Children – and the adults they eventually become – are obviously the individuals most directly affected when a pedophile religious leader commits a sexual assault.
But they often do not suffer alone.
Family members and friends watch their loved ones wrestle with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anti-authority anger and self-destructive inter-personal relationships – while often not even knowing the root cause of their emotional struggles.
Helping victims interact with those closest to them – in order to create stronger relationships – is part of the mission being carried out by the newly formed Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests that was founded by John Nesbella and Thomas Venditti.
“We keep talking about the victim – like me, as a victim,” said Shaun Dougherty, a SNAP supporter from Johnstown. “Well, there's a whole circle around me that's also affected by this. My family's been affected by this. My friends have been affected by this. Past jobs have been affected by this. Past relationships have been affected by this.”
SNAP is a worldwide nonprofit support group for individuals victimized by religious figures. Its early efforts in Boston were part of the narrative of the award-winning film "Spotlight."
The local chapter held its first meeting late last month. Its next get-together is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, March 22, at a location somewhere in Johnstown that is made known only to victims who contact Nesbella at John.Nesbella@gd-ms.com.
'They feel ashamed'
Nesbella urged local victims to connect with the group.
“They're going to find other people out there who have been through the same things they have, who know what it's like,” Nesbella said. “They're going to find support. We hope to have a network of survivors.
"We're not professional therapists. We're not professional counselors. We're in that group. We're all equal. But we can help hook people up to good therapists or good lawyers or just to be there to talk to them and say, 'Hey, I know what it's like to have a day where I want to kill myself.' Nobody else can say that unless you've been through it.”
Venditti added: “It's about healing. We're about helping the victims heal, and their families, and their supporters.”
Part of the challenge is to get victims to open up about their abuse after often not being believed by family members, church officials or others they were taught to trust.
“They feel ashamed,” Venditti said. “That's one of the things that we have to overcome because there's no shame in being a victim.”
Venditti continued: “The trauma that they experienced when they were victimized is triggered. There are many triggers. Next thing you know, they're crying because it's just so traumatic. We need to find ways in which they can be healed of this trauma, so that when they hear the name of the priest who did something, it's not all of a sudden they can't function and they've got to leave the room or something like that.”
Male victims can oftentimes find it difficult to seek help because some fear they will be perceived as weak for being abused, Nesbella said.
“They'd rather suffer alone, hit the bottle or do drugs, or whatever,” Nesbella said. “I would really want to encourage men to come and talk about it, because there are so many of them out there suffering in silence.
"They're killing themselves. And it's hurting their family, and their marriages, and their children, too, probably.”
'Infiltrated the church'
The co-founders decided to form the local chapter in the aftermath of a report, released on March 1, 2016, in which the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General accused the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of covering up abuse committed by priests and other religious leaders for decades.
Nesbella has direct personal experience with the issue of abuse.
He was reportedly victimized when attending Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg. He then became a priest and, according to his story, was laicized by the church after accusing the priest who allegedly assaulted him.
Venditti previously worked as a youth director at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bellwood. As part of his duties, he was told to send students to a confirmation retreat overseen by Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar from the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception.
In 2013, Baker died, reportedly by stabbing himself in the heart, after allegations broke he abused hundreds of children, including during the time he spent at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown from 1992 through 2001.
Three of Baker's former supervisors are currently on trial for giving him assignments that provided access to children – even though they allegedly knew about reports of abuse made against the friar.
Venditti was not aware of those earlier allegations against Baker, so learning about the abuse from the report left him “just devastated.”
He thinks Baker's case is indicative of a problem throughout the Franciscans.
“You can't just blindly accept new seminarians, because that's where it starts,” said Venditti, who has a bachelor's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. “That's how they infiltrated the church is by passing whatever test that they had to pass.”
Venditti wants the Third Order Regulars to take strong steps to address abuse.
“I would say that the Franciscans, in particular the TORs, there should be a temporary ban on vocations to the TOR Franciscans until there are questions answered, like how in the world do you keep making these horrible mistakes, letting these predators in?” Venditti said. “This is the problem. Why? Why do they feel they have a safe haven in the Catholic Church? They're infiltrators is what they are.”
'Horror of sexual abuse'
On Monday, Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak and acting U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song unveiled a plan to protect children from sexual abuse.
In a memorandum of understanding, the diocese explained it will:
• Immediately remove suspected offenders from all contact with children and report allegations to law enforcement officials within 12 hours of an initial report.
• Create a five-member independent, multidisciplinary oversight board.
• Review internet and computer usage by diocesan personnel.
• Cover the cost of providing abuse victims with independent mental health counseling and other support services.
Adopting the memorandum of understanding is one of several steps taken by the diocese in order to prevent child sexual abuse, including retaining Nulton Diagnostic and Treatment Center to provide a hotline for complaints and continuing to work with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, according to Tony DeGol, the diocese's secretary for communications.
“The Diocese has always been committed to supporting survivors of sexual abuse, and we always will be,” DeGol said. “No one who endures the horror of sexual abuse should ever walk alone.
“We have already announced that the Diocese will make available counseling and support services for survivors by qualified and independent mental health professionals chosen by the survivors. Bishop Bartchak is committed to establishing the appropriate funding for all unreimbursed expenses for these services.
“The Diocese will continue to employ a Victim Advocate as required by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Victim Advocate will work closely with various agencies to coordinate assistance for survivors of sexual abuse by church personnel.”
Venditti and Nesbella consider the diocese's plan to be a good first step. But they expressed some concerns, too.
Nesbella said the actions did not go far enough to address the needs of the victims – or punish the alleged predators – mentioned in the grand jury report.
SNAP leaders would also like to see the diocese and statewide Catholic Church drop its opposition to a proposed bill that would eliminate the criminal and civil statutes of limitations going forward. It would also create a two-year window for alleged victims to file civil claims for past abuse.