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  Clerics, Abuse Victims Join for Healing Vigil
Heads of Catholic Orders Gather in Wake of Scandal

By Peter Smith psmith@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded August 9, 2003

Dozens of leaders of Roman Catