is also faced with finding replacements, as the number of men in the ministry has declined. Many good thinkers and moral men and women have simply left the Church because of the child abuse cover-up. Critics have pointed out that the Catholic Church immediately removes any clergy who openly preach against core Church doctrines, so the question remains: why are known predator priests and bishops still allowed to hold posts? Critics also wonder whether Pope Francis is insincerely saying a few concerned words while the abuse continues, because after researching his past actions as a Church official in Buenos Aires, they discovered that he may have silently protected predators.

Abuse by Protestant Clergy

One conference speaker was Boz Tochvidjian, grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham. Surprisingly, he condemned the way most Protestant denominations handle sexual abuse cases in light of their supposed Christian doctrine. He said that the lives and souls of those who trusted Jesus were violated by organized religions purporting to follow Him. He also pointed out that the churches often marginalize, shun, and ignore victims of child abuse and view them as tainted, while treating the perpetrators as righteous. Some believing victims think that God is testing them by wanting them to forgive and forget. Victims, he pointed out, carry a tremendous amount of shame, and wonder about their self-worth. Yet, Jesus taught authentic compassion in the Good Samaritan story.

Tochvidjian reminded the audience that Jesus sought out endearing contact with children and greatly admonished the disciples who hindered that relationship. Jesus taught that the church was at its best when humble, open and transparent. The Bible teaches that authorities, such as the police and government, are appointed and used by God.

Furthermore, he noted that Protestant churches have undoubtedly engaged in silencing victims, covering-up predators, and extensive maneuvering in the judicial and political systems, showing gross disrespect for the rule of law. Jesus sacrificed Himself for the souls of others, but he said our Christian churches sacrifice their people. Churches walk by making “pious excuses” for their actions, illustrating that the Bride of Christ obviously doesn’t know what Christ even looks like. The actions of too many churches and their leaders’ abysmal response to clergy abuse directly keep children from coming to God and has hindered the faith of millions. Tochvidjian emphasized that people are coming to know the clergy by their ugly fruits.

Those Who Made a Difference

During the conclusion of the conference, many SNAP leaders were lauded for their years of good works in behalf of survivors. SNAP’s 2014 Lay Person of the Year award went to Kathy Shaw for using her journalist skills to prod the public and authorities to help protect the innocent and vulnerable from abuse. She helped create the Abuse Tracker, a blog that contains a database made up of names of credibly accused clerics and information from survivors that helps to bring about justice.

Also hard-working attorneys were commended for years of diligence in obtaining justice for victims of clergy abuse. Larry Drivon was praised for his “commitment to the advancement of individual rights, civil liberties and for breaking down barriers that denied justice to wounded victims of child sex crimes.” (If it weren’t for Mr. Drivon’s efforts in the late 1980s and early 90’s to motivate the California legislature to move forward and establish in 2002 a “window year” for victims to report their abuse no matter how long ago it happened, 16 victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses molesters would not have been able to file nine lawsuits in that year, which led to out-of-court settlements with the Watchtower for $12.5 million.) Attorney Stephen Rubino was also extolled for his “pioneering commitment to the advancement of individual rights, civil liberties and deep compassion for survivors of sexual violence”. Last, but not least, Attorney Jeffrey Anderson was applauded for his “groundbreaking work to protect children, heal victims, reform laws, and expose cover ups while showing incredible compassion to and empowering, survivors of sexual violence.”

In Conclusion

All in all, it was our pleasure to attend the SNAP Conference and meet and learn from bustling and productive SNAP leaders and members. What a stimulus and tonic it was for us in our work of exposing the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses that protect pedophiles rather than children, and in our efforts to lobby for change through many different means.

Barbara Anderson and Kerry Louderback Wood

*Kerry Louderback Wood is an attorney who resides in Florida. She is a former Jehovah’s Witness who left the religion when she was a teenager. Kerry’s 40+-page article, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Blood, and the Tort of Misrepresentation, was published in the 2005 Winter Edition of the Journal of Church and State.

**SNAP is short for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Their website is www.snapnetwork.org.

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