MILWAUKEE — Four Catholic priests have collaborated with victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy to make a joint public appeal urging survivors to come forward by the Feb. 1 bar date and urging full accounting by the Milwaukee Archdiocese for the “action or inaction that may have allowed these crimes to occur, the offender to go unpunished, and other children to be harmed.”
Their message, in the form of a full-page advertisement in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday, Dec. 27 on the back page of the paper’s main section, featured a small dove with an olive branch at the top of the page.
That image, according to Fr. James Connell, pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus parishes, Sheboygan, vice chancellor of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and the person who paid for the $10,320 ad with money from his personal savings account, sets the tone for the message.
‘Time to turn the page’
“You notice at the top of the ad there’s a dove and an olive branch,” said Fr. Connell, explaining in a phone conversation with your Catholic Herald that he had not specifically requested that art appear with the ad. “It showed up in the final drafts … and it’s a great symbol of what we were trying to say. It’s time to turn the page, there’s got to be another way” to deal with the abuse crisis, he added.
“A Message from Priests and from Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Clergy,” was signed by Fr. Connell; Fr. Richard Cerpich, a senior priest of the archdiocese; Fr. Howard Haase, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Waukesha; and Fr. Gregory Greiten, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish, Milwaukee.
Other signers included survivors: Peter Isely, Midwest director for SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests); John Pilmaier, SNAP Wisconsin director; Mike Sneesby, SNAP Milwaukee director, Vicky Schneider, Karen Konter; and mother of a survivor, Marilynn Pilmaier.
In addition to encouraging victim/survivors to come forward, the ad includes an apology from the priests.
“As priests and pastors of the archdiocese, we publicly declare our unqualified support to every victim/survivor. We hold ourselves and our institution fully accountable for any action or inaction that may have allowed these crimes to occur, the offender to go unpunished, and other children to be harmed. We are truly sorry that this happened to you.”
From the victim/survivors is a declaration of support for priests who take “the courageous step of publicly standing with survivors.”
The ad includes a listing of resources, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where victim/survivors can seek help.
The group discussed the message and their alliance during a news conference at Plymouth Church, Milwaukee, on the afternoon the ad appeared.
Their group has been meeting monthly for about a year, according to Fr. Connell, after Isely asked him if a group of priests might join them to talk – no agendas, just discussion.
Fr. Haase said he agreed to join once he came to the realization that “if healing is to take place, there cannot be winners or losers; we must be brothers and sisters,” adding it is important to have the two groups, often perceived as enemies, come together.
Fr. Haase said he remembered telling Isely at the first meeting that he was “easy to dislike when all you are is a sound bite, all you are is a face on TV.” Prior to their first meeting, Fr. Haase said he remembers realizing that “in my own head and heart (Isely and Pilmaier) had become enemies.” Yet, he realized that in order to heal, he had to get beyond that.
In his comments at the press conference, Isely noted that non-abusive priests are also victims in this crisis. It’s deeply affected their struggles to bring the message of the Gospel to their communities, he said, adding, “The wound to the priesthood needs to be healed, and I believe survivors are important parts of the healing process. Clergy and survivors can work together to make the church a safe place for children.”
Isely called the alliance “historical,” suggesting it was the first time any similar collaboration has occurred in the entire crisis, even on a national level. He added that the alliance between priests and survivors, “is a very unhappy day for any predator who wants to harm a child in this archdiocese.”
Most loyal have deepest wounds
So often victim survivors come from what had been the most devout, Catholic families, said Isely, noting that many survivors have a deep spiritual longing for their homeland, the Catholic Church. The deepest wound, he said, was inflicted on children from the most loyal, faithful Catholic families, because those were the families the predators preyed upon.
“Because we were so faithful, they used our Catholic faith and in the process, utterly defiled the symbols of our faith and our traditions,” he said, admitting that after he was abused, “no one tried harder than me not to be a Catholic or a Christian.” Yet, he explained it is the Gospel, the Christian story guiding him through his work with the alliance.
