DE PERE — The purple linen surrounding the paschal candle and cross inside Our Lady of Lourdes Church April 13 symbolized a penitential atmosphere. During the third annual prayer service for healing, held for victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, acts of contrition permeated the dimly lit church.
“I want to apologize to you. I want you to know that I believe you, that you have suffered terribly,” Bishop David Ricken told sexual abuse victims who attended the prayer service. “You are in my prayers, and I pray for your healing, freedom and restoration.
“I also want to apologize — and this hits closer to home — for bishops and leaders who simply went into denial about this,” added Bishop Ricken. “It’s hard to imagine that some of them (did not punish clergy or allowed them to continue abusing), not wanting to make the church look a certain way, not wanting to admit that this was going on. … Perpetrators were not dealt with properly, not dealt with swiftly and often the victims were not even believed.”
Before addressing the assembly of about 50 people, Bishop Ricken walked quietly into the church wearing the symbols of his office: a purple chasuble over his plain, white alb and a violet zucchetto on his head that was covered by the episcopal miter. He walked with his shepherd’s staff, or crozier, and on his right hand he wore his episcopal ring.
As he approached the altar, Bishop Ricken removed all of these symbols and placed them on a table. Wearing just a simple alb, he prostrated himself before the altar as a gesture of seeking forgiveness from God. In his reflection, he explained in detail this gesture.
“The reason for my prostrating here before we began is to ask for forgiveness from the Lord for our terrible digressions and terrible denial,” he said. “I ask for forgiveness and I hope that this is some expression to you that we, too, are on a journey and that we take responsibility for the lack of understanding you, of loving you in a proper way, as does the Good Shepherd.”
The diocesan prayer service for healing began three years ago at the request of Bishop Ricken, who, with the assistance of the diocesan safe environment office, began meeting privately with survivors of sexual abuse soon after arriving in Green Bay in 2008. The services are held in two locations each year during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. A second service was held April 12 at St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Two Rivers.
“With all of the victims that I have had the privilege of listening to over the years, I believe them. I believe each one of them,” said Bishop Ricken. “I have listened to people bear their souls, sometimes get very, very angry at the church, and rightly so.”
During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Bishop Ricken said it is appropriate for sexual abuse victims-survivors to discover the mercy of Jesus.
“You might be saying, ‘Well, where is this mercy you are talking about?’ The mercy is inside of you. Jesus is inside of you. Jesus understands what you are going through and he wants you to be healed. … Not because you need to be forgiven, but you need his mercy and he wants you to walk into that mercy.”
Bishop Ricken reflected on the Gospel account of the woman with a hemorrhage who touched Jesus’ cloak. In a similar way, he said, Jesus offers healing through the Blessed Sacrament.
“So tonight I will walk among you with the Eucharist. If I’m getting too close, just wave me off. Jesus can love you and you can receive that merciful love. My hope and prayer is that this will help in your healing process and that the Jesus of mercy can truly approach you because he loves you.”
Bishop Ricken carried a monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament around the church, pausing in front of people, several of whom were moved to tears.
New to this year’s prayer service was a ritual using chain links.
A basket near the church entrance held metal links of various sizes. According to Jayne Stefanic, diocesan assistance coordinator, the links represented anything holding people back from fully receiving healing from Jesus. They were asked to drop their chain links into a large metal bowl at the foot of the cross to “be free of all that chains you.”
Following the prayer service, Stefanic spoke to those in attendance and offered her apology on behalf of the diocese “for the hurt that has brought you here tonight. … If you are a victim or survivor, I strongly encourage you to break the silence and come forward so we can help you in the healing process,” she said. “As a survivor myself, I know that first step is not an easy one.”
She told the assembly that “Jesus truly loves you and wants healing for you. He knows what you are experiencing.”
“Jesus was a victim, too. He was also abused through no fault of his own, like you,” she said. “But Jesus did not let the abuse be the end of his story. He hung on to hope and began the healing process for himself and all of those who loved him. Please know there is hope. There is healing.”
Stefanic and Bishop Ricken, along with a professional counselor, a priest experienced in working with sexual abuse victims, and two victims-survivors who helped plan the event were available after the service.
“The prayer services for healing with Bishop Ricken are always very humbling for me,” Stefanic told The Compass. “Those who attend are either victims/survivors, family members or parishioners throughout the diocese who come to join in unity and prayer for all those who are in need of healing.”
She said that after both services this year, “various people took the risk and shared with me and bishop and others” their stories.
“The wounds they shared are so deep and have affected them, and those who love them, for decades,” said Stefanic. “By the wonderful grace of God, all shared that they felt the service was powerful and healing for them.”
One woman who spoke to Stefanic told her it was the first time in more than 40 years that she “felt true healing.”
“My prayer is that these services raise more awareness in the church on the life-long effect of sexual abuse on victims,” she added, “and that victims and survivors will experience some healing and trust us to continue to assist them on their journey.”