The Buffalo Survivors Group (BSG) held their first public event a week ago today. The days since then have been busy ones, but I wanted to be sure and document this historic event on my blog.
The BSG was formed by Kevin Koscielniak, Gary Astridge, Angelo Ervolina, Christ Szuflita and Michael Whalen after they met on August 13th when preparing to file their CVA cases the next day. It was eminently appropriate that their first event would take place on November 14th since it was exactly 3 months prior – August 14th – that these men were able to file their CVA claims right after the stroke of midnight. You can learn more about that experience via this link.
“The Guys,” as I affectionately refer to them, began getting to know each other better in the days and weeks that followed that historic August evening. They began to discuss the possibility of holding a public event that would provide support for fellow survivors while educating the public about sexual abuse and its effects on survivors. Soon they had a formal name, a logo and a motto: To Enlighten and Empower. They hope to enlighten the public while empowering their fellow survivors. Their logo symbolizes the survivors’ journey from the darkness of abuse into the light of healing.
As one of The Guys explained the logo: “We have traveled a long road being silent. The sun began rising when we came forward and told someone about our abuse, but the road continues because we still have a long journey ahead of us. And this road is not just for survivors – it is for everyone who travels with us, people from the past like our families and friends… and the people who are now with us moving forward…. and for the people we will one day meet and connect with.” The logo is triangular in shape to symbolize the mountain that survivors are climbing as they overcome so many challenges in their lives.
The event was entitled Enlighten & Empower: An Evening with Survivors and the goal was to “educate and enlighten the public about sexual abuse and the symptoms and effects that survivors endure – all done through stories from survivors along with open, honest and transparent conversations with the audience.” The event was held in the Parish Center at St. Mary’s Church in Swormville. This location was chosen for a very specific reason – the pastor there, Fr. Bob Zilliox, is a clerical abuse survivor and has been an outspoken critic of Bishop Malone and the manner in which the abuse scandal has been handled in our diocese.
Fr. Bob got the evening started with a warm welcome and a particularly moving prayer that touched on the many sufferings survivors endure. After that, a touching letter was read from Chris Szuflita, one of the founding members, who lives at a distance and wasn’t able to attend the event. Then each of the 4 remaining founding members shared their stories.
Gary Astridge went first followed by Angelo Ervolina
Followed by Michael Whalen:
And finally Kevin Koscielniak:
As you can imagine, the stories these four shared were devastating and heartrending. The old saying “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room” was certainly proven true that evening. The Guys showed pictures of themselves at the time of their abuse, which made their testimonies even more powerful. Gary commented that his current fight for justice is really a fight for his younger self, who suffered so horribly at such an innocent age. As so many attendees noted afterwards, it was an honor and a privilege to hear The Guys share their stories.
After The Guys shared their stories, they opened the floor to questions, discussion and conversation. During that time, another survivor was able to share her story – Sarah Ann Shiley. Readers of this blog may remember Sarah’s story from this post back in June when Sarah was not permitted to share her testimony at one of Bishop Malone’s infamous Listening Sessions. WKBW-Channel 7 also did a story on Sarah’s situation, which can be viewed below:
It was really incredible to witness Sarah share her story in such a supportive environment to a clearly engaged audience. Everyone was extremely moved by her compelling, heartbreaking words.What a powerful juxtaposition to the “listening” session this past June! I’d especially like to thank Sarah for representing the many female victims of clerical sexual abuse.
It’s important to note that the Buffalo Survivors Group is not intended solely for victims of clerical sexual abuse. Rather, it is open to anyone who has suffered abuse no matter who the perpetrator or associated institution may be. As the BSG has noted: “Sexual abuse has lifelong effects. Survivors of sexual abuse suffer in silence from many symptoms. We want to educate and inform the community about the psychological, emotional and physical harm sexual abuse causes, as well as provide support and help with resources that are available to survivors and the community.” As you can see, there are no distinctions made regarding abuse or the perpetrators of that abuse.
The evening concluded with a brief presentation from Rebecca Stevens, Executive Director of the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) here in Buffalo. She was assisted in her presentation by Janine Tramont, Director of Development. Together, they explained the mission of the Child Advocacy Center: “to integrate and coordinate services to meet the needs of child victims of sexual and serious physical abuse and their families at a single, child friendly facility. Such response is intended to reduce trauma, promote accountability and facilitate healing.” Their vision is that children in their homes and in our community would be healthy, safe, and free from harm.
The mission and vision of the CAC is very close to the hearts of the BSG Founders. As Michael Whalen has said, “There wasn’t a CAC to help me when I was a kid, so I want to make sure kids now a days get the help they need and that’s what the CAC does!” The CAC presentation provided the right note on which to end the evening – hopeful, optimistic and action-oriented. Many attendees spoke with the CAC representatives after the event to learn more about their work and to ask about opportunities for volunteering or other collaboration.
Although the event ended at 9 pm, quite a few people stayed for a while to talk with the survivor speakers and to connect with other attendees. Everyone I spoke with had a very favorable reaction to the evening. An attendee of the event told me that the evening represented a “leap over barriers” – the barriers of secrecy and shame, the aversion to discussing topics that are consider off-limits or taboo, the tendency to turn away from painful things rather than embrace them. This attendee and quite a few others were eager to know when the next event would take place. I told The Guys that it’s always a good sign when people ask about a second event right after your first one has concluded!
Because of the positive reaction to this first event and the desire to “enlighten and empower” as many people as possible, the Buffalo Survivors Group is planning a second event sometime in mid-January at a to-be-determined location. Please stay tuned for more information as it becomes available!
On a personal note, I found the evening to be very cathartic. Listening to the survivors’ stories brought on strong emotions, but it was a relief to express those emotions freely and openly. It is indescribably powerful to listen to such raw, painful truths being shared by such strong, resilient people. While the sorrow in the room was almost palpable, so was the loving support within the room. We cannot see or touch sorrow or love, but sometimes we can feel them to such an extent that they almost achieve tangibility. There was a great deal of light and love in that room: the light that comes from truths being shared and stories told… and the love with which those truths and stories were received.
One thing I particularly valued about the set up of the event was that everyone was in a large circle. There was no “head table” or podium or anything like that, which was just as The Guys wanted it. They wanted the logistics to foster an open, honest conversation among friends and advocates. Another neat element of the evening: because the survivors who spoke were not introduced beforehand, attendees didn’t know they were sitting next to a survivor until he or she began to speak*. It was a powerful reminder that we often don’t know that a survivor is in our midst. They are our family members, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our acquaintances. Let us strive to always be someone they can turn to if they need our help or support.
As you may have surmised, I forgot to take any pictures during the event, which means I have relied completely on WKBW reporter, Nikki DeMentri, for screen grabs from her story about the event. I’d like to thank Nikki and WKBW, Fadia Patterson and Spectrum News, and the WIVB team (I didn’t catch their names) for attending this event and spreading the word about it. Nikki’s full story can be viewed below:
Please stay tuned for more information about Enlighten & Empower: An Evening With Survivors #2!
* Michael Whalen being the exception here