ALLOUEZ — In the midst of Eastertide, a solemn prayer service aimed at seeking forgiveness and healing for the wounds of clergy sexual abuse was held April 14 at St. Matthew Church. More than 60 people attended the service, the first of two led by Bishop David Ricken.
In welcoming the group, which included victims/survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and non-clergy, Jayne Stefanic, diocesan assistance coordinator, said the service was meant to pray not only for abuse victims but for the church.
“We are here tonight to … pray for the church, harmed by the actions of some priests. … At times we have also hurt others by our words, actions or even our silence,” said Stefanic. “We ask you now to pray for healing, pray for forgiveness and to acknowledge our complete dependency on God.”
In an act of repentance, Bishop Ricken entered the church following Stefanic’s introduction. Upon reaching the church sanctuary, he removed all of the symbols of his episcopal office — a purple chasuble (the outer liturgical vestment worn by priests and bishops), mitre and crosier (the headdress and the staff used by bishops), and his episcopal crucifix and ring, placing them on a table.
Clad in a simple white alb, Bishop Ricken then lay on the floor, prostrating himself before the altar, while the assembly knelt in silence. After five minutes, the bishop rose to his feet and sat next to Fr. Tom Long, diocesan vicar for ministers.
Following Scripture readings, Bishop Ricken offered a reflection, expressing sorrow on behalf of the church for the pain and anguish suffered by victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
This is the second year the diocese has sponsored healing services for victims of sexual abuse. A second service was held April 17 at Sacred Heart Church in Shawano. Bishop Ricken said the services are “a way for us to come before the Lord, asking for forgiveness for any hurt or harm that has been done to anybody, especially by those of us in authority.”
“Whether that’s by a priest, somebody else in the church, by myself or by other bishops who maybe didn’t understand the problem or denied the problem,” he said. “This is a way for us to say to the Lord and to you that we acknowledge the hurt that might have been caused. We know that this is a terrible affliction that some people live with and struggle with every day, especially people who were harmed as children. I hope and pray that this time is the beginning of deeper and deeper healing for you.”
Bishop Ricken said that he has had “the hard privilege” of meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse and their families in each of the three dioceses he has served. He expressed sorrow for the times victims were harmed a second time by church leaders who refused to meet with them or did not believe their stories.
“The response sometimes can go into denial to try to protect somebody or to protect the church,” he said. “We are … asking you who might have been hurt or anybody that’s been hurt to accept our apologies, the expression of our sorrow and contrition, and to know that we believe you. And we want to be of help if we can, in some way in your search, your healing and restoration.”
According to Bishop Ricken, last year he asked all priests of the diocese to join him in nine months of “reparation to the Sacred Heart,” offering Masses for victims of clergy sexual abuse, “that we may repair whatever damage we have done to the love of God, which is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So the priests joined me in that and definitely it’s been a moment of grace for our diocese. We know this will be a very long journey but we also know we are committed to doing what we can.”
The prayer service also included a “litany of healing,” in which victims/survivors of sexual abuse, family members and parish representatives came forward carrying candles. Assisted by prayer service leaders, the candles were lit and placed on a wooden cross resting on the floor of the sanctuary while litanies for healing were read.
Following the litany, Bishop Ricken, assisted by Fr. Long, retrieved a consecrated host from the church tabernacle and placed it in a monstrance. Bishop Ricken then processed slowly around the church, holding the Blessed Sacrament high in front of victims/survivors and the assembly.
Stefanic explained that Jesus is the source of healing and with Bishop Ricken bringing the Blessed Sacrament to them, they should “ask Jesus to heal you in the specific area you feel you are in need of healing” or to pray for those in need of healing.
The ritual, lasting about 15 minutes, left some in the congregation in tears. Once the Blessed Sacrament was returned to the tabernacle, the healing service concluded with additional prayer.
Stefanic also invited victims who have not reported their abuse to do so.
“If you are a victim/survivor, I strongly encourage you to come forward and make a report so we can help you in the healing process,” she said. “I do know that first step is not an easy one.”
Like them, she said, “Jesus was a victim, too.”
“He was also abused by no fault of his own. Just like you,” Stefanic said. “But he did not let the abuse be the end of his story.”
Stefanic, along with a professional counselor, Bishop Ricken and several victims/survivors who Stefanic has assisted, were on hand afterward to talk.
“On behalf of the Diocese of Green Bay, please accept my deep sorrow for the hurt that has brought you here tonight,” added Stefanic. “Our prayer is that your journey of healing has begun with this service.”
Stefanic told The Compass that the idea of prayer services for healing came from Bishop Ricken.
“He wanted to do something for more survivors to come forward to help them heal,” she said. “He asked me to develop something. I contacted a lot of other dioceses, talked to a lot of survivors about what they needed” to help with healing.
As a result of last year’s healing services, said Stefanic, six people came forward to report cases of abuse by clergy and religious — all occurring decades ago.
Stefanic said some other dioceses she has been in contact with are reluctant to encourage victims of clergy sexual abuse to come forward. “We are very blessed in our diocese that Bishop Ricken is so pastoral and wants people to come forward,” she said. “He wants them to tell us if they were abused. He wants to help as many people as possible on their journey of healing.”
The healing services are held during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month, said Stefanic. She said it is important for the church to raise awareness of sexual abuse because it continues to be a problem in society.
“We don’t like to talk about sexual assault or sexual abuse. It’s not a subject we like to address, but it’s in our midst,” she said. “If you look at statistics, one in six males is abused before age 18, one in four females is abused before 18, usually by someone they know and love. It’s in our families, parishes, communities. We need to be talking about it more and praying about it more — praying for healing and for our parish communities and especially for survivors.”