Peter Isely, a founding member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the organization which sued the Vatican at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on Sep. 13, shared with The Christian Post details of his alleged abuse, and why he believes the Vatican's internal laws need to be changed.
Isely, now 51, told CP he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the director of his boarding school in rural Wisconsin, St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mount Calvary. He never lost his faith, even in the face of the terrifying childhood experience. Isely suffered abuse from the age of 13 to 17, during the 1970s, and he kept quiet about it for 12 years.
Now a prominent member of SNAP, an organization that unites victims abused by spiritual workers, Isely says that Vatican laws need to be changed.
"People go to the church, go to the gospels, to find salvation and the creator's love, and to have that message completely twisted up and distorted through the acts of ministers and through an institution that allowed it and tolerated it is an absolute devastation to the faith of these victims and their families," Isely said.
Isely learned over the years that the same priest who raped him has been accused of abusing a total of 38 other boys throughout his career. The SNAP member heard of at least two suicides among his abused colleagues. Not everyone was lucky enough to be a "survivor," he told CP.
The priest, the Rev. Gale Leifeld, now dead, never admitted abusing Isely. However, in a 1994 deposition, Leifeld acknowledged abusing others, the Boston Globe reported. He reportedly underwent extensive therapy at the Servants of the Paraclete center in New Mexico.
SNAP is the oldest and most active organization of the kind, according to its website. It reportedly has helped thousands of survivors.
"It's a problem in all denominations, but the Catholic church structure makes it extremely accommodative to this type of criminal activity," Isely said. "I had no idea that there were other victims when it dawned on me that there likely were. That’s when I went back to church authorities, thinking that they didn’t know."
Isely's other great concern is not only that such abuse takes place, but that Canon law helps church authorities cover up the crimes. He claims abusive priests are being relocated, usually without informing the new parishioners that a priest was a suspected child molester. Isely also complained about the system of internal church courts, which are separate from the criminal and constitutional courts.
"People need to understand that there's always two crimes involved," Isely said. "That's why the filing with the ICC is so important. There's the actual sexual assault, violence by the offender. And then there's the cover-up of those crimes by church authorities, and the direct enabling of the continuation of those acts. … The policies and practices that allowed father Leifeld [Isely's alleged abuser] to harm myself and so many other children for such a long period of time are still in place."
That's what the filing is about - holding the Catholic church accountable for these policies and practices, Isely said.
"The point of the filing is to get that evidence out there to the proper, legal authorities – law enforcement and criminal authorities – to investigate what is now clearly overwhelming evidence of a wide-spread and systematic pattern of sexual violence that directly involves the top officials of the Vatican, of the Catholic church and hierarchy; not just the individuals, but as a policy," he told CP.
The lawsuit that "survivors" from several countries, including the United States, filed with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), accuses top Vatican officials, including the Pope, of crimes against humanity.
The accusation is aimed at Pope Benedict XVI and three cardinals, William Levada, current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Tarcisio Bertone, current Secretary of State of Vatican; and Angelo Sodano. Isely specified that SNAP does not ask for prosecution of abusive priests, but for the change in church laws that help to perform and cover up the abuse.
SNAP was founded by Chicago's Barbara Blaine in 1988. Blaine was sexually assaulted by a priest at ages 12 and 13.
Back in September, Blaine said in a statement that the organization is looking to prevent "even one more child from being raped or sexually assaulted by a priest" and that she hopes "the victims around the world will know today that they are not alone and that it is safe to speak up and report their abuse."
According to a statement by CCR, church authorities in the U.S. admitted to sheltering close to 6,000 Catholic priests who were publicly accused of child molestation over the past few decades. As many as 20,000 sexually abusive priests still work as spiritual leaders, even after criminal charges against them were filed, the agency said.
After filing the lawsuit with the ICC, the group of SNAP members including Isely went on a European tour of meeting with other "survivors" and gathering evidence.
The group held a press conference in Rome on Sept. 20, where some members, including Isely and Blaine, told their stories.
"As an adult I needed healing, had gone to church officials, but they really did not help me," Blaine said during the conference. "So I began looking for other victims to find help and healing, and for 23 years we have worked together and helped ourselves heal. We are not asking for an investigation into the Catholic church; we do not want an indictment of the Catholic religion or the Catholic faith. We merely are asking for the investigation of church officials who are endangering children and committing these crimes – crimes against humanity."
Isely, who is a psychotherapist and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, was considering becoming a priest for a while, even after having experienced abuse from a clergyman. Eventually, he married a woman he fell in love with. It was Isely's wife, together with an experience at Harvard, that helped him open up and speak about the abuse. He recently told his story in detail to a Milwaukee magazine.
"[These days] People come forward, they go to church authorities. That's what 98 percent of victims I know of [did] – I've met hundreds and hundreds, thousands - they go back to the church, thinking that the church doesn't know about this individual," Isely told CP.
Isely is happy he met his fellow survivors at SNAP. He is aware that many did not get that chance, and many still do not. That is also why he felt obliged to come forward, he told CP, despite the pain and humiliation of talking about sexual abuse.