Roughly 100 Catholics from the Oak Park and River Forest area gathered recently in McDonough Hall of St. Giles Parish to participate in “an evening of prayers and dialog on Eucharistic communities and the effects of clergy sexual abuse, including table discussion to discern next steps.
Tony Graefe, chair of the St. Luke Peace and Justice Committee, who emceed the event, said the purpose of the gathering was to “hear about and discuss a subject that we don’t want to talk about, abuse by trusted persons such as priests and … the bishops’ failure to admit that abuse was happening, covering it up, and failing until recently to prioritize the healing of those abused.”
Graefe, a lifelong Catholic, said he thought the event “exceeded the goals of the organizing committee.”
Wayne Vanek’s response was more cautious. Also a lifelong Catholic, he said, “When I left the hall, I felt a little bit hopeful.”
Vanek’s ambivalence comes in part from a sense, expressed by many in the room that night, that the painful, disillusioning scandal is far from resolved. A few in the audience are still recovering from personal trauma. A woman, who asked that her name not be used, said, “When I was 40 years old, I volunteered at an anti-war organization in which a priest was instrumental. One afternoon he tried to get me to sit on his lap. I ran out and never volunteered there again.”
When the participants were asked how many knew a family member or acquaintance who had been abused by a church leader, about a third raised their hands.
Pat Nelson, 78, and a lifelong Catholic, said, “I don’t feel I need healing. I feel the Church as an institution needs great healing. I feel some of my 40- to 50-year-old adult children are more impacted by this scandal than I am. I think some young people have lost respect for the special calling and life dedication of the priesthood — off the pedestal so to speak. My personal grieving is for all the good priests out there who are … being grouped with the horrible actions of other clergy.”
What added insult to injury for many at the meeting was the belief that a significant portion of the money set aside by the archdiocese as reparations had been mishandled. “The bishops,” said Vanek, “could have behaved like pastors instead of like CEOs. And the greatest loss is the credibility of the Catholic Church when an alternative view of the world is so needed.”
But he is also hopeful “that many, many Catholics will continue to do the work of Christ. The most hopeful thing is that many persons are coming to realize that there is no difference between the sacred and the secular and that God is everywhere and with everyone.”
“I choose hope, dependent on faith and love,” said Nelson. “Being made up of human beings, the Catholic Church has some awful skeletons in its closet, but the Church survives because of the Resurrection, and belief in that.”
One of the two presenters, Fr. Larry Dowling, also raised participants’ hopes by his willingness to publicly critical how the bishops handled the situation. He has been an advocate for the abused in his position on the Archdiocesan Review Board and, in Nelson’s words, “has taken the initiative to address this with everyday type folks in an open forum.”
Dowling put significant emphasis on the laity taking charge of the process of healing through reform. He talked about one of Martin Luther’s favorite concepts: the priesthood of all believers.
“I agree with Fr. Dowling’s bottom-up approach,” said Nelson. “We are the Church. Gatherings like the one on Monday evening are positive steps forward in the ‘fix’ and healing.”
Perhaps the most important reason why many left McDonough Hall feeling “more hopeful” was the presentation by Michael Hoffman, an adult survivor of childhood clerical sexual abuse.
“I thought Mike Hoffman was courageous in his presentation,” said Mary Trifone, an 84-year-old member of St. Edmund where she is a lector. She described the Catholic faith as the most important part of her life. “Healing began with his wife, and his parish priest encouraged him to seek healing and acknowledgment of the abuse by the Church.”