Sex abuse survivor Stephen MIttler talks about his meeting with Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger in front of Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake where his alleged abuse by a former priest began. (Thomas Killips photos for The Evangelist)
Sex abuse survivor Stephen MIttler talks about his meeting with Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger in front of Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake where his alleged abuse by a former priest began. (Thomas Killips photos for The Evangelist)
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Just after 10:40 a.m., on this historic Sunday morning, sex abuse survivor Stephen Mittler and Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany walked out of the doors of Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake together.

They stopped and paused at the steps where Mittler met his alleged abuser, Mark Haight, a former priest, in 1988. Then they continued their walk to tell Mittler’s family and friends, media members, and everyone in the Diocese what they had just discussed in private.

“The Bishop and I just had a really productive conversation about what happened right here,” said Mittler of the July 31 meeting. “The No. 1 thing that we wanted to share a message of today is the fact that I’m the face of an abused and my abuser is Mark Haight, who is a face of clergy sex abuse. Bishop Scharfenberger represents the organization that allowed this to happen. He is the face of abuse. 

“But then my family is the face of abuse over the last month. And all of you are the face of abuse and that’s why I thought it was so important for the Bishop and I to spend time on the stairs and be here. Certainly we are not in an environment of being fully on the same side of things, but we do want to have an ongoing relationship and continue to talk about this to see what we can do to help other victims.” 

Last week, Mittler, 47, who settled the lawsuit that he had filed under the Child Victims Act (CVA) shortly before he was to go to trial against the Diocese of Albany for $750,000 in June, had sent a message to the Bishop saying he wanted to take him up on his pledge to “walk with survivors.” Bishop Scharfenberger, who has previously met with abuse survivors in private, readily accepted this very public — and unprecedented — meeting with Mittler, who wanted to promote two key components in moving forward.

“For me it’s an awareness campaign and a transparency campaign. So from an awareness perspective, I have had dozens of people reach out to me that said, ‘Me, too.’ ... So it’s awareness, not just of clergy abuse, but anybody who is struggling with being a victim and a survivor.” he said.

“And the second piece is transparency. Bishop and I talked about the fact that we need to tie together some of the events that took place in the ’80s and ’90s and finish telling the story. This is an old news headline. This is not something that anybody’s surprised by the headline. But I think with the Child Victims Act, it brings new awareness to it and for me to stand here, 34 years later, who would have thought that I would have to do this. I shouldn’t be here. … This is not the end of my crusade and I hope the Bishop and I can have a working relationship that brings us closer to understanding what’s going to happen with the path forward.”

Bishop Scharfenberger agreed.

“We’re all affected by (abuse),” he said. “Different roles are played in the past, the present and in the future, but all of us are affected by this. And you know that I have said many, many times my desire is to accompany anybody that has been affected … and this is one aspect of accompaniment, walking — literally — from the church, from the steps where Stephen met his abuser. 

“But it will continue. This is a start. … I want nobody to be afraid. I want nobody to feel they have to hide. And personally I make that commitment to be present as I am here today and I will be any day.”

The Diocese of Albany is dealing with over 400 lawsuits related to clergy sex abuse and is currently in mediation talks with attorneys of the alleged victims. After the meeting with the media, Mittler, with his family and friends, walked into the church to celebrate Mass with Bishop Scharfenberger. During his homily, Bishop talked again about his meeting before the Mass.

“Today, in a very graphic way, I am very proud to have met this morning with a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy. He and his family are here — very, very brave — and I noticed the congregation grows silent because whenever I speak of this, everybody knows that this happens not only in cases that we are aware of, not only with clergy, but it happens in families. Eighty-five percent, as a matter of fact, of sexual abuse is within families by relatives. … it affects each and every one of us,” he said.

“Stephen is a face of this but he’s not the only one. I admire his courage but I recognize that there are many survivors who suffer in silence and I don’t want to convey the message that you will necessarily feel comfortable coming forward, but I want you to know that if you decide, I am here to listen. I’m a spiritual father. I am here to take care of (my) spiritual sons and daughters, so I want no one to be afraid.

“I want there to be no hidden corners. We don’t have to talk about the hows and the whens but I want you to know that I want no one to suffer in silence. Taking the example from Stephen, that may be your way to do this, you can always call me, that’s the way to get in touch with me and I will speak with you and I will listen.”
That is a message that appeared to resonate with Mittler.

“Bishop and I talked about the fact that within the Diocese, he inherited this. So the handling of the path forward and the handling of the recent years certainly has been a litigious situation,” Mittler said before the Mass. “And we agreed that we have trouble agreeing on some of those parts. But at the same time, I think there’s a genuine offering to spend time together and really work through some of that. And again it really comes down to transparency. That is the big thing that I am looking for specifically with the Diocese but also awareness, and I think the Bishop can help me spread the awareness given that I am the face of sexual abuse by the clergy.”