Days before Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan left Milwaukee to become archbishop of New York in April 2009, he filmed an introduction to a video that was bound to not only cause controversy among people of the faith, but possibly dig up memories many may have felt should have been left alone.

“It’s very important for all of us to come face to face with the victims of these horrific acts,” he spoke candidly in the film, which was released April 23, 2009. “By doing so we connect to their pain and the opportunities we have to support them in healing.”

“The Healing Circle”

DVD can be purchased by visiting for $45.90 or $104.90 for a four-pack.

“The Healing Circle,” a film put together by independent television producer Rita Hagen Aleman, shares the real-life struggles of clergy sexual abuse survivors, an offender priest, other clergy and lay ministers, who are described as “stakeholders” or representatives of each group affected by the scandal. Archbishop Dolan was also present as they shared stories of pain and betrayal.

Amy Peterson, the archdiocese’s victim assistance coordinator for the Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Services office, and Diane Knight, chair of the National Review Board of the USCCB, were asked by members of the Milwaukee Archdiocese to find a way to address and prevent clergy sexual abuse. Janine Geske, a Marquette University Law School professor and the head of the Restorative Justice Initiative, facilitated a healing group for people affected by the scandal.

“I explained from the beginning, my hope was to create this film that could be used by parishes and seminaries and others, to help recognize the sort of depths and breadths of the harm, so that we can talk about as a Catholic community how we go about healing,” Geske said. Those involved in the healing circle knew that eventually the taped session would be edited for video, and all were supportive in that decision.

“You have victims groups, you have clergy groups, you have family members, you have parishes, you have staff,” Peterson explained. “It seems that there’s not a whole discussion between all the different players. In other words, we’re not having a full discussion. Everybody’s got their piece and their side of the story, so to speak, and I was just trying to find a way that there could be some kind of an opportunity for all the stakeholders.”

The four-hour session took place in November 2006, and was left unedited until Aleman was brought on board to produce it. The project cost nearly $50,000, with Marquette University and other groups providing the funds. It was a project that took more than four months to complete.

According to Geske, proceeds of the video (once production costs have been paid) will go toward projects by the Restorative Justice Initiative aimed at education and protecting children from abuse by people in authority.

“I wanted people in the circle to sort of reflect both from directly being victimized, to others the impact on priests, the impact on lay ministry and others,” Geske said. “Amy (Peterson) came up with the number of the people that she directly worked with in the archdiocese, trying to get some of the people affiliated with the church (to be in the healing circle).”

The conversations that day yielded remarkable thoughts, according to Geske.

“It was amazing, because as we sat in the circle, people that I knew and I talked to, and Amy talked to, wound up saying things that we’d never heard before, which is often the case in the healing circle, or a talking circle,” she said.

A priest who was touched in the seminary, a deacon who worked with a priest who was later arrested for molesting young boys, and a mother whose son was victimized and later killed himself, are a few of the stories told in the hour-long video.

“We had a priest who admits having been an offender, and that takes courage,” Geske explained about one member of the circle. “Amy (Peterson) and I particularly recognized and told him how much we respected his courage on willing to go on the film, because he was the one in the circle who had actually been an offender. Of course, he talked about his own problems.

“People said the most amazing things,” Geske said. “We had tears.”

Aleman recalled the day the tapes were given to her by Geske. After spending nearly eight hours watching video recorded from the two cameras, she remembered weeping.

“I had been very moved by the fact that the people in the group – some who were victim survivors, others who obviously had been affected by the scandal – I was moved by their honesty, and by the fact that they spoke very simply but eloquently about the harm that had been caused, and their own sorrow,” Aleman said.

“I guess I was feeling what most people feel when you watch this film,” Aleman said. “We’ve given four previews and the result after every viewing is basically silence, because it’s so overwhelming to hear it all, and to experience it with the people who were in the circle that day.

“That’s hard to see and hear all at one time.”

According to Geske and Peterson, audience reactions to the film have been similar.

“It’s really interesting, because we’ve done a number of focus groups before it was completed, and the first one was people who were in the film,” she said. “So we wanted to make sure that everybody who was in it felt comfortable with what was being portrayed. “

Deacons, priests, sisters and sexual survivor support groups were also focus groups for the film.

“The reaction was very interesting, because when we were showing it to these groups at that point we really wanted feedback on the film,” Geske explained. “First of all, there is always dead silence when it’s done. It just so profoundly touches people.”

The talk that results in viewing the film causes its own “ripple effect,” according to Geske.

“Whether it was people that worked for the archdiocese or parishioners, they all started telling their personal stories,” she explained. “Which is what we wanted to evoke from the film. The purpose of the film is to hopefully have parishes and groups carry on this style themselves with their priests and other people.”

Although it was the archdiocese that initiated the project, Peterson said they had no control of what transpired in the healing circle or the video.

“This idea of doing this project with Marquette and asking Janine (Geske) was from the diocese. We requested it, we asked for it,” Peterson said. “We asked for her expertise in helping us put this together, and she did a fabulous job…we really did not control any of the editing or what people said. The diocese didn’t control any of that. Janine (Geske) did a fabulous job of facilitating that circle.”

While it was Geske who took charge of the project, she had help.

“I want to give Archbishop Dolan incredible credit for this,” Geske said. “Because he was supportive from the first time I talked to him, to filming the introduction for us right before he left for New York…I can tell you that a lot of people have tried to do something restorative in their diocese, and the church has not let them do it, for whatever reason. Archbishop Dolan has been incredibly supportive in this, and this film would not have happened – and certainly not the way that it did – if he had not been there to support it.”

“I know that there are lots of people who say, ‘Let’s just get past this,’” Geske added. “But I think it’s been found, whether it’s internationally, whether it’s South Africa, or other places, or even lesser harms, people need to know and identify and be heard about the harm that’s been caused, before you go about healing and moving on.”