Abuse victims share stories at Ham Lake parish during prayer service for healing

| February 2, 2015 | 0 Comments
Healing service

Bob Schwiderski, right, of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, talks with Timothy O’Malley, director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis following a healing service at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake Jan. 29. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A little girl, around age 10, squints in a black-and-white photo. She wears short hair with bangs, and a blouse with a pointed collar.

She does not smile.

The photo passed from person to person in the chapel of the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, where about 50 people gathered Jan. 29 to pray and listen to victims/survivors of child sexual abuse share their stories.

It belonged to Connie, a 59-year-old survivor who described being raped by her parish priest around age 9.

The photo was taken of her sometime after she was victimized. When Connie looks at it, she sees a struggling child, she said.

“That little girl didn’t have a choice to say no,” she said.

Connie, who did not provide her last name, was one of a half-dozen victims of child sexual abuse who spoke at the prayer service.

Besides opening hymns, a Scripture reading and prayer from Father Tim Norris, St. Paul’s pastor, the two-hour event was unstructured. People took turns sharing, either from their seats or a podium with a microphone, next to the popular image of Jesus offering his divine mercy.

The prayer service was the second the church has held for victims/survivors of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. The first was in May, after the parish sent “spiritual bouquets,” a collection of notes of support and prayers, to abuse victims/survivors. Among recipients was Bob Schwiderski, then state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The gesture inspired him to reach out to Father Norris, and they organized the first evening of prayer, sharing and reconciliation.

Among those in attendance were Father Charles Lachowitzer, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ vicar general and moderator of the curia. Father Lachowitzer returned for the Jan. 29 event, accompanied by Timothy O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment, who is responsible for archdiocesan compliance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Schwiderski spoke several times about healing and the importance of all victims/survivors sharing their stories. Two of the victims/survivors who spoke Jan. 29 were abused by family members, not members of the clergy.

“Sexual abuse is a crime of silence, and if you don’t break the silence, it continues to eat,” Schwiderski said.

Lost trust

Connie’s husband stood by her side as she shared memories of her childhood before she was assaulted. Reading from notes, she described her parents opening their home to their parish priests, including meals. The priest who abused her, she said, used to walk in her house at dinnertime, grabbing a plate from the cupboard before joining the family of 10 at the table.

This priest asked if she’d play hide-and-seek, Connie said, a game that led to him binding and raping her in a vehicle parked in the parish garage.

Her brothers, she said, were also molested by the priest, who was allowed in their bedroom to “wrestle.”

“Being molested by a priest changes who you are. Every aspect of your life. You live with fear and doubt,” she said.

“It’s like a tape that plays over and over in your brain.”

She discovered the priest who abused her and her siblings was accused of abuse in a prior parish, but her family did not know it, she said.

Like many victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse, Connie no longer attends Mass. She belongs to a non-denominational church in Victoria, she said.

Another victim/survivor described losing his faith completely after being abused by a religious sister.

“I have no faith. I have no trust. I’m totally void,” he said.

Several victims/survivors felt doubly victimized when Church leaders didn’t believe their stories, or suspected Church leadership not investigating or covering up abuse allegations.

Although not an abuse victim/survivor, Mary Beth Barbato, a parishioner of St. Paul, shared that she grieves the trust she has lost in priests because of the abuse scandal. She fears having her children around priests, and that fear hurts, she said.

The scandal, however, has not shaken her faith in the Catholic Church.

“Jesus is in the holy Eucharist,” she said, “and I just want it [the Church] to be cleaned.”

Another participant said that whenever he sees a priest or religious brother, he can’t help but think, “What about them?”

Moving forward

Near the end of the two-hour prayer service, Father Norris apologized on behalf of the Church, and for his own sins of omission.

“We are all complicit in some ways, because of the silence,” he said.

Father Norris said he first read about clergy sexual abuse more than 20 years ago, while he was in seminary, but didn’t think it was something that pertained to his ministry. He has changed his mind.

Several lay people at the prayer service asked the victims/survivors what healing could look like, and how they could help them heal.

The victims/survivors who responded emphasized that it was different for each person, and that no single action or person could bring about healing.

However, “each of you can’t use that as an excuse not to do what you can,” cautioned one participant. “Healing happens one person at a time.”

Several made clear that their own healing is tied to people taking responsibility for ending or preventing the sexual abuse of other children.

Schwiderski, who for years had a contentious relationship with local Catholic leaders, now thinks the archdiocese is on the right track because it’s now listening.

“They’re learning from the past on how to better handle all sexual abuse, now and in the future,” he said.

He described meeting with O’Malley, the safe environment director, at a church, and how much he appreciated that an archdiocesan official would meet with him outside the chancery.

“I think the archdiocese here is a shining light to many places around the country,” he said. “[Father] Lachowitzer is bound and determined to do something different.”

Schwiderski is also advocating for a broader discussion of the horrors of child sexual abuse everywhere, not just at the hands of Catholic clergy and religious men and women.

“The issue is childhood sexual abuse,” he said. “Just because I was abused by a priest doesn’t make me a special survivor. … My journey is to reach out to all of those victims of child sexual abuse.”

The Church of St. Paul is hosting “A Light Shines in the Darkness: A Mass for Healing, Reconciliation and Hope” Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. Bishop Lee Piché plans to celebrate the Mass.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News