Healing rites held throughout Helena Diocese for sex abuse victims

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

by Dan Morris-Young

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While its sexual abuse settlement and bankruptcy proceedings fade into history, the Helena, Mont., diocese's "road less traveled" to healing and outreach for victim survivors continues, most recently through seven "deeply moving" prayer services throughout the sprawling see.

Helena Bishop George Thomas, who presided at each, described them as "one of the most difficult and challenging tasks in my 40 years of priesthood."

During his homily repeated at each site, Thomas admitted he "experienced a deep sense of inadequacy as I searched to find words to express the sadness and sorrow I feel toward those who have suffered, so often in silence, for years if not decades."

Called "Vespers — A Healing Journey," the rites took place from Sept. 30-Oct. 8 throughout the diocese which is more than one and a half times the size of Ireland.

Nearly 1,200 participated, diocesan officials said.

"They were deeply moving, deeply emotional experiences," Thomas told NCR.

During at least two of the liturgies, lectors were so overcome when asking for prayer for "victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse who ended their lives as a result of the pain they suffered" that they had "to stop and collect themselves" before continuing, the bishop said.

Media were not alerted to the healing services, Thomas said, "as we did not want to risk this being a spectacle."

In March, a bankruptcy and reorganization plan for the diocese was approved in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, three and a half years after initial lawsuits had been filed. More than 360 plaintiffs were involved.

During that time, fewer than three hours were actually spent in court, according to attorneys.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Terry L. Myers called the resolution a "singular achievement." He and others hailed the mediation and negotiation employed to reach the settlement.

Although reaching out to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of church personnel was mong non-monetary stipulations of the settlement, it was not approached perfunctorily, according to Thomas and others. Rather, it was embraced "as a blessing and an opportunity."

Thomas said he was "surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people at every venue" who, following the services, shared with him that they had been victims of sexual abuse.

"For many it was the first time they had spoken about sex abuse in their family or at the hands of a priest or church leader," he continued. "It had been hidden and painful — for 30, 40, even 50 years. Their hearts had been deeply touched by the prayer experience, and it gave them permission to open up their hearts."

"For many it marked a new beginning, not closure," Thomas said. "There was an outpouring of grace and gratitude."

Fr. Edward Hislop, chair of the diocese's liturgical commission, also attended all seven services and echoed Thomas.

"The depth of sincerity of all who participated was overwhelming," said Hislop who is pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in Missoula, and Spirit of Christ Mission in Lolo. "Those in the assembly varied from persons who had experienced various forms of abuse from various ministers of the church to those who had similar experiences in other places — the home from family members, in schools, etc. The moments of silence in the liturgy — which were very deliberate — were profound, a deep silence not often experienced in other liturgical gatherings."

Hislop said "priests of the diocese, from my perspective, were also deeply moved. They spoke of the profound simplicity of the experience, the beauty of the prayer, and a sense of the healing journey begun."

"The sense of healing hoped for and the awareness that this prayer was not about closure but truly about an ongoing journey seemed to reverberate amongst those gathered," Hislop said "Many in the assembly shed tears, even as they sang. One man said to me, 'I never spoke to anyone about what happened to me, but I felt I needed to come. Tonight I heard my voice.' "

One attendee told NCR a similar story. He is a victim survivor, but his family does not know it. The impact of the healing service "might become the impetus for me to start sharing my story," he said. "I don't know yet."

The rites began with the bishop and other priests "laying prostrate before the altar — a sign of being humbled by what has happened, an expression of our deep sorrow. No words were spoken," Thomas said.

The prayer service "was very carefully and prayerfully prepared," he said, noting that input from victims themselves was incorporated. Nearly a third of the homily was brief statements read from victim survivors who had "stepped forward and opened a window to their souls."

Thomas' homily was consistently lauded by participants. "It was very heartfelt on Bishop Thomas' part, and I am sure it was a difficult thing for him to do, but he knew he had to do it and stepped up to the plate very graciously," said Lori Maloney of Butte. She described her overall takeaway from the rite as "one of comfort."

