Nearly incomprehensible suffering preceded where the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph will humbly place itself on Sunday.
The diocese seeks reconciliation.
The new bishop, installed last fall, will make a public apology for decades of sexual abuse committed by diocesan priests.
Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. will lead a Service of Lament at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Johnston has asked every priest in the diocese to attend. He has requested that they bring purple vestments, a sign of penance.
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Johnston is expected to announce additional measures that the diocese is ready to take to further healing. The entire community is invited to the 2 p.m. prayer service, an acknowledgment of the ripple effects created by decades of sexual abuse.
The diocese knows it has little credibility.
Many victims have vowed to never set foot onto church property again. Some have never told anyone what happened to them. Several victims are believed to have taken their own lives. And for some, former altar boys and parochial schoolchildren, the diocese itself is a trigger for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only faith — God’s love sincerely acted upon — can heal that pain.
And while the church’s many skeptics have great cause for their trepidation, reconciliation requires optimism. It demands hope.
In that vein, it is demonstrative that Johnston has recently met with a few survivors. Some of the one-on-one meetings have been held away from diocesan offices, at locations where the people who suffered the abuse are more comfortable.
Some people ask the bishop to pray with them. Some want him to listen as they recount the abuse. He lets them guide the agenda.
The bishop is open to doing more such meetings with survivors, said Kathleen Chastain, the newest member of the four-woman, nonclergy team that is the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection.
“There is a tremendous lack of trust, a deserved lack of trust (among some people),” Chastain said. “We have to find ways to get the message out there that we are trying to establish some kind of relationship in order to provide support and care.”
The office is leading this shift toward restorative justice. But finally, first through the support of an interim bishop and now through Johnston, the team has a partner in the work.
Chastain, hired full time in January, is the victim services coordinator. In that role, she acts as a liaison between the diocese and survivors of the abuse. She helps oversee the counseling, through licensed professionals, that the diocese is offering victims.
Sunday’s Service of Lament might be misconstrued as the culmination of the nine healing ceremonies that have been held at various parishes during the last year. Apologies were made at each. Johnston officiated at several.
But Sunday is perceived by the diocese as a start, not an ending.
Depth of hurt
Years ago, Rebecca Randles asked one of the victims of sexual abuse by a priest what the diocese could do to make amends.
He cried and told her that he had no idea how the suffering could be alleviated. That man, Mike Hunter, one of the leading advocates for local victims, died in 2015.
But his sentiment would be the honest reply of many survivors.
Randles is seen by some of the diocese’s apologists as an agitator intent on chastising the church. They are wrong.
She is the Kansas City lawyer who helped victims sue the diocese for the sexually abusive behavior of 28 priests, the first civil suit coming in the early 1990s.
“It’s good fact-finding, good truth-finding and a way to shine the spotlight on abuse,” she said of the court process. “But the healing has to come through the church.”
The breadth of the damage is massive.
Decades ago, the first accusations of sexual abuse by priests were met with obstinate denial. The stonewalling was steeled by a clergy culture that saw itself as nearly unquestionable.
But the victims bravely kept telling their stories, pressing for honesty.
Eventually, the diocese made two multimillion-dollar civil settlements with survivors. A 2008 settlement of $10 million went to 47 victims and their families. The diocese breached some of what it promised to do in that case and was ordered to pay an additional $1.1 million.
In 2014, a lawsuit was settled for nearly $10 million. And there was public humiliation when a now-resigned bishop became the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official charged with a criminal offense. Robert Finn’s sin, in the eyes of the law, was a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected child sexual abuse. The abuse, later proved in criminal proceedings, sent a now-defrocked priest to a 50-year prison term for child pornography.
Finn’s offense to Catholics was that he failed to protect our most vulnerable and precious: the children.
Finn was called to the Vatican for a meeting and now is serving as chaplain to a convent of nuns in Nebraska.
Several local Catholics who have spoken at length with the new bishop believe that he truly grasps the depravity, the damage caused by the abuse.
New policies and procedures, first put in place about five years ago, now govern. The steps try to ensure that clergy can’t fall back on their own judgments instead of calling authorities. There are multiple examples of the changes working well within the diocese of nearly 100 parishes and about 2,700 employees.
An annual report is made public, listing the numbers of allegations, investigations and outcomes.
This fall, the diocese will undergo a two-day on-site audit of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, part of fulfilling its duties under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
That structure can support the healing the church hopes it can now commence on a broader scale.
Being a Catholic is more than a label.
It’s cultural. It influences the neighborhoods where people choose to live, the prayers they say over meals, how they join in marriage, bless their babies in baptism and bury their loved ones. Every significant milestone in a Catholic’s life is tied to faith.
For many people in Kansas City, the diocese is the loom upon which they weave their lives.
The horrific sexual abuse done by priests, covered up by their superiors, severed that relationship.
“We are trying to reach even those who don’t feel like they could walk into the church,” Chastain said. “So that maybe, just knowing that something is happening …, that we are starting to make the apology.”