Fr. James Connell, pictured at St. Clement Church, Sheboygan, June 30, has written an “Open Letter to All Roman Catholics and All Other Interested Persons,” stating his concerns about the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse. (Catholic Herald photo by Tracy Rusch)

People who have been sexually abused by priests or affected by it, will join Sunday, Aug. 22 for the fourth candle/vigil service of many to come in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The services, including prayer, music, story-sharing and candle-lighting with socializing after, are how one priest is trying to heal the hurt felt by many.

Fr. James Connell, vice chancellor of the archdiocese, canon lawyer and pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus parishes, Sheboygan, formed a nameless group of 10 priests in the archdiocese after the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) accused him last October of being involved with a cover-up concerning the late Fr. Lawrence Murphy and the up to 200 boys Fr. Murphy may have molested at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis.

It bothered him enough to meet over coffee with Peter Isely, Midwest regional director of SNAP, and John Pilmaier, co-director of the Wisconsin SNAP.

“We spent two hours talking about the sexual abuse reality, the problems that survivors experience, our hope for the future and for finding a way to some type of healing and central to all of that, and it’s very important, a truth is central through all,” Fr. Connell said in an interview with your Catholic Herald, describing the “positive experience” he had in his meeting after Thanksgiving last year with the SNAP representatives. It resulted in a new ministry where priests have a more public presence with survivors of sexual abuse by priests.

A candle/vigil service will be held at Three Holy Women Parish, St. Hedwig Church, 1702 N. Humboldt Ave., Milwaukee, Sunday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m.

Group plans pastoral response

As soon as he returned to Sheboygan, he called Fr. Jeff Haines, good friend and pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in West Bend, to talk about his discussion with the SNAP representatives. Together, they brainstormed a list of eight more priests they thought would be interested in getting involved on a pastoral level, including Fr. Victor Capriolo, team moderator of the in solidum team, Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac; Fr. Dick Cerpich, senior priest, assisting priest, St. Peter Claver Parish, Sheboygan; Fr. Michael Erwin, pastor, St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam; Fr. Gregory Greiten, pastor, St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls; Fr. Howard Haase, pastor, St. Mary Parish, Waukesha; Fr. Charles Keefe, director of pastoral care, Milwaukee Catholic Home; Fr. John Radetski, pastor, St. Dominic Parish, Sheboygan; and Fr. Timothy Kitzke, member of the in solidum team, Old St. Mary Parish, Our Lady of Divine Providence Parish, SS. Peter and Paul Parish, and Three Holy Women Parish, all in Milwaukee. Six of the 10 in the newly formed group met after Christmas.

“We simply talked,” Fr. Connell said, “and it was very interesting because all of us had some type of a different perspective or experience that we brought to the table that was pastoral in nature about the concern we have for those who are survivors of sexual abuse by priests.”

Fr. Erwin accepted the invitation to become part of the group because of his previous assignment as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Twin Lakes, where former pastor of 25 years, Fr. George Nuedling, had abused many young people.

“Quite honestly, my reaction was kind of, ‘About time,’” Fr. Erwin said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “It was about time, because I really felt that I was very much on my own out dealing with these many issues. There was some assistance from leaders at the diocese, but not as much as I was expecting over the years…. I was very much welcoming a dialogue with fellow priests who’d been through the challenge of caring for a parish, of caring for victims of sexual abuse by priests.”

The initial meetings were a great way, Fr. Erwin said, to process their feelings and experiences as priests, and to talk about their struggles, “which is a value in and of itself, because I really haven’t had anyone to debrief regarding so much of this and then that the other people around the group needed something very similar, so that was our first goal.”

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But Fr. Erwin and Fr. Connell said the group realized they couldn’t do this alone.

First effort of its kind in U.S.

They turned to Amy Peterson, victim assistance coordinator for the archdiocese.

“What came out of that meeting, the product, was we priests need to begin, we need to be listening to survivors, and Amy agreed to help us be in touch with some survivors as well as people in the community who are supporters of survivors and have journeyed with them in different capacities over the past years,” Fr. Connell said.

