PORTLAND – The new outreach professional hired to help victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Maine said she has been contacted by several victims, and she hopes more will seek her out.
Susanne Sturm of Bangor, whose hiring was announced Tuesday, said she does not know how many victims there are in Maine, but she already has been contacted by “more than 10″ since she began her duties on July 1.
She hopes to provide pastoral support to victims, to direct them to professional counseling when needed and to assist in setting up support groups for those who are willing to go that route.
In effect, Sturm will be the firm point of contact in the Portland Diocese for victims who are seeking support.
“If it can start with me, then I’d be privileged to start [that process],” Sturm said from her Bangor home.
Also Tuesday, the Portland Diocese announced it had hired a former deputy police chief in Portland to create a formal process for investigating complaints against church employees.
John Brennan served 26 years in the Portland Police Department before retiring in 1998 and being ordained as a deacon. He serves now at St. Bartholomew’s Parish in Cape Elizabeth.
Sturm, who began her duties on July 1, came to Maine in 1999 to serve as a trauma specialist for women seeking help at the Garland House in Bangor. She has been working as a consultant since it closed in 2000.
Before that, she worked in private practice in Washington state for two decades, specializing in psychotherapy for people dealing with grief, addictions, and physical and psychological trauma.
She holds a master’s degree in applied behavioral science from Whitworth College in Washington state.
Sturm said she was drawn to the new job because she feels she can help victims who are willing to reach out to the diocese.
“I feel a profound sense of awe at the opportunity of being able to meet so many people in educating, facilitating and empowering, more so than at any opportunity during my life in this field,” she said.
She will coordinate any future meetings between survivors of sexual abuse and the bishop. One meeting was held on June 20 in Augusta, and another is scheduled to be held Aug. 15 in southern Maine.
In addition, Sturm will help develop crisis teams that can go into parishes and assist staff and parishioners whenever a priest has to be removed unexpectedly and to assist parishes who want to have listening sessions.
Outreach to parishes affected by clerical abuse is greatly needed, said Cynthia Desrosiers, who stepped down in early July as the regional director the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Desrosiers said she has not met Sturm, but added that the diocese should have hired a professional to deal with abuse victims long ago.
Still, Desrosiers said she would continue to advise victims to report abuse directly to civil authorities, not church officials.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel that people should go to the church first,” she said. “It’s still a crime.”