Coming to the same table as priests has not been easy for many survivors, said Marilynn Pilmaier, who learned only five years ago that her son, as a child, had been abused by a priest. She considered the Catholic Church her family, but after learning of the abuse, and experiencing the reaction of some priests, Pilmaier said she is no longer Catholic. She said she reluctantly agreed to be part of the group.
“Imagine as a mother, the last people I really want to sit at a table with are Catholic priests,” she said, describing while being part of the group has not been easy, she said she feels its message is important.
Archbishop supports outreach
While Fr. Connell noted that he was speaking as an individual priest, not on behalf of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, he pointed out that Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki had attended two of the candlelight vigils for victim/survivors of clergy abuse that the priest had organized in the past two years.
“He was supportive of those efforts,” said Fr. Connell, noting the archbishop attended vigils in April 2010 and again later that summer. Fr. Connell said he had kept the archbishop informed about the group and its plans.
According to Julie Wolf, spokesperson for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the alliance’s goal of encouraging survivors to come forward for help is also a priority of the archdiocese.
“Reaching out to them in reconciliation and healing support has been a priority of the archbishop, of the bishops and priests for many years,” she said, praising the efforts of these priests and many others who have done so in a less public manner over the years to reach out and minister to the victim/survivors.
“It’s important to note how parishes, schools, priests, bishops, the archdiocesan staff have been working for many years to implement procedures to ensure that kids are safe,” she said, pointing to background checks, the Safe Environment program, ethical code of conduct and the archdiocesan website which includes a comprehensive listing of abusive priests.
To encourage victim survivors to come forward by the Feb. 1 bar date, the court deadline for filing a claim for restitution against the archdiocese through the reorganization process, Wolf said the archdiocese has put together a comprehensive campaign. It includes notices posted by parishes, schools, on websites in three languages: English, Spanish and Hmong and an extensive advertising campaign. The campaign will resume this month. Additionally, the archdiocesan website contains the names and photos of all known priest abusers.
Responding to the alliance’s calls for complete truthfulness regarding past abuse, Wolf said multitudes of documents have been shared with the local district attorneys, the courts, on websites.
The archdiocese and the alliance have the shared goal of doing everything possible to heal and learn from this, she said.
“We all want the same thing, for this to never happen again and to be there in support of those who are in need of healing,” said Wolf.
In parting with his own money to spread the message, Fr. Connell said he willingly did so to send a message he believes “brings light and life to something that has potential and promise.”
The healing process, he said, must include “having the truth come out.” For him, that doesn’t mean reams of documents, but rather an explanation as to how the abuse could have taken place and been covered up for so long.
“When I talk about truth, it’s not just statistics,” he said. “I wish somebody would talk to us about how this came to be, and if that level of truth were to come out, I think people would begin trusting their bishops and the church again.”
As of the afternoon when the ad appeared, Fr. Connell said he had received two calls from victim survivors who were “both very complimentary about the ad.”
Being part of the alliance has made him a more prayerful person, said Fr. Connell.
“The quantity of time I spend in prayer every day has increased since I find myself trusting more in God and the Holy Spirit to direct my life,” he said, adding that by journeying with the victims, he’s learned to appreciate their feelings.
The priest said he was glad to learn that the victim survivors realize that the abusive priests violated the trust of their brother priests as well.
“There’s pain and suffering that many of the priests feel,” he said, noting the abuse was committed by their classmates and buddies. “Many priests are angry at the bad guy priests … we’re mad as hell at these guys, too,” he added.
The abuse, Fr. Connell said, was a violation of trust.
“I don’t know if priests appreciate the extent to which people hold priests in very high levels of trust. We all understand how trust was broken by those who abused, but correspondingly, I feel a sense that some survivors are coming to trust me more and more as we go down this road together,” he said, pledging, “I must protect this trust and hope.”