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VictimPower team answers CWN readers' concerns

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Jan 08, 2005

Our headline story about VictimPower-- the new web site for abuse victims-- prompted quite a few "Sound Off" comments from CWN readers, with many people expressing concerns about the potential for false accusations. I asked Stephen Galebach, the legal advisor to the VictimPower project, to respond to many of our readers' concerns. Here is his reply:

I have followed with interest the comments on this site since our launch of www.victimpower.org on January 6, which was accurately covered by CWN. As a member of the VictimPower team, I share the concern about false accusations and about the importance of verifying complaints. Several points bear emphasis:

1. VictimPower.org makes it possible for authorities to ask follow-up questions of anonymous complainants. This was never possible before. If someone submits an anonymous complaint by mail or phone, anonymity by its nature means that follow-up is impossible. Internet technology changes all that. In order to submit an anonymous complaint via VictimPower, a user must first set up a private account, which functions like a P.O. Box that only the user can access. Responses and questions from authorities are posted to the private account so the user can access them and respond further. Follow-up questioning is often essential to any serious effort to verify information and weed out false accusations from valid reports.

2. False accusations were possible before Jan 6, and VictimPower does nothing to make them easier. Users of the site are given prominent notice that making a false accusation of a crime is itself a crime.

3. VictimPower does not publicize accusations, it simply transmits them to authorities selected by the user-- local police, district attorney, national office of non-Catholic churches, diocesan contact for Catholic churches.

4. Actual experience will speak volumes here. This is a new technology, and time will tell what type of reports it brings forward. So far, reports have been of a serious nature that deserve to be submitted to authorities and that deserve a response. Determining veracity and credibility is for the authorities, of course.

5. I have limited knowledge of diocesan procedures since the enactment of the zero-tolerance policy, but what I do know indicates that VictimPower can be a big step forward from current practice. Under the current policy, if a church authority receives an anonymous written or telephonic complaint against a priest, the bishop is obligated to suspend the priest if the allegation is "credible." Trying to evaluate credibility of an accusation without opportunity to question the accuser must be a daunting task in many instances. Brushing off anonymous complaints is not the answer either, since many valid accusations do come from persons who would only report if they could stay anonymous. Two-way communication between an authority and an anonymous complainant is a useful improvement, both for verifying accurate reports, and for weeding out false ones.

Finally, this is not an effort to tear down the Church or challenge doctrine. I'm a father of ten, I've homeschooled my kids in the faith, and this project has been an outstanding opportunity to work with my older children (one of them did the computer programming, others did parts of the massive research and database compilation, along with a team of other young people) based on a principle that I fervently believe: Lay people have a calling to defend the Church when it is attacked. I've fought other attacks in my time, in the areas of abortion and religious liberty-- but none so threatening as the attack on the Church by predators from inside.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AMandatoryAlias - Jan. 10, 2005 11:44 PM ET USA

    VP? Sure, the explanation sounds good, so I can go along with it, pending item 4. But here's my question/complaint/whine/rant/whatever. Are there really people out there who are victims of clerical sexual abuse who still feel "unsafe" coming forward? I'm sorry, but I'm losing my patience with this whole thing. I guess I'm at the point where I feel that we should stop "begging" victims to come forward. Do it or don't, but let's get it over with. Dang!

  • Posted by: wormwood - Jan. 10, 2005 7:02 PM ET USA

    Why all the attention to the small number of abusers in the Catholic Church and none to the 6000+ cases within the Jehovah's Witnesses that they absolutely refuse to acknowledge? Where are the prosecutors, newsmen, lawyers? Why doesn't someone sue the media for damages done to the Church by prejudicial "reporting"? And what about forgiveness, redemption and grace-filled recovery for the priests who did abuse?

  • Posted by: - Jan. 10, 2005 4:11 PM ET USA

    However noble the intention, VP opens yet another venue for false allegations. I have seen nothing from law enforcement agencies, social service organizations or even the Church that addresses the issue of restoring a priest's credibility after a false accusation. Has anyone considered a way of using "new technology" to protect priests against this? I pray for every victim of abuse but this ugly scandal has created an entirely new set of victims.

  • Posted by: skladach - Jan. 09, 2005 12:39 PM ET USA

    Mr. Galebach's explanation (the on-line method makes two-way communication with an anonymous source possible) now convinces me that there is no additional cause for concern about false accusations. Mega-dittoes to Gil's comments about making the mechanics clear in press releases.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2005 11:20 PM ET USA

    Well done, Sir. I especially respond favorably to your point number 4. This has been a valuable exchange for me, and I hope for you.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 08, 2005 10:12 PM ET USA

    The very fact that an organization such as "VictimPower" would have to exist is a profound tragedy... It is truly an indication of the depth of the defectiveness of our Hierarchy and the gross circumvention of Canon Law. It is quite true... Who is the greatest enemy of the Church but those who betray Her from within?

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jan. 08, 2005 8:13 PM ET USA

    This all seems very reasonable. As a lifelong newsman and sometime public relations counsel may I suggest that this information be incorporated into the announcement when it is disseminated in future? If it had been there, I, for one, would not have had the negative reaction to VP that I did. I'm sure Mr. Galebach is a fine lawyer and that his programming offspring is good at html. And that all hearts concerned are in the right place. They just needed a better flack.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2005 7:33 PM ET USA

    Anything which improves the reporting of abuse is to be encouraged. As always, the critical factor is in the determination and interpretation of the word 'credible'. I myself am a priest, and my fellow work colleague and I have had the misfortune of having a very imbalanced middle-aged person make ludicrous, bizarre accusations regarding both of us. It was not a pleasant experience, but I remain committed to enhancing the reporting of abuse cases.

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