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Ex-priest who was abuse victim has unique role as Catholic church tries to reform

Posted: Friday, November 22, 2002

CHICAGO (AP) -- Michael Bland said he was molested by a Roman Catholic priest as a child, but his love for the church remained and he later became a clergyman.

He joined a religious order and served for seven years until he told church officials what had been done to him years before. Their response -- disbelieving and impassive, he said -- sparked his decision to leave the priesthood.

Bland now finds himself in a unique position to change how Catholic leaders handle allegations of abuse: He is the sole molestation victim on the National Review Board, a lay panel U.S. bishops formed this year to monitor how dioceses discipline accused clergy.

''I felt this was a different time in the church, and the church was looking to truly reform and I wanted to be part of that,'' Bland said.

Many other victim advocates had hoped to join the 13-member board, and some questioned whether Bland was the right choice. A counselor, Bland works for the Archdiocese of Chicago helping other abuse victims.

Susan Archibald, president of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, wondered whether a diocesan employee would challenge the system. She said Bland was ''a hand-picked victim by the bishops.''

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Bland ''a good man in a tough spot.''

''I think that Michael must feel some pretty awesome responsibility to represent the thousands and thousands of survivors who have seemingly very, very little voice in the decision-making of our church leaders,'' Clohessy said.

But Bland welcomes the challenge. He wants to show that victims can heal.

''I realize there's some good individuals who have done great things and some other individuals who have done horrible things,'' Bland said.

Bland grew up in St. Joseph's Church in Carteret, N.J., where the priest he said molested him, the Rev. John Huels, was associate pastor.

Bland said he considered Huels a ''role model'' before the clergyman began abusing him, leaving Bland confused and afraid.

Still, he felt called to become a priest, motivated partly by a desire to be a better clergyman than Huels.

Bland was ordained in 1987 and joined the Servites, a Chicago-based religious order. In 1994, he told church officials that Huels had sexually abused him about 20 years earlier.

Bland's attempt to hold Huels accountable was complicated by Huel's rank: At that time, Huels was a provincial leader of Bland's religious order and a teacher at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Bland's superiors asked him not to tell his fellow priests or his family, then asked Bland to meet with their attorneys and reconcile with Huels since both were priests. Bland felt isolated.

''It was difficult for everyone,'' Bland said. ''In the community they not only had the victim, but the perpetrator.''

Some of the clergymen who did know tried to be supportive.

''All I told him is that I'll stand by you, I'll be with you,'' said the Rev. Gus Kulbis, who served in the order with Bland. ''It was the only thing I could think of saying.''

But Bland felt his order considered him a ''loose cannon'' and he felt he had to leave.

''I felt some people didn't know how to deal with me or talk with me,'' Bland said. ''I think they responded to the best of their ability -- I guess I had hoped for more.''

Bland went on to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology and began working part time in the Chicago Archdiocese as a counselor to victims.

Huels eventually did leave public ministry. After Bland made his accusation, Huels resigned his position in the Servite order and left the Chicago school. Still, he continued teaching.

Then in June, Bland was among the victims the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited to speak at their meeting in Dallas where they drafted a national policy on handling guilty priests. In an emotional address, Bland spoke of the devastation of abuse and decried that his perpetrator, who he did not name, continued to teach.

But Bland's talk soon led to the discovery that Huels was scheduled to teach that summer at Saint Paul's University in Ottawa, Canada. The accused clergyman took a medical leave from the school and no longer functions as a priest, Servite provincial Michael Guimon said.

Huels did not return calls from The Associated Press.

Bland's talk came at the height of the molestation scandals, which erupted in January when Boston Cardinal Bernard Law acknowledged that he knowingly reassigned a priest who had been accused of abuse. The crisis quickly spread to other dioceses.

The review board has gained importance since the bishops voted last week to revise their abuse policy to meet Vatican demands that they balance fairness to priests with help for victims.

The policy does not impose sanctions on bishops who fail to comply, so the review board's annual evaluation and its work with the bishops' newly created Office for Child and Youth Protection will be among the few means to enforce the plan.

''Everyone (on the panel) loves the church,'' Bland said, ''and is very committed to prevention of child sexual abuse and the healing of those affected.''

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On the Net:

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/



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