Bishop Johnston leads healing service for sex abuse survivors

One week to the day after his installation as bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, James Johnston led a healing service to reach out to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy over many decades.

The fourth of a series of services sponsored by the diocese, the HOPE event was held Nov. 11 at the Nativity of Mary parish in Independence, Mo.

The diocese began the program, Healing Our Parishes through Empathy (HOPE), in August, four months after Bishop Robert Finn resigned. The services are the first of their kind in the diocese, according to Carrie Cooper, director of the Department of Child and Youth Protection.

Fr. Bob Stone, pastor of Nativity of Mary, welcomed over 100 participants, noting how the church had been bruised, praying for God, who is the only one who can truly heal, to be with the people.

Nativity of Mary was chosen for the services because of its history with clergy sex abuse. At least four priests -- Fr. Thomas O'Brien, Fr. Isaac True, Fr. Mark Honhart and Thomas Reardon -- have been accused of sexually molesting boys in the parish, according to the website bishopaccountability.org.

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In his homily, Johnston thanked everyone for coming and pointed out the variety of reasons they attended the healing service, noting those who had been hurt, as well as those who may be guilty of hurting others.

“I am here to express repentance for priests and bishops and anyone in the service of the church whose actions and inactions harmed the lives of children entrusted to their care,” Johnston said. “I ask forgiveness from the victims and from the diocese at large. Tonight, through the saving power of the cross, we bring our sorrows but also our common hope for the future.”

Johnson told the story of Deborah Morris, author of Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. She was raped by Robert Willie, who was a central figure in Sr. Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking book. Morris came to forgive the man on death row and to do so, she surrendered all her shame, her guilt, her rage, her low self-esteem, she surrendered when she decided to forgive him.”

“What Deborah Norris discovered was that forgiveness is a gift to oneself. Forgiveness had no effect on Willie. The choice is for healing and life,” Johnston said. “To be clear, it doesn’t mean forgetting.”

“Christian forgiveness includes remembering, recalling to continually choose to forgive again and again and again, which is why Jesus said we must forgive 70 times seven times,” he added. “I think he said that because we keep remembering. We remember the pain and the ones who caused it, and we are presented with a choice to forgive again and again. We can do this because God helps us. This is the only way to really heal. Forgiveness.”

“Mercy is the path we must each take to heal and be healed,” Johnston concluded.

Diane Stallman, a parishioner of Nativity of Mary, thought Johnston was spot on in his homily.

“He didn’t mince words,” she told NCR. “You’ll never forget but we all need to forgive. I feel he was chosen for a reason to come to this diocese. He’s very open and the diocese needs that bishop to be for the people.”

After the homily, everyone was invited to place a grain of incense in the burner to raise prayers for healing for themselves and others. Johnston added his prayers as well.  

Amy Johnson, one of the attendees, said watching Johnston placing a portion of incense was the most memorable part of the service.

“That was my hope, that we would have an opportunity to see his heart and his leadership,” she said.

Kevin Stallman, husband of parishioner Diane Stallman, said the couple came to the service to meet Johnston and “feel a sense healing for the church and each other as a community.”

[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is eelliott@ncronline.org.]


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