Clergy sex abuse victim finds healing in Christ

| Susan Klemond for The Catholic Spirit | August 27, 2014 | 0 Comments

Growing up in the small southwestern North Dakota town of Elgin in the 1960s, Fred Schilling understood that adults expected children to be quiet, and that priests were often placed in an exalted position.

For these reasons, after his pastor began sexually abusing him when he was a pre-teen, Schilling didn’t tell his parents.

His first-generation, German-immigrant parents and their six children were active at St. John the Baptist parish in New Leipzig in the Bismarck Diocese, often helping their pastor, then-Father James Pommier.

Schilling’s parents sometimes brought the youth to the parish to do work. When Pommier wanted him to do more projects the following day, Schilling would spend the night at the rectory, where the abuse occurred.

Now a dentist, Schilling is a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. More than 50 years after suffering the trauma of abuse, he has found healing through his faith and in learning to move past the painful incidents.

“My faith is such that we’re all sinners,” Schilling said. “And if St. Peter in front of Jesus can deny him three times, and he’s going to be our first pope, we also have to look at the people that administer our faith to us — our clergy, the deacons, the bishops — they’re all vulnerable to sin, too. I feel that we as a laity sometimes put the priest up on too big of a pedestal, and that’s maybe the reason as a young kid, you don’t tell your parents about the abuse because you don’t feel that you would be believed.”

Schilling didn’t know at the time of his abuse whether other children in the parish were affected. But he met a victim from another town when he was in college. According to a Bismarck Tribune article, abuse allegations against Pommier have emerged from other communities where he served in the Bismarck Diocese. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that Pommier was dismissed from the clerical state because of “ecclesiastical crimes against youth.” Pommier died in 2012.

Ten years after his abuse, Schilling told his parents. They were supportive, but didn’t react with pity, he said. They saw that because of his faith in Christ, he was trying to work through it and was not dwelling on the injury. Part of the healing process has been his effort to forgive the former priest.

“I never lost faith,” he said. “My faith was stronger than the trespasses.”

The sacraments, especially of marriage and the Eucharist, have helped Schilling.

“The Mass is the Eucharist, and you get strength from the Eucharist,” he said.

Schilling said it’s important that the Church is open about suspected abuse.

However, he’s never sought to file a civil lawsuit.

“Yes, I can hold people accountable and point fingers,” he said. “But I haven’t been at the point of saying it stirs me” to file a lawsuit.

What has brought back memories of being abused is the recent extensive media coverage of the issue.

Schilling said, “My mind doesn’t think right away about that event. The only time it comes back up again is when this media stuff keeps coming. . . . I’ve found healing, but not when it comes back in the media over and over and over again. It makes me hurt inside, [and] I hurt for the Church itself for what it has to go through.”

Schilling is sympathetic toward other victims and said he prays every heart will experience healing through Christ, as he has. He hopes they’re finding release from hurtful feelings and memories of abuse.

Drawing an analogy from his dental background about healing, he said, “It’s like a patient who is under stress. The more stress they have, the more the rest of their body has increased illnesses. So you think you’re under control, but then other things happen. You maybe have increased heart issues and TMJ [a jaw condition] from clenching [your teeth]. The more you fester and you have stress that you put on your body, you have to just get rid of it.”

More than anyone, Christ on the cross has helped Schilling heal and carry his own cross.

“Christ had the biggest cross you can ever have,” Schilling said. “He knew what he was going to get himself into, but he accepted it, and he could have easily gone the other way and said ‘I don’t need [this].’ He got tempted by the devil. My cross was just to move on in life.”

Forgiving grievous wrongs such as clergy sexual abuse is possible with God’s help, and forgiveness can eventually lead to peace, Schilling said.

“I would love for us as lay people to accept those who have sinned in this world, that the judgment will come for them in front of God,” he said. “And all I can offer is forgiveness. I can’t offer correcting other people’s problems. All I can say is, I can live with my forgiveness.”

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