Worshippers seek healing for Kansas City diocese torn apart by sexual abuse

Pinwheels symbolizing the healing process adorn a planter just outside the entrance to St. James Catholic Church, where Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. recently held a service for spiritual healing.
Pinwheels symbolizing the healing process adorn a planter just outside the entrance to St. James Catholic Church, where Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. recently held a service for spiritual healing. rsugg@kcstar.com

They held small stones in their palms in a solemn procession to the altar at St. James Catholic Church in Liberty.

About 100 worshippers lined up to place the stones at the base of a wooden cross. It was to symbolize letting go of a burden they’ve carried. Then the procession wound around two basins of water, where they washed their hands.

For the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the service Thursday night was the eighth in a series called “Healing Our Parishes Through Empathy.” Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., installed in November, presided.

“If there are victims of sexual abuse here that was brought about by clergy, priests, bishops or anyone serving in the church,” he told the gathering, “I want to say, personally, that I am sorry.

“And before you I repent. I repent of any actions or inactions on the part of any bishops or priests or others who harmed you.”

It was just coincidence, the diocese said, that Johnston’s remarks came one year to the day after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn, who had been embroiled in a child sex abuse case involving a priest.

It also was a coincidence that the service was held a day after the arrest of a janitor at St. Peter’s Parish on sex-related charges involving a girl under age 14.

No mention was made of the pending case against maintenance supervisor James M. Burton. But the diocese on Friday issued a statement to The Star saying the alleged abuse did not occur on church property and the victim is not a diocesan school student.

The healing services have been taking place at various parishes since August, a month before the Vatican announced that Johnston would be Finn’s successor.

Finn stepped down 2 1/2 years after a Jackson County circuit judge convicted him of a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected child abuse until months after church leaders learned of pictures of young girls on a priest’s computer.

“I celebrated that day” of Finn’s resignation, said Ann Tucker, a St. James parishioner since 1989. “We’re headed toward healing but we’re not there yet. … You can’t just snap your fingers.”

She said that Johnston is bringing the diocese together: “He is one of the answers to help in our healing.”

As in all of the healing services, nobody was certain how many in attendance bore the scars of past sexual abuse.

Many Catholics came just to offer spiritual support to child victims of abuse of all kinds. Or to think of a relative assaulted decades ago. Or to atone for a diocese staggering out of scandal.

Michael Sandridge, who wasn’t there Thursday night, wonders how effective the services can be.

One of 32 plaintiffs in sex-abuse lawsuits against the diocese that were settled in 2014, Sandridge said he suspected that few victims could bring themselves to attend.

“A lot of people who need the help won’t go back into buildings where abuses took place,” said Sandridge, 54. He was 11 when a St. Elizabeth parish priest assaulted him, according to his suit.

He attended one of the first “Healing Our Parishes Through Empathy” services last year at St. Thomas More Parish in south Kansas City. He said that he recognized no other abuse survivors.

“I question this word ‘empathy,’ ” he added. “How can they (church leaders) possibly be empathetic when they’ve destroyed so many lives?”

The victims advocacy group SNAP — Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — earlier this month issued a statement critical of the healing events as being “nothing more than public relations. They don’t protect a single child, expose a single predator, punish a single concealer or deter a single cover-up.”

On Friday the group’s director, David Clohessy, told The Star that it was “disingenuous” to show concern for victims while another Catholic employee was being arrested.

Burton, 48, faces two felony counts of statutory sodomy, one count of child molestation and a charge of attempted sexual misconduct.

The diocese said it was alerted to the abuse allegations on April 8, when Burton was immediately placed on administrative leave. Church officials cooperated with law enforcement, the diocese said, and to maintain the integrity of the ongoing investigation decided not to disclose the allegations to the St. Peter community.

Words offered at the service in Liberty suggested that church leaders seek to reach out in a big way.

“We need to acknowledge the pain, the damage, the hurt, the harm,” said the Rev. Joseph Nassal of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, who delivered the homily.

“We hope tonight is a small step in that journey toward healing and hope.”

Representatives of the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection made themselves available after the service to assist people needing help or wishing to report child abuse, whether it involved the church or not. Office director Carrie Cooper said four attendees after worship said they were either victims or were caring for someone who was a victim of sexual abuse.

An earlier healing service at another location drew a man who hadn’t stepped inside a church in 60 years because of his victimization by a priest, Cooper said: “It was a way for him to be welcomed by the church, for the church to acknowledge (the abuse) and for him to be cared for.”

Bishop Johnston noted the services complement Pope Francis’ declaration of a Holy Year of Mercy, which launched in December.

In an interview before Thursday’s service, Johnston also said he had seen the film “Spotlight,” which won best picture at this year’s Oscars for its dramatization of a newspaper’s 2001 investigation of rampant sexual abuse committed by priests in the Boston area.

“It was a powerful movie,” he said. “It’s very sobering in the sense it reveals the failures at so many levels that led to this web of complicity.”

The next and final scheduled healing service is set for May 25 at St. Therese Parish in Kansas City, North.

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r