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Giving Victims of Sexual Abuse a Chance to Heal

Times Staff Writer

An alleged victim of clergy sexual abuse, the Rev. Robert H. Greene took his story public last Saturday from an unlikely spot: behind the pulpit at a Los Angeles church.

In a liturgy designed for fellow molestation survivors, the Anglican cleric told his story of alleged abuse as a teenager by a Roman Catholic priest, let others share their experiences, and offered communion to those who wanted it.

About 30 people who attended the service heard original music and poems by victims of sexual abuse.

At the end of the service, the church bell at the Church of Our Savior on Wilshire Boulevard rang 170 times, once for each victim of clergy sexual abuse who has committed suicide in the U.S., according to statistics gathered by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

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“We almost broke the bell,” said Greene, a part-time cleric for the Anglican Province of Christ the King. The denomination was formed in 1977 by traditionalists unhappy with changes within the Episcopal Church in America.

A former Catholic seminarian, Greene, 51, is among more than 550 people who filed claims in 2003 against the Los Angeles Archdiocese alleging sexual abuse by clergy and church officials.

He said he decided to hold last week’s unusual church service for those who were unwilling to visit a Catholic parish but still longed to reconnect to God -- and for others who had attended Catholic Church healing services but wanted more.

Other victims, who had lost their faith, simply came to support fellow survivors.

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“This is what liturgy is supposed to do: connect people with their creator where they are at,” said Joe Beckman, 45, of Long Beach. “This service was by, for and from survivors who shared a common tragedy. I found it very freeing.”

The fact that Greene is a clergyman and an alleged victim of sexual abuse carried special weight.

“His story is powerful,” said Mary Grant, regional director for the survivors network, which helped organize the event. “I just see a tremendous amount of courage. I cannot imagine how overwhelming it must feel to be abused by a priest and then, as an adult, you work as a clergy member.”

But Greene said his initial anxiety about the service -- especially that bitterness and bad memories could overwhelm the sacred -- gave way to serenity.

“I walked away with a great sense of inner peace,” he said. “The vast majority of people walked away with a feeling that you can express your anger in a sacred environment.”

In 2003, Udo Strutynski of Highland Park had attended one of the healing services offered by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to help molestation victims and came away uplifted. Still, he said he felt uneasy in a Catholic parish, listening to priests he didn’t know and didn’t completely trust.

But with fellow survivors running the service and in the pews at Church of Our Savior, Strutynski, 62, said he was “completely secure.”

“It was really, really good,” said Strutynski, an alleged abuse victim who had dropped out of the Catholic Church long ago. “I felt extremely welcomed.”

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He added that during parts of the service, he found himself responding in the Latin he learned as an altar boy. “It came right back to me,” Strutynski said.

Officials with the Catholic archdiocese said efforts such as Greene’s from other denominations should be welcomed and applauded.

“Healing can come from many places,” said spokeswoman Carolina Guevara, adding that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has held eight private prayer and healing services for victims and their families this year.

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Greene’s lawsuit alleges that as an altar boy, he was befriended by a visiting Catholic priest who plied him with wine and sexually abused him, beginning at age 16.

The relationship continued with sporadic visits during Greene’s freshman year at the archdiocese’s St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, where he was studying to be a priest.

At the same time, Greene’s mother, without her son’s knowledge, contacted church officials with concerns about the cleric’s inappropriately close relationship with her son and about how her son often came home drunk and was depressed.

The priest was removed from the archdiocese and, according to a 2003 report by Mahony, the church found that the alleged perpetrator had never received official permission to work in the archdiocese. In his lawsuit, Greene also wants the archdiocese to explain how the cleric could work without proper paperwork.

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Greene dropped out of St. John’s and gave up his dream of entering the priesthood.

He also started to confide in some priest friends about the abuse. He said one of them warned him to keep quiet if he ever wanted to be ordained.

Greene graduated from Cal State Long Beach with degrees in finance and English literature and began a business career.

But he continued to struggle with the emotional and spiritual fallout from his molestation.

“I was having problems making a connection to God and with other people,” Greene said.

He said he kept himself busy: working long hours, getting married, having a son and volunteering at the local Anglican Province of Christ the King church.

Friends urged him to restart his theological studies. In 1987, he started taking classes at the Anglican Theological Institute in Los Angeles and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

“It rewakened my desire to serve,” he said. “It was both scary and exciting getting reinvolved. I still had my conflicts with God.”

He was ordained in 1992 and started working part time in ministry. (He kept his full-time job on the business side of the aerospace industry.)

Greene took a break from the priesthood in 2000, disillusioned by church politics and burned out from too many hours. He also needed to decide if he was too angry at God to be a man of the cloth.

About the same time, he got divorced and decided he needed help working through emotions about his sexual abuse. He contacted the survivors network.

“I just realized that I had to start talking about this,” he said. “I could never open up and be the pastor people needed me to be. I felt too vulnerable. I wasn’t good at counseling people.”

With the help of other survivors and counseling, Greene said, he started to heal. He believes last Saturday’s church service was another step forward.

He admits, though, that his relationship with the Lord still has some rough edges.

“I have a need to make a connection between my anger with God, my work as a priest and my anger as a survivor,” he said.


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