CLEVELAND – All the years that Terry Flanagan and Barbara Alflen have worked for the Roman Catholic diocese didn't prepare them for the temporary jobs they accepted in April: Running a diocesan office that responds to people claiming to have been sexually abused by priests.
"We were all raised believing these things couldn't happen," Flanagan said recently. "I think we are all kind of growing up and realizing they could, they did, and it needs to change."
The Cleveland Diocese has been hit particularly hard by the national scandal of sexual abuse by priests in the church. Fifteen priests have been placed on administrative leave and one committed suicide following abuse accusations.
In a gesture of repentance on the Thursday before Easter, Bishop Anthony Pilla re-enacted Christ's washing of the apostles' feet by washing the feet of a woman molested as a child.
Two weeks later, Flanagan and Alflen were asked to set up the office to respond to allegations of abuse. They have since fielded about 300 calls and countless e-mail messages, along with talking to people walking in off the street.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its meeting last month in Dallas, asked all dioceses to reach out in similar ways to victims of sexual abuse by priests and to have mechanisms in place to offer support and respond quickly to allegations.
Flanagan has worked for the Cleveland Diocese since 1975, most recently as director of parish-based services — such as outreach to youth, refugees and the disabled — for Catholic Charities. Alflen has worked for Catholic Charities since 1985 and is assistant director of family center services, which provides aid to families throughout northeast Ohio.
The new office was meant as a temporary assignment, Alflen said with a sad smile. "Terry and I cleared our calendars for a week. That was two and a half months ago," she said.
Flanagan described the job as triage, directing callers to the right people in the diocese for help, support or to lodge a complaint or comment.
"The intention as it was formed was that the diocese would have a way of centralizing all of the inquiries that would be coming in," he said. "We get the information to those who will take it from there," including referring claims to the diocese legal office for investigation.
Most important is an apology, Flanagan said.
"First and foremost, I have learned to say, on behalf of the church, that I am very sorry for what these people have experienced. And for some, they've never heard that before," Flanagan said.
"We try to let them know that they are being heard," Alflen said.
For Alflen, the experience has produced a dramatic shift in her views.
"Before I started this office, I would have thought a good deal of this was misconstrued and misreported," she said. "Since then, I have met personally with several victims and talked to a lot more, and I have moved from one end of the continuum to the other."
The diocese has appointed a commission to recommend new policies and procedures for handling abuse allegations, and part of that will be developing permanent procedures to replace Flanagan and Alflen, who will return to their old jobs.
The issue is unlikely to go away, Flanagan said.
"One of the things that's going to come out of this is the acknowledgment within our culture that this is an area that we as a society have ignored," he said. "There are many more people who are being abused, and we need to deal with it."
Alflen said one abuse victim she spoke to is a 60-year-old man who left the church because of abuse.
"He said, 'I don't have a faith anymore and I passed that on to my children, and now my grandchildren don't have a faith.' That's how deeply it has affected him."