Peterson, who helps support victims of sexual abuse by priests and their families, said this is the first effort of its kind in the United States. While individual parishes have had healing services, Peterson said the collective or joint response is unique in the way that they’re not only responding in their individual parishes, but also coming together as a group to see how they can help.

“There’s the primary victims of the abuse, which are the people who were assaulted, the children who were harmed, then their families, but the larger church community are – there’s a ripple effect of that abuse and priests are included in that,” Peterson said, “and I think it’s been difficult for some priests, many priests, to know how to respond because of the harm that’s been caused to them as well.”

It’s a way for the priests to find their voices, Peterson said.

“That’s not to say no priest has ever said anything or no priest has been supportive – I don’t want to give that impression at all – but this is a different kind of effort, I would say,” she added, “These guys have sort of done this on their own.”

It’s a unique effort, but something that survivors have told Peterson they’ve been waiting for.

In the dialogue with Peterson, Fr. Erwin said, the priests understood the other possibilities of the group like reaching out to victims and being able to pray with them.

“Even if they didn’t attend such meetings, at least they knew that there was a group of priests and lay leaders who were going around one more time to search people out and to offer prayers of healing,” he said of the outreach.

Services are more than talk

The meetings, including survivors and supporters in addition to Peterson and the core group of priests, led to brainstorming about what they could do beyond just talking.

“We decided we really need to have some type of an environment where it’s also somewhat a touch of prayer,” Fr. Connell said of what has developed into the candle/vigil services they’ve held three times at different locations, including a church and a neutral site like a United Church of Christ site or school auditorium. “(It) doesn’t have to be a big prayer service, but something that has focused in prayer as well as opportunity for people to speak.”

While the vigils, with 35 to 80 participants, have lasted about an hour, Fr. Connell said people stay after they conclude to talk.

“This whole thing has progressed of its, almost of its own energy in that we did not say, ‘This is what we want, now let’s make it happen,’ but rather, conversation and prayer has led us into what has happened…” Fr. Connell said.

‘Finally, priests are active’

“The other thing that has been happening that is very positive and helpful is that some of the survivors who have been present,” Fr. Connell said, “have commented that finally, underscore the word ‘finally,’ priests are active. They have said apparently for a long time, ‘Where are the priests? Why are the priests not standing up to be with us, to stand with us and to help us?’ and so that’s a major part of what this is I think is we do not come to this knowing any conclusion….,” he said. “We’re not experts – we’re priests – and we want to just be able, if they would like us to, if they would welcome us, (to) just be part of the journey, help however we can help, assist however we can assist and where it goes it goes.”

Fr. Connell said that he and the other priests in the group have learned that “for many survivors, the pain and agony of how the church has responded or not responded has been significantly more painful for them than was the pain and agony of the assault itself. Now, I would think,” he continued, “the assault itself has an enormous amount of pain and agony … and yet to hear them say, I’ve heard this more than a few times, the agony of what the church is doing is significantly more painful to them than that – that says something to us about how substantial the need is for this outreach.”

Fr. Connell said the group has been happy with attendance at the services, but that the “seemingly holy and goodness that takes place” in the storytelling, being with each other, praying and sharing in conversation afterward illustrates, more importantly, quality.

“We trust that the Holy Spirit has been with all of us as we have arrived at this point,” he said. “We are all going forward together and we trust that the Holy Spirit will take us some place, even though we don’t know for sure at the moment just where that is … we go without fear.”

The newfound ministry makes Fr. Connell feel “priestly” and he is thankful for the opportunity to participate in it.

“I am most hopeful because I have now met survivors who have found hope in what we are doing. No doubt in my mind there is a flicker of hope alive because the Holy Spirit has moved us in this direction and that flicker of hope must be kept alive,” he said.

“Even if that means that we priests and those involved have to suffer in some way, so be it,” Fr. Connell said. “I cannot nor will any of us do anything that would endanger that small flicker of hope. The hope has to grow, but it has started and I think we are all delightfully encouraged because of that.”