Baskets of fresh white candles greeted visitors at St. Elizabeth Parish as they entered the dim and sparsely decorated church for an unusual evening service. A little more than 100 men and women scattered throughout the pews, some in small groups, some in couples, some quietly alone.
"I commend you for being here," Fr. Greg Haskamp, the pastor at St. Elizabeth's, told the solemn group. "I know the decision to attend was not an easy one."
The event was the second in a series of healing services sponsored by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., to reach out to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy over many decades. St. Elizabeth's is one of four parishes chosen for the services because of its history with clergy sex abuse. At least three priests -- Fr. Thomas O'Brien and Fr. Thomas Reardon in the 1970s and '80s and Fr. Michael Brewer in the 1990s -- have been accused of sexually molesting boys in the parish, according to the website bishopaccountability.org.
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.
In an email the night before the service, Haskamp said he hoped the effort would "open the door to healing and hope for survivors of abuse, for parishes and for the diocese as a whole."
"I believe this will be good for our parish to pray together publicly and to stand in solidarity with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, as the people of St. Elizabeth have done that faithfully for many years," he said. But, he added, he knows this won't happen quickly or easily.
Calling such an acknowledgement of abuse by priests "long overdue," Haskamp in his homily welcomed survivors to the service. "I know the journey from home to parking lot, from parking lot to church doors, and church doors to pew was a long one," he said. He then congratulated them for bringing the Catholic community together to pray.
One of those attending was Janelle Stamm of nearby Lenexa, Kan., who said a relative of hers had committed suicide because of abuse. She said she was struggling with this issue and even with whether to stay in the Catholic church. She reached out to Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of the neighboring Kansas City, Kan., Archdiocese, who is the temporary administrator of the Missouri diocese, in a letter and was able to meet with Naumann and share her concerns.
Stamm said she felt encouraged after attending the event at St. Elizabeth and wants to suggest that Naumann have healing services in the Kansas City, Kan., archdiocese as well, because "one instance can affect families that are spread out."
She said she appreciated Haskamp's acknowledgement that a move toward healing should have happened a long time ago, noting that a lot of faith-filled people have left the church, although there are those whose faith in God wasn't severed.
"I believed his homily," she said.
Tim O'Connell, a St. Elizabeth parishioner and cantor at the service, admitted he was cynical initially when seeing the advertisements for the healing services.
"The more I heard Fr. Greg describe about what we are doing, the more grateful I was that the archdiocese chose to do this," he said. "The pain has been so evident. I'm grateful that at the diocesan and parish level they are saying yes, there is a problem, yes there was harm, now how do we come to healing."
During the service, which lasted barely an hour, O'Connell led the congregation in chanting a "Litany of Healing." In addition to traditional phrases from the Catholic faith such as "Lord have mercy," the litany included reflections on unabashed images of wrongdoing and physical and psychological injury:
"For children who've been betrayed, Christ, be our light."
"For adults who have not been heard, Christ, shine in the darkness."
"For children and the vulnerable abused by priests. Within the walls of the church. Within the walls of the rectory. Within the walls of our school. Within the walls of our homes."
"For those who abuse power. Forgive us, your church."
Visitors were invited to take their candles to the altar, light them and place them in pots of sand to remember survivors and others affected by the sexual abuse scandals of the church.
For O'Connell, the most meaningful part of Haskamp's message was when he spoke about the "Body of Christ" being harmed from within.
"Our institutional response has been appalling much of the time, and the journey of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration has barely begun," Haskamp said.
"The Body of Christ, wounded from within, has been injured even more deeply in our alienation," he continued. "It is time we suffer together, as one, to grieve, to lament."
His homily ended with a note of hope.
"There is darkness, and there is light. And in that strange darkness and mysterious light dwells the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus. In him, nothing can separate us from the one who loves us. And that is our hope."
The full text of the homily follows.
[Elizabeth Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
We find ourselves in a strange place tonight, a mysterious place of both darkness and light. If you are here as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, a church worker or volunteer, I welcome you to St. Elizabeth. The parish, our diocese and I are glad you are here. I commend you for being here, as I know the decision to attend must have come after a lot of struggle, conversation, thought and reflection. I know the decision to attend was not an easy one. And I know the journey from home to parking lot, from parking lot to church doors, and church doors to pew was a long one, possibly one marked by anxiety, difficult memories, questions and unknowns. I commend you for being here. And I congratulate you. You have brought the Catholic community together to pray.
This is long overdue, I know. To gather in prayer to lament wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ – from within – is needed, essential, at the heart of the journey forward. But this is, of course, just a step. This prayer service won't fix everything, it won't heal every wound or resolve every challenge. There is much more to come. But tonight, this is where we belong.
There are no excuses. Children have been abused, adults have been violated. Groomed, manipulated, molested, children and adults alike have been injured by the actions of clergy, and far too often doubted or disbelieved when they have reported it. And along with the direct victims, families and parish communities have been scarred. Disbelief, shame and confusion have exacerbated wounds that already went too deep. Our institutional response has been appalling much of the time, and the journey of repentance, reconciliation and restoration has barely begun. We have all suffered, but tragically we have suffered in separation, apart from one another. The Body of Christ, wounded from within, has been injured even more deeply in our alienation. It is time we suffer together, as one, to grieve, to lament.
It is a strange invitation, to suffer, to go or return to a painful place, where harm was done, where deep wounds were inflicted. It is a strange invitation, yet the Christian community has been making that journey since our beginning. For centuries we have returned to the place of suffering we call the Cross, a place where darkness and light dance in mysterious tension. Our trials, our distress, our mistreatment and our lack, all that threatens and endangers us, have been devastating and divisive. Paul tells us that they cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But they sure hurt like hell and do incredible damage.
All the same, there is light. People who have been harmed by abuse make the challenging and courageous journey to healing and hope. Empathetic family, friends and neighbors journey with us and listen to our pain. There is recognition, at least among some, of a need for change in our culture, in our systems, in our structures. And finally we have found our way here to pray.
There is darkness, and there is light. And in that strange darkness and mysterious light dwells the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus. In him, nothing can separate us from the one who loves us. And that is our hope.