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Area Catholics Seek Change

Workshop this Saturday to address clergy sexual abuse crisis.

With national coverage of claims of clergy sexual abuse on the airwaves last fall, several area lay Catholics wanted to do something. A group of them formed a local chapter Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) to support abuse victims, as well as support priests of integrity and seek out structural change within the church. VOTF was created in Boston in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis last year.

"I felt that as a lifelong Catholic, that there wasn't nearly enough attention being paid to the people abused themselves," said Bill Casey of Alexandria, one of the founding members of the local northern Virginia chapter.

This chapter of Voice of the Faithful will hold a workshop on the abuse crisis on Saturday, Mar. 22 from 8 a.m. to noon at the Dunn Loring Firehouse hall, 2148 Gallows Road, Vienna. The workshop, sponsored by the local chapters of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) and VOTF, will address ways to reach out to area abuse victims. The workshop will also have counselors on hand from Healing Voices Incorporated, a Frederick, Md.-based group made up of Catholic therapists.

"There's really been no solution to this crisis," said Mark Serrano, mid-Atlantic regional director and board member for SNAP.

VOTF began meeting at the Dolley Madison Library in McLean last October, to hear from abuse survivors and therapists. The almost 50 members come from parishes all over the northern Virginia area, including Springfield, Burke, Reston and Falls Church.

"The change that we in the church want is more involvement of the lay people," said Evelyn Mercantini of Reston, one of the founding members of VOTF's local chapter.

The Arlington Diocese, which covers parishes and Catholic schools from all over northern Virginia, is currently reviewing its policies regarding sexual abuse, said Diocese communications director Linda Shovlain. Since 1991, anyone working with children has been required to attend a seminar on recognizing and reporting child abuse. More recently, the Diocese has formed a review board to look at abuse claims. The board is made up of six lay people, and two priests, one a pastor and the other a forensic psychologist.

The Diocese also hopes to set up an advisory board and a safe environment program for its schoolchildren, to help them know what's appropriate behavior.

"Let's see if we can do this better, and that's the attitude here," Shovlain said.

Casey suggested several ideas for the Arlington Diocese to work with VOTF and SNAP, including sending a letter to pastors inviting parishioners to step forward so they can get help, taking up a collection for SNAP, hosting listening sessions and appointing one or more survivors to the Diocese review board.

"We're going to do what we can with the resources we have available," Casey said.

Mercantini said, "We all felt we had to do something. What I have seen and heard is that we couldn't sit back and accept it anymore...We'd like to get more priests involved, so we can support the priests."

For more information about VOTF, call 703-568-3438 or go to www.votf.org. For SNAP, go to www.survivorsnetwork.org