"This has been a dark, sad time for the church," Maloney said, "not only in Montana but across the country. Heads were buried in the sand far too long. Finally things have come to light and action has been taken, action in a positive way — at least in the Helena diocese."

Thomas has said his "first instinct was to be defensive" when the abuse lawsuits were initially filed, that "we would fight this thing through, circle the wagons."

"However, the Lord had a different idea and the victim survivors provided the insight and wisdom for us to move into the future," he explained.

He said during his homily that a 2012 multi-issue "listening session" in Missoula sponsored by Concerned Catholics of Montana was a key to convincing him to emphasize pastoral care and outreach over combative litigation.

In particular, he said, he was moved by a "diminutive and courageous woman (who) rose to the microphone" and spoke about "the life of a particular person she knew who had been abused at the hands of a priest. She described in detail this woman's downward spiral of shame and blame, of continued betrayal, with subsequent hospitalization and financial ruin."

That woman was the speaker herself, Thomas told healing service participants.

Magy Stelling of Missoula was that speaker and later joined other abuse victims to help design the healing prayer services, she told NCR.

In an email to NCR, the 82-year-old described how the abuse she suffered destroyed her faith and her ability to trust others. Recovering faith and becoming open to healing took decades.

While "the assault was frozen in time," she wrote, "it was the continuing denials and non-compassionate response by the hierarchy that triggered the anger and rage to bubble to the surface. Abuse was heaped upon the original abuse and that was so wrong."

Ultimately, she decided, "to remain silent was to become a party to that second round of abuse."

In his homily, the bishop said he had "heard time and again survivors express righteous anger and frustration toward bishops and church officials for decisions that were sometimes ill-advised and self-serving, decisions which favored church image over pastoral care, and protection of resources over the safety of children. For that I too am profoundly sorry, and am encouraged by the recent pledge of Pope Francis to hold officials accountable when their failed leadership re-victimized victims anew, and placed others in harm's way."

"When talking about sexual abuse, we are not talking about statistics, or cases, or claims." Thomas preached. "We are talking about real people, real lives, broken trust, wounded hearts, and wounded individuals longing for healing and hope. That night I publicly pledged that in the diocese of Helena, victim survivors will be respected, beloved, and believed. In the diocese of Helena, we will reject years of acrimonious litigation, and seek a path of mediation, conciliation, and pastoral care of our people."

Thomas told NCR, "I would not allow attorneys to be in the driver's seat."

That decision -- "to take the road less traveled" -- was "affirmed a hundred times over in prayer," he said, adding: "At the end of the day, it was a no-brainer. This is the way the church should carry out its ministry."

"I prayed my way through this," Thomas said. "I wore out my welcome with Mary" asking her to "carry my petitions" for wisdom and guidance to her son.* "The answer was always the same: Trust me. I will show you the way. Lean heavily on pastoral care."

Butte residents Kathy Walter and John Brown both said they attended the prayer service not knowing what to expect, even skeptically, but came away having "really felt the presence of God," in Walter's words.

"It changed me," Walter said. " It struck me how seriously the diocese is addressing the kind of evil perpetrated on victims, how serious the diocese is in asking forgiveness and healing in addition to offering healing, the healing power of Jesus — and that healing is ongoing into the future, not a one-time event. I have renewed respect for my church."

"It was not a counseling service," she emphasized. "It was a worship service."

Brown agreed, saying he and others with whom he visited had "experienced a sense of healing" and appreciated "the bishop's empathy and understanding for what abuse victims have been through."

*The quote from Bishop Thomas has been revised for accuracy.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" is NCRonline's newest blog series, covering life in Catholic parishes across the United States. The title comes from the words of Pope Francis: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up."

"The Field Hospital" blog will run twice weekly on NCRonline.org along with feature stories and news reports about parish life in the U.S. If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).

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