Listening to abuse survivors, building trust important for healing, vicar general says

| May 20, 2014 | 1 Comment

A goodwill gesture by parishioners at St. Paul in Ham Lake has brought together a leader of the local Church and victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Father Charles Lachowitzer, vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, attended the gathering that parishioners hosted at the church in early May. It included prayer, song and members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests sharing their stories.

It’s listening to survivors’ stories that will help forge relationships and guide the Church in creating and maintaining safe environments, Father Lachowitzer said. “Safe environments,” he added, “include those of survivors’ networks that serve to empower victims.”

“For the last seven months or so, so much of my work has been pieces of paper and files and reports and meetings . . . which bring to reality that this is a serious issue in our local Church,” said Father Lachowitzer, who also met with abuse victims when he served as a pastor. “But to have faces, to have people standing there and speaking so courageously, honestly, with passion, anger — that was my biggest experience there. The faces on it really gave a sense of what kind of impact, lifelong, this type of tragedy has on people.”

Hearing with the heart

Among SNAP members present was Bob Schwiderski, the group’s state director. Father Lachowitzer had met with Schwiderski last fall and again after the parish gathering. He said that in the meetings, Schwiderski has taught him to create an “even playing field” by asking victims to help the Church.

“And so that’s what I say now through Bob to SNAP: We need help. And we need you to help us. You need to tell your stories and keep being a voice in our ears so it goes to our hearts, so that what we do and how we act from that point forward is with a deepening understanding not [just] of the issue, but of the people involved.”

The gathering was a result of parishioners sending “spiritual bouquets” of prayer intentions to SNAP members, Archbishop John Nienstedt, and Jeff Anderson and Associates, the St. Paul firm representing many people who file lawsuits related to clergy abuse.

Father Tim Norris, pastor at St. Paul, helped organize the outreach because of parishioners’ concerns regarding recent media reports related to clergy sexual abuse.

“A big part of the priesthood is about reconciliation,” he said. “And, reconciliation around the abuse issue is very important. There is a lot of hurt on all sides of it, so anything we can do to bring people together and help heal the wounds [is beneficial].”

Father Norris said the gathering opened up a sense that everyone needs to listen to each other compassionately. “Sometimes we take the two extremes of either fighting about it, or we just don’t talk about it,” he said. “We need to give people an opportunity to address their anger, hurt and sorrow, and do so respectfully.”

Although Father Lachowitzer attended the gathering as a listener, he spoke briefly to the group, apologizing for the Church’s mistakes: “As long as there is one person on this earth who has experienced sexual abuse by a priest, those apologies will continue,” he said.

Maribeth Barbato has been a parishioner at St. Paul for nearly 20 years. She said all the news reports about clergy sexual abuse have made her heart heavy for abuse victims, priests and the lay faithful. She attended the gathering in hopes of being better informed. She left with a deeper desire to pray for cleansing of the Church and do true penance and sacrifice for change.

“Our Church is beautiful,” Barbato said. “God is so good to us. God doesn’t want [abuse] in our Church; he wants it gone. That’s when we just pray, and that [the Church] is able to hold the people, especially the abused, with the highest regard.”

Parishioner Frank Maixner attended the gathering with some understanding of abuse victims, but gained more empathy in hearing people’s experiences firsthand.

“I think as a Church, we just need to push ourselves, in spite of the difficulties, to realize that we’re all sheep, and we all need care,” Maixner said.

Fred Schilling, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, wasn’t at the gathering, but read press reports about it and said those are the types of meetings people need. Schilling said he was sexually abused by his parish priest when he was a teenage altar server in the Bismarck, N.D., diocese more than 45 years ago.

“The parish in Ham Lake was preparing for a lot of tears,” Schilling said. “There was a lot of emotion involved, [which is good] if it’s emotion toward healing. I like going toward healing [rather] than blame.”

Father Lachowitzer said the conversations between survivors and the Church will help people heal, but they need to result in some kind of action steps forward.

“There’s the program director in me that wants to come up with all sorts of plans, and I think what [Schwiderski] has helped me to understand is that we will come to those next steps together through further conversation,” he said. “It’s not a program, it’s not something I can roll out. But if I’m asking for help and asking those who have experienced this tragedy to help us better handle this tragedy for the long haul, I need to be patient and let the steps forward together lay out what the next steps are.”

Having only been in the vicar general role since last November, Father Lachowitzer said the gathering shed light on a new way of looking at people affected by clergy sexual abuse.

“It’s challenging us to find continued ways to be a voice for those who were made voiceless by the fact that, in one too many instances, we have been deaf and haven’t quite heard the full impact of clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “Any way we are giving people who have gone through this — family members or the individuals themselves — a voice through us, that’s true to who we are, that’s true to the mission of Jesus Christ, that’s true to our character as the Catholic Church.”

But that has also been the irony, he said. “Sometimes we’re mute, unfortunately,” he said.

Father Norris encourages people to continue to pray and look to how they might be able to follow in what his parish modeled — to reach out and not be afraid to listen to those who have been abused.

The opportunity to listen to victims gave Barbato a new perspective.

“There was no court system, there were no lawyers, just a simple meeting,” Barbato said. “And maybe those are the meetings that we have to have. When you’re face-to-face with people who have been abused, it’s different from just knowing it’s out there. Your heart just wants to do more.”

Going forward, Father Lachowitzer said much can be accomplished from working together. “Institutions don’t relate to each other, people do,” he said. “And so, it’s expanding the number of people who get to know and trust each other so that we can do what’s best for the safety of children and for the healing of victims.”


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