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The scars will linger, but the truth is the best healing agent

The Oregonian- April 2007

The end of the bankruptcy for the Archdiocese of Portland last week is a significant event in the life of our community. Not only abuse survivors, but faithful Catholics and other people of religious faith and goodwill have endured much sadness and confusion during these last 33 months. All are rightly relieved that it is finally over. And it is also fitting and right that we now ask what has come out of it all.

During the last 15 years, I represented more than 100 men and women who were abused by priests, nuns and others they trusted from a church they loved. I have nothing but respect and admiration for their courage in pursuing justice for themselves and other abuse survivors.

It is impossible to overstate the damage that sexual abuse does to a child --it is akin to taking a razor blade to a child's face. The scars never really heal. Only with child abuse, the scars are on the inside: the mind, the emotions, the soul. So let us not pretend that simply because a complex legal proceeding ended these men and women are somehow magically restored. They still need support from the community. They have earned at least that, and they still have a lifetime of inside work to do.

But certainly the survivors can take some satisfaction in what changes --steady if gradual --they brought about in the last decade. This archdiocese now has in place an intelligent policy for preventing child abuse. Its training and screening processes for priests are much improved from decades past. More, this archbishop has understood that when it comes to the civil claims for monetary justice, doing the right thing and doing the smart thing is the same thing --settle the cases. It saves immense pain for the survivors, continued awful publicity for the church, and much wear and tear on the community. That includes the judicial system. For all of these things, I and my clients commend the archdiocese for the metanoia, the change of direction, the repentance that has begun. Let it continue.

But despite monetary settlements, despite acknowledgment of wrongdoing, despite changed policies, these individuals have not been ready to say they were done. Often, I have heard representatives from the church ask, "What else do these people want?" To which I always say, "They want the truth: They want the secrets out, they want to know what the church knew and when the church knew it."

Thus, the historic agreement will lead to the release of documents and files concerning child abuse over the last half-century, secret archives of secret crimes and secret shame to be made public for the community to see. This agreement is the single most important of the nonmonetary aspects of the settlements. The survivors wanted justice so that the past would never be repeated, and so that other institutions of trust can learn from the tragic events that took place in this archdiocese. We archive the past so that it is not repeated, and with this breakthrough agreement we make the community a safer place for children.

It took great vision for all sides --the abuse survivors, the archbishop, the parishes --to lay down long held mistrust and suspicion, and to reach a result that is good for the survivors, for the church and for the community. The release of these documents --which I expect in the next several weeks --will not be painless for anyone who cares about justice, or children or the church.

But the pain that comes from a body healing itself is always better, even if not less severe, than the pain of a festering sore. Because of this agreement to move past the era of secrecy, the survivors, faithful Catholics, and the community at large will finally know the entire truth. I and my clients pray that, as a result of what has been done here, other institutions that foster trust relationships with children will observe, read and learn.

Kelly Clark is a Portland attorney and a partner in the firm of O'Donnell and Clark LLP.

Copyright (c) 2007 Oregonian Publishing Co.