By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The past 10, 30, even 50 years or more have been filled with pain, confusion, grief and hatred for those in this diocese victimized by priestly sexual abuse. For them and for others, perhaps the June 26 Diocesan Service of Lament offered a promise of healing and release for the future.
There may have been hesitation on the part of some to enter the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; there may have been a bit of derision on the part of others, but the quiet, the heads bowed in prayer and the feeling that those present sincerely cared, seemed to draw them in.
Carrie Cooper, diocesan director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, welcomed priests, religious and laity to the service, the culmination of a year of healing services around the diocese. “Our diocesan church comes together,” she said, “to pray for the wounded and suffering, to offer our sincere apology to them, and to serve and love them as Jesus Christ does.”
It began with voices, a litany of suffering, of pain and reproach, interspersed with a single chime that seemed to ask, “Why?”
Each victim’s statement was answered by a priest saying “what we wish they could have heard when they first came to the diocese for help,” Cooper said.
“‘Your safe house of God is the home of my torment.’ You deserved to be safe…I am so sorry.
“’At first his attention made me feel special, but now I feel dirty and worthless.’ You are special… You are made in the image and likeness of God. ‘Estoy tan avergonzada.’ [I am so ashamed.] La vergüenza es nuestro. [The shame is ours.]
“‘The pain was so intense that I didn’t want to live.’ Your life matters to me. ‘You took away my innocence … left me broken …’ Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me.’ … I beg your forgiveness. ‘When I came to you, vulnerable and abused, you turned me away.’ I receive and hear you now… Please forgive me. ‘When I was brave enough to tell you the truth, you chose to side with my abuser.’ I believe you … Thank you for your courage. ‘I cannot trust.’ I am sorry for robbing you of trust. ‘I feel worthless. Only usable.’ You have dignity and worth. ‘I feel like it was my fault.’ You were just a child…it was not YOUR fault.”
During the pain-filled litany, Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., Father Charles Rowe, Vicar General, and Father Ken Riley, Chancellor, prostrated themselves before the altar. Encircling the sanctuary were more than 100 priests and deacons from around the diocese with bowed heads. All wore purple stoles over white albs symbolizing repentance.
The first reading, from Lamentations chapter 5 — “… The joy of our hearts has ceased, dancing has turned into mourning; the crown has fallen from our head: woe to us that we sinned! Because of this our hearts grow sick, at this our eyes grow dim…” — was, as Bishop Johnston said later, “fitting.”
he Gospel, John 11, recounted Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.
In his homily, Bishop Johnston addressed both those present and not there, who were hurt by the abuse.
“Grief is a significant part of healing,” he said. “We need to grieve individually and with others. To do so is human and holy. It is honest.” He reminded the assembly that when he heard that his friend Lazarus was dead, “Jesus wept.”
He went on to say that the “Church of Kansas City-St. Joseph was deeply wounded by the sins of her members and those wounds were most deeply experienced by the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. … in some way … in different degrees, every member … has been affected…”
The Service of Lament offered a chance for all to “openly grieve those wounds together.”
He described the Book of Lamentations as “raw, sobering … taking on a new relevance” for this diocese. Written some 600 years before Christ, Lamentations takes “a hard look at the suffering that has occurred and does so with grief, sorrow, confession of sins and repentance.”
It “diagnoses the causes of suffering and sin, most especially the sins, infidelities and betrayals of … religious leaders.” The bishop explained that the havoc and humiliation chronicled in the book were seen as a just punishment from God for having betrayed a sacred trust. God promised they would be blessed if they were faithful to the covenant, but would endure wrath if they were not.
“… Suffering, sin, betrayal, havoc and humiliation … for betraying a sacred trust. Here we are centuries later, repeating their history…”
He said, “I am here to confess, apologize and repent for the sins of those who held a sacred trust in the Church and betrayed that trust. I am here to express repentance for the priests and bishops, and anyone in the service of the church, whose actions or inactions harmed the lives of children entrusted to their care.”
Bishop Johnston’s apology was directed toward the victims, their families, the diocesan community and the innocent priests who have been hurt by the sex abuse scandal.
During the past year, there have been nine parish-based Healing Services, throughout the diocese, focusing on local victims of child sexual abuse and their families. Cooper said Archbishop Naumann had set the date for a diocesan Service of Lament during his administrative tenure. Bishop Johnston has, from the beginning, said one of his focuses was the healing of this diocese. The prayer service was part of a new beginning.
“The first betrayal,” Bishop Johnston said, “began with the innocent, vulnerable children … sexually abused by priests, deacons or other members of the Church. Children, parents and communities were betrayed by those entrusted with their care. As sinful and terrible as this was, and is, it is the response of the Church that provides a most dire cause for confession. We at times failed to act; to respond with urgency and integrity. We betrayed your trust.”
He offered “deep sorrow” and “profound regret” for what the people of the diocese had been through. “I ask forgiveness from the victims and survivors … their families … from the innocent faithful who also have felt the weight and shame of this scandal … from the faithful and innocent priests who [were] betrayed.”
Bishop Johnston admitted that he’s not always sure what to do; not always aware of what will help a victim or survivor of sexual abuse to heal. “I don’t have all the answers and I’m not sure any of us do. But I am certain of one thing: God knows and God heals.”
He wants to see a Diocese that acknowledges its wounds and the wounded. With that in mind, he plans to erect a “visible, permanent reminder, a special place where we honor the stories of the past.” To do this, he will form a remembrance committee of victims, survivors and their families.
He promised to “continue listening” to all who come to him, who share their painful stories.
He declared an annual Diocesan Day of Prayer for the Protection of Children, to occur each April 26, during Child Abuse Prevention Month, beginning in 2017.
He will create a multi-discipline team to review current policies and will charge them with implementing best practices.
Training on helping victims and survivors will be developed so as to provide a pastoral response to victims. He also plans a program with specially trained spiritual directors and ministers for those seeking spiritual care.
He asked for patience as the journey begins, as there are “no quick fixes or magic formulas.” He is committed to continuing to identify the best ways to support diocesan-wide healing.
The account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead will in some ways model Bishop Johnston’s vision of healing and new life.
He elaborated: “Martha and Mary begged Jesus to give their brother new life. That is what we are going to do as a community of faith: beg Jesus to give new life back to our brothers and sisters. … Jesus went to the tomb where his friend lay dead; Jesus seeks each of you out too, wherever you are.”
Bishop Johnston spoke of the stone being rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb so he could “come out” at Jesus’ command. “Many of you are experiencing … a stone … blocking your ability to move on with life; to be free and happy again. … It’s not something we can do by ourselves,” but it isn’t impossible, that stone can be moved.
But, he reminded the assembly, in order to really be free and happy again, once the stone is rolled away, a decision must be made: to stay in darkness or come into the light. “Sometimes we can get so used to our situation, where we have been for so long, that it is scary to leave … and step out into the light of something new.”
A big part of healing is forgiveness. “No one can be healed without coming to the point of forgiving. Without forgiveness, we remain forever entombed, isolated in bitterness and anger and cynicism.” At the beginning of his homily, Bishop Johnston had apologized for the sins of the Church and her representatives; now he asked for forgiveness, “not so much for my benefit, but for yours!”
He continued, “We forgive because it heals us. But it isn’t easy, it takes courage and grace. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, either. We can’t forget. We won’t forget. We can’t forget. We will never forget.”
Bishop Johnston acknowledged that the grief, anger and hurt will take much time to heal. But, “as Pope Francis has said … ‘There is no situation that God cannot change.’”