Mary Sanchez

Mary Sanchez: Wounded diocese taking steps to heal in aftermath of abuse

Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St.Joseph
Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St.Joseph

On a Sunday afternoon last summer, the new bishop lay prostrate at the altar in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. was taking a step that his predecessors never fathomed as he lay face down, his body in a state of submissive penance and apology.

That day, the Service of Lament, was the most public statement yet by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which for decades did more to cover up than stop sexual abuse committed by diocesan priests. Johnston continued to lay prone as statements were read from the balcony, detailing the anguished thoughts of victims.

It was a deeply moving ceremony, filled with hope.

But it’s the less visible, far more behind-the-scenes shifts that have occurred in the last year that will ultimately heal the diocese. At the service, Johnston also announced a series of commitments.

The first is an Annual Day of Prayer, which will be Wednesday. All of the parish schools are participating. And there will be two public events: daylong prayers at the Catholic Center downtown and a 12:15 p.m. Mass with the bishop at the cathedral.

The other four commitments begin to move the diocese away from a reactive, crisis mode of fending off accusations, lawsuits and public disdain. Vigilance is necessary now to reinforce the protocols set up to keep children safe.

The work is being coordinated by the Office of Child and Youth Protection, which was put in place in 2011. Director Carrie Cooper and the other three lay women in her office are all too aware of the horrendous statistics in our country: One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18.

Johnston soon will invite a handful of people, some with backgrounds in child protection, to serve on a task force. The group will delve into all of the policies and current practices, assessing their effectiveness.

In May, a survey of all the priests will be complete. It will gauge their ability to adequately handle accusations of abuse and will examine how parishes deal with complex and sensitive investigations.

In the past, the diocese has offered professional counseling as part of its two multimillion settlements with victims. But there is also the need to deal with spiritual recovery. “The abuse is such a deep wound on someone’s soul,” Cooper said.

Survivors are part of this process, offering guidance about what would be helpful. And a few priests are working with victims. It’s a network of clergy that the diocese wants to expand.

Bishop Johnston inherited a wounded diocese. His predecessor, Robert Finn, resigned after being convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse.

Finally, there will be a permanent memorial established for the victims.

The depth of the destruction that the abuse has wrought is evident. Cooper quickly found that although survivors wanted to participate in designing the memorial, they weren’t comfortable meeting as a group. So their thoughts are being gathered and will be presented to Johnston.

For many of the former altar boys and children who attended parochial schools, decades have passed. They now are parents and grandparents, expected to attend baptisms, first Communions, marriages and funerals at local parishes.

But some drive to the church and feel stricken. Some find themselves at the church doors, unable to enter what was once the sacred space of their youth.

Johnston and his lay and clerical staff are aware that it is the church that must come to them, humbly and continuously seeking forgiveness. At the same time, they pray for the only intervention that can truly heal. And that is the love of God.