Saintly Sister Among the Sinners 

By siding with the victims of priestly abuse, Oakland nun Barbara Flannery has gained a reputation as a maverick.

On the same day the Supreme Court struck down portions of a California law, flinging open prison doors for pedophiles convicted of long-ago crimes, Sister Barbara Flannery was busy at her desk inside the Oakland diocese, kindly explaining to reporters that yes, charges against former priests would probably be dropped, but no, the diocese was not going to stop working with the police or victims. Not on her watch.

Flannery is the diocese's chancellor, second in command in a fiefdom that oversees half a million Catholics in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Each investigation of abuse by the clergy begins and ends at Flannery's desk, and since the church sex scandal broke nationwide, her personal decree has been to make the diocese a transparent institution, helpful to law enforcement and an advocate for victims. In 2000, she coordinated an apology liturgy issued by Bishop John S. Cummins, the first of its kind in the country. In a stunning pronouncement, the bishop told victims, "The failure of many of the leaders of the Catholic Church to confront this abuse head-on, to ... remove priest abusers and other employees from active ministry, or to take the side of the victims, has been one of the more distressing aspects of the church's recent history."

On the day of the recent court ruling, the collective sigh inside the diocese was nearly audible -- they'd just escaped a string of shameful criminal trials. But Flannery disagreed with the court. "I feel dreadful," she said, shaking her head. "Many survivors needed their day in court for healing. ... Now, to hear that their abusers will be set free, it's disturbing for them."

She added that she'd been on the phone earlier that morning with a few of the victims, sharing the news. "I didn't want them to read about it in a newspaper."

In the same ruling, the court allowed civil cases to go forward, giving victims another legal route to expose the church and potentially cash in. Those accusers have until December 31 to file, and a stream of lawsuits is expected to arrive on the chancellor's desk by year's end.

Until then Sister Flannery, to the regret of the victims' advocates who once heralded her victims-first approach, has declined a request to publish the list of local priests who've accumulated "credible complaints" or are currently under investigation by the diocese.

According to the advocates, a list on the diocese's Web site would make it easier for closeted victims to come forward, knowing they're not the first. But to Flannery and her employers, publishing the list now would open up the diocese to frivolous lawsuits that could cripple the church.


Barbara Flannery never could have envisioned all of this when she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet order. She grew up in Oakland, the eldest sibling in a large family. "I've always had the urge to right the wrongs of the world," she says. "And when I look at my overall job as chancellor, I'm especially proud of this work."

Flannery had heard the stories of sexual abuse by clergy, but it was never in Oakland. "It was always New York, or Louisiana," she says, her voice shifting to the regret of the naive. "It was never over here. It was always over there."

When she took her job nine years ago, Flannery thumbed through the old files on abuse claims. She discovered that ptotocols for clergy abuse had been written, but never enforced. She came across Terrie Light's file, a case going back to the 1950s. Light had brought her complaints to the diocese elders who, according to the file, remained unmoved. "It seemed to me she didn't get a fair shake," Flannery says.

The nun sought out Light, who by then had created a support network called SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) to help others in the same predicament. Light invited Flannery to come along to her group's monthly breakfast meetings at Lyon's restaurants around the East Bay.

"With victims, Barbara has been very warm, caring, and compassionate," Light says now. "She brought a sense of understanding to the position."

From those meetings Flannery set up the Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse, also a first for a US diocese. The Ministry organized retreats for counselors and victims, and began paying therapy bills for victims -- again, unprecedented actions. Last year, the Oakland diocese paid $200,000 in shrink bills.

In one case, Flannery accompanied a parishioner to San Antonio, Texas, to confront the priest who'd abused her during college. Marlis Sender, now a Contra Costa County resident, asked Flannery to assist her in her quest for restorative justice. In the months leading to the meeting, Flannery assigned the priest (who'd admitted to his crimes) to read a book on the devastation caused by sexual abuse, and had him write brief reports on each chapter.

To Sender, Flannery's assistance was the difference between an unsettled life and resolution. "The whole process has been very healing and it's thanks to Barbara," Sender says. "I can't say enough how much her involvement has helped me, and others, bring closure to this."

The nun's empathy for the victims goes beyond words. Recalling the San Antonio trip in her office, she pauses to shed tears. "Giving up two days of my life was so little for the rewards it brought Marlis," she said, after gaining her composure.

Yet by siding with the church on the perpetrators list, Flannery has caused some consternation among victims. Terrie Light, who once offered rave reviews about the chancellor, has now tempered her enthusiasm. "It seemed as if things were moving along at a good pace," she says. "Then after January of this year, when people were allowed to sue, all of that momentum slowed down. Oakland has always had a good response toward victims, but with disclosing the priest-perpetrators, it's hush-hush."

On orders from a national review board headed by Illinois Bishop Wilton Gregory, Flannery is compiling data on the scope of the abuse. So far, credible complaints have been filed against 23 priests in the Oakland diocese over the past four decades. Another priest under investigation, Flannery says, could make it 24. Two dozen lawsuits have been filed, and she says at least five accusations against priests have been discredited by law enforcement.

But without a public list to view, Light says many victims will shy away from coming forward.

Through Flannery, Bishop Cummins refused Light's request to release the perpetrators' names prior to year's end. Light had hoped the nun, living up to her progressive reputation, would protest on behalf of the victims. "A maverick would have gone to the mat against the Bishop," she says. "As far as an administrator, she's got her heels dug in. She doesn't go against what the Bishop says."

"It's not that I oppose Terrie's idea," Flannery says. "It's that we're in a position right now with the diocese where I have to be concerned about the number of complaints being filed.

"Those names will be up January 1, 2004," she says. "I promise. I've got them all ready to go."

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