For true healing, abuse survivors urge church to hear their stories

For true healing, abuse survivors urge church to hear their stories

Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pa., speaks with Jim VanSickle of Pittsburgh, who told a Pennsylvania grand jury he was molested by a priest when he was a teenager in Bradford, Pa. VanSickle and the bishop spoke during an Aug. 21, 2018, news conference held in front of the Diocese of Erie's headquarters by members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. (Credit: Chaz Muth/CNS.)

A trio of survivors of sexual abuse are inviting the Catholic Church -- from parishioners in the pews to the bishops who lead dioceses -- to join them on their journey toward healing and reconciliation.

CLEVELAND — A trio of survivors of sexual abuse are inviting the Catholic Church — from parishioners in the pews to the bishops who lead dioceses — to join them on their journey toward healing and reconciliation.

The invitation from Mike Hoffman, who chairs the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Hope and Healing Committee, Mark Williams, a special adviser to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and a deacon in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois who asked to remain anonymous is meant to help the wider church heal as well.

And that means hearing their stories and those of other sexual abuse victims-survivors, they told Catholic News Service in mid-April, which is Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

It’s their belief that by hearing those stories, Catholics will be touched and begin to realize that churchwide healing from the wounds of abuse is a long process, as their own yearslong recovery attests.

They also believe that actions to prevent future abuse must encompass more than the “checklist” of requirements outlined in the U.S. bishops’ 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

“Nobody knows what a survivor needs than a survivor him(self) or herself,” said Hoffman, who was abused by a priest as a 12-year-old at his family’s parish.

“When you walk that walk, the simple answer is not as simple,” said the deacon, whose abuse while he was a teenager lasted three years.

“Invite victims-survivors to be part of the solution,” said Williams, who was raped at age 13 by a priest.

It’s time, Williams added, for the church to take up Pope Francis’s vision of a church that serves as a field hospital for the wounded and lost.

Healing can take many forms and last for varying lengths of time, they said. What they and other victims-survivors desire from the Catholic Church, they said, is recognition and support as they continue their journey rather than try to carry out a “one-size-fits-all” ministry.

“I’ve spoken with people in other dioceses. Typically a diocese will do something for survivors, but are not doing things with survivors,” Hoffman said.

The men are working to change that by remaining devoted to their faith despite their traumatic experiences. They also remain active in the church — more active than most Catholics — by serving in various roles that require regular contact with key church leaders to keep the needs of victims-survivors in the forefront of the church’s response to the abuse crisis.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this?'” Hoffman said. “I told them, ‘Are you asking me because a bad man abused me, I have to abandon my faith that my parents instilled in me? My whole identity is based around the Catholic Church. I married a Catholic woman and (am) sending my children to Catholic school and you’re telling me I have to abandon all that?'”

The deacon said much the same, saying he wants a “seat at the table and becoming a part of the thought process of not putting a bandage on something.”

For Williams, his focus is on the mystical body of Christ in the Eucharist and that God is always accompanying him on his journey.

A retired firefighter, the deacon, 54, has served since 2018 on the Chicago Archdiocese’s Review Board, which hears allegations of abuse and advises Cardinal Blase J. Cupich on actions to be taken on complaints received. “Being on the board in Chicago was a blessing to me in my own recovery,” he said.

He said he brings the perspective of a victim-survivor to the board’s deliberations.

“I can listen to their story and understand and put things in perspective why somebody waited 30 years or 40 years (to report their abuse). People are going to talk about their story at the time it’s comfortable for them. Something triggers that internal voice to come out,” he explained.

The deacon’s journey toward healing and reconciliation has continued for nearly 15 years. It has involved long discussions with social workers, therapists and clergy who were willing to have “my voice heard,” he said. He also is dependent on parish-based “peace circles,” discussion groups primarily for clergy sexual abuse survivors but open to anyone wanting to respond to sexual abuse.

“It feels like a never-ending process,” the deacon added. “But the process is important because it has helped.”

The deacon’s friend, Hoffman, 56, is one of six victims-survivors serving on the Chicago Archdiocese’s decade-old Hope and Healing Committee. It is widely known for an annual Mass of Hope and Healing in April and an annual prayer service in the fall, both of which have seen broader participation each year.

The committee grew from efforts in 2008 to establish a healing garden, a place for abuse survivors and their supporters to gather and reflect on the incidents of abuse and ways to prevent abuse in the future.

The garden is located in a high-visibility area on the grounds of Holy Family Church adjacent to St. Ignatius College Prep on Chicago’s Near West Side. It includes a sculpture of the Holy Family and a plaque inscribed with the words from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about reconciliation.

Hoffman said students use the garden’s pathways daily and are often seen studying on benches there, which is exactly what the committee wanted to see happen.

“Publicly, these events have helped bring people together around an issue that has literally driven people from the church. Now we have 10 years of successful public outreach that people attend,” Hoffman said.

As an adviser to Tobin and others in the Newark Archdiocese, Williams has been invited to speak during prayer services and address seminarians in formation for the priesthood. Williams, 64, said the role has given him a way to continue the healing that many in the church seek.

Seminarians, he said, must hear the stories of abuse survivors so that they incorporate “human formation” alongside the intellectual, pastoral and theological formation they undergo.

By addressing seminarians, Williams said he also hopes to break down any semblance of clericalism by telling his story that began with abuse, eventually led to alcoholism, depression and finally a path to healing that began about 17 years ago.

Tobin, in an email to CNS April 15, said Williams “has helped me better understand the terrible consequences of sexual abuse” while demonstrating how he has been able to “integrate his suffering in a worldview of faith, thus becoming a wounded and incredibly effective instrument of healing.”

“Mark shows me that suffering, injustice and abuse need not have the final word in the life of a survivor,” Tobin said. “He believes in healing, forgiveness (but not exoneration), and does not hesitate to remind me of my responsibility and the need for vigilance. He is truly a blessing for me and for this local church that has been entrusted to my care.”

Williams likes to use the image of the Good Shepherd as an example of how he would like to see the church respond to victims-survivors. In a presentation during a symposium April 8 presented by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Williams said the Good Shepherd is often seen carrying a lamb on his shoulders.

He pointed to a parallel image portrayed in the fifth Station of the Cross, in which Simon of Cyrene helps a battered Jesus carry the cross on the way to Calvary.

“Simon is a stranger and yet he goes and lifts the cross and puts it on his shoulders like the Good Shepherd,” he told CNS. “How it is revealed in what Simon did for Christ, I think that’s what we have to do for one another.

“People may feel like victims-survivors are strangers. ‘How can I go help them? I can’t understand them. I can’t relate to them. I haven’t had that experience.’ Yet that’s what we are called to do. We are called to go out to the stranger.”

Latest Stories