COLUMBIA — Don Asbee says he was nine years old when a priest began sexually abusing him at his Catholic school. Now, Asbee is forming a support group for others who have gone through similar experiences.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has about 9,000 members nationwide, and Asbee wants to reach out to others in mid-Missouri to provide a place for other victims to find solidarity. Asbee, along with three others, held a news conference Tuesday to announce the chapter's formation. The group held its first meeting Tuesday night at the Unity Center in Columbia.
Contact Don Asbee by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of the group plan to meet monthly.
“The idea is to just make our presence known to the best of our ability so that they know that if they have gone through this, there is at least a group out there to support them so they can realize, 'It isn’t just me',” Asbee said. “Because that’s what I thought.”
Asbee said he believes there are people in Columbia and the surrounding area who suffered sexual abuse as a child but are too afraid to acknowledge it. It is his hope that the organization will give them strength to do just that.
However, the organization is not just about victims of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. Survivors of sexual abuse from any type of authority figure are welcome in the group.
Amy Surdin, who is helping Asbee establish the Columbia chapter, said she was abused by a public school teacher beginning when she was 12. However, until she found out that SNAP is open to any person affected by sexual abuse, she felt isolated, she said.
“I feel that SNAP would have brought me a lot of hope and healing years ago,” Surdin said. “There’s a lot of hurting people out here that feel like I do, that we have nowhere to turn to. We need to reach out to other survivors and people that have yet to come forward and say we have a group that will give you some hope and give you a place to go and give you a place of understanding you’ve never known.”
In addition to acting as a support group, the mid-Missouri chapter of SNAP also is intended to encourage the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City to bring clergy abuse cases to light and provide proper treatment for victims of abuse.
Bishop John Gaydos authorized a $125,000 out-of-court settlement in 1996 to a student who was abused by former Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell. O'Connell served as rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school in Hannibal for 25 years and admitted to sexually abusing students there. He resigned his post as bishop of the Palm Beach diocese in 2002.
In addition, the Rev. Manus Daly, who also taught at the Hannibal school, was removed from his position in 1995 in in connection with abuse allegations from the same student. Gaydos closed the school in 2002.
The Church "views SNAP as a litigious group, as opposed to someone trying to help them do what is right,” said Michael Wegs, who was among the first to acknowledge abuse by O'Connell. “We’re looking for transparency, honesty, which is what the bishops have promised, and they have not given us that. We would like to ask prominent Catholics in the diocese to step forward and start doing something.”
Ron Vessell, associate to the chancellor for the Jefferson City diocese, said the diocese has conducted more than 1,000 background checks in the past year for employees and volunteers who might be working with children. In addition, Vessell said, roughly 1,000 people have participated in a program to raise awareness about how to spot abuse.
“To a degree, we have the same goals and aims as SNAP in terms of keeping kids safe,” Vessell said. “Advocacy groups, in many ways, help accomplish good things. Obviously, there are times we would not agree in terms of how things are handled.”
Missourian reporter Mallory Redinger contributed to this report.