Victims of priest abuse find a calming ally
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- A half-dozen paces carry you from one end of her office to other, enough space for a desk, two red wing chairs, a couple of house plants and a big blue candle.
Yet for Tampa Bay's Catholic diocese, this unpretentious little nook may represent a slice of salvation in the New Year.
Since November, Marti Zeitz has been the church's emotional bridge to people who were sexually abused by priests and nuns.
She's a counselor with a master's degree. Her soft voice and ready smile exude an easy-going openness. Most importantly, she's no apologist. She expresses blunt anger over the church's worst miscalculations. She thinks bishops and administrators around the country who quietly shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish belong in jail.
"Since the 1980s there should have been absolutely no reason for this to continue. I see it as an abuse of power," she says. "It could continue because they didn't think they were accountable to anyone."
Her job, victims' assistance minister, was mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in response to a tidal wave of outrage over priestly abuse and hierarchical coverups.
In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bishop Robert N. Lynch turned to Zeitz, 51, who coordinates counseling services for Catholic Charities, offering therapy to people of any faith or income.
People who have suffered sexual abuse can call her directly. If they contact a pastor or church headquarters first, they will be referred to her. She will be their first contact -- not to investigate, but to help them deal with therapists, family members, church lawyers and civil authorities.
"They can call me at any time," Zeitz says. "I would hope through meeting me, they can begin to re-establish a sense of trust -- in themselves and in knowing there are people who care about this issue and are willing to help them heal, to know that their truth is heard and understood."
A Cleveland native, Zeitz has always worked in helping professions. She went from Catholic schools and universities, to teaching to working with troubled juveniles and teenage mothers.
At home, she enjoys the quiet pursuits of reading, listening to classical music, blues and jazz and -- when she can get away -- camping near a lake or woods. Never married, she recently took in a 3-year-old foster child she hopes to adopt. He had been living with his grandmother, an acquaintance of Zeitz's who died in November.
The boy is why she's determined to maintain a 40-hour work week if possible, she says.
Right off the bat, Zeitz made overtures to the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group for victims. It was the first time any official church representative ever attended their meetings.
"She comes across as a real down-to-earth woman, a human being with no airs," says Martha Lorenzo, a 56-year-old Redington Shores resident and SNAP member who was molested by a nun at a Catholic women's college in New Orleans.
"The bishop refuses to meet with any of us. The church makes advocate groups look hostile, just to deflect the truth we are speaking," Lorenzo says. But "most of the survivors are going to feel (Zeitz) is trustworthy. She is an incredible ray of hope in our midst."
At recent forum at St. Petersburg's Holy Name Catholic Church, victims assailed church officials for not doing enough. Zeitz nodded her head and told them they were absolutely right and invited them to come see her.
"Any sort of sexual trauma is abhorrent, but when it involves a person affiliated with the church or God, the wound is deeper," she says. "For a lot of people God is the safe being, the one to turn to. When that is taken away from you, it is even worse."
From what she can tell, she says, Bishop Lynch, who took over in 1995, has not engaged in the coverups that got other bishops in trouble. But she does expect him and the local church to "move toward a public apology and penance and admission. It will come, but must be at a healing time" when victims and parishioners are ready to hear it.
Every new revelation brings more victims forward, she says, and she expects to be helping them for years. "This is not over."
For more information
To reach Marti Zeitz, call 1-866-407-4505.
To reach the Tampa-St. Petersburg Chapter of SNAP, call 727-844-9960.
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