“Harm, Hope and Healing”
The church can’t turn back the clock and right the wrongs of abuse to wipe away the pain of survivors, said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, but as a church representative, he can continue to over and over again offer a profound apology. He said he can also learn from victims and survivors willing to tell their stories.
Archbishop Listecki listened to a panel of three share their stories of clergy sexual abuse during the two-day conference “Harm, Hope and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal,” April 4-5, hosted by Marquette University’s Law School.
The victim/survivors included a Boston police officer recently retired from the sexual assault unit, a mother whose son committed suicide in the 1980s and a Milwaukee man who was abused by a religious priest.
In each case, priests violated sacred trust.
“My mother was a devout Catholic. She went to Mass and Communion every day,” said Marie Donahue. “I’m one of six children. My mother was pretty good at volunteering us to help the nuns, help the priests. These people were next to God. She volunteered me and my three sisters to clean the church. We were so proud. I had the opportunity to clean around the tabernacle. I could see the hosts. We were on our way to heaven. The Donahue family, we had a direct line.”
She described her small, predominantly Italian parish in East Boston as not only the center of her neighborhood, but the center of her family.
“The church, the convent, the school, the youth center – all were within 100 yards of our home. That was where we played. That was the center of our life,” she said.
The parish priest “was elderly; pastor for well over 50 years. And he loved children. He loved them a lot,” she said. “He particularly loved me. When he’d see me coming, his eyes would light up. He always hugged me and held me. And there were many times, unfortunately, in that sacristy that it went way beyond that.”
Unfortunately, “he was beloved by everyone,” she said. “The youth center was named for him. There was a street with his name. There was a bust.” On it was written his name, and the inscription “Shepherd of Children.”
She described how the priest betrayed her parents’ trust.
“There is nothing worse than putting such trust in someone, such faith,” she said. “My parents did that thinking they were doing the right thing for us, and we were hurt so greatly.”
In 1986, Carol’s (last name withheld by request) son took his life at the age of 18. After his death, she admitted the family was suspicious a priest was involved, but deep in grief she said they didn’t have the energy to pursue it.
“But each time we visited my son’s grave, there was a floral arrangement there. We thought: ‘Oh, it must be his friends. Or kids from school.’ We didn’t think too much about it,” she said. “It went on for 14 years. Valentine’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day. His birthday. The anniversary of his death. A Christmas wreath. An Easter lily. My son and I finally wrote a note. Then another one. But after so many years, we just gave up.”
But her husband kept at it, and finally “received a letter from this priest. It was all about him, and how he knew how Steve felt … because he’d also attempted suicide, because his order didn’t understand him.”
“We confronted him with the provincial of his order,” she said, “and the archdiocese (found) other victims.”
Those who spoke at the conference found positive ways to deal with the pain.
Donahue got the bust removed and went into a life of service with the Boston Police Department.
“It was not by accident that I joined the sexual assault unit. I had hundreds of cases. I’ve arrested rich and poor people, from every aspect of society. We’re never going to rid the world of sexual abusers. It happens in all fields. But when it’s a priest, it’s much more significant,” she said.
Carol, a member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Community Advisory Board, turned her focus to improving the church.
“I had to turn the negative to positive,” she said. “That’s why I’m here today, to speak about accountability. I do it in honor of my son. And I do it for the part of me that needs healing.”
While some priests have been laicized, she said too many have been protected by canon law, or disappear in trials that go on and on forever.
“There doesn’t seem to be a conclusion,” she said. “I wonder about bishops, cardinals and hierarchy. What responsibility have they taken? (Former Boston) Cardinal (Bernard) Law stepped down, and was sent to Rome, where he has his own villa. Is that a consequence?”
The priest who was involved with her son was transferred, said Carol.
“That is difficult for me,” she said. “The church that I so loved and believed in, has caused so much harm. I would never want another family to walk the walk I have.”
She said the priest told her husband and her that he had had a hard life. He could no longer teach, he was removed from the school overnight and he was sent to a center for 30 days.
Upon his return, the priest was back with his order doing retreats for women, Masses for nuns and fundraising online, until it was agreed that he would wear a monitoring device. “But he’s been seen at malls, at theaters. What are the consequences? We pleaded with (former Milwaukee) Archbishop Timothy (M.) Dolan and got an ankle bracelet satellite-connected – so they’d know if he was on property during the school year. He lives next door to a school.”
“I’ve moved from a place of anger,” she said. “But I will continue in my efforts to see justice done. I can’t change what happened. But I can work to change this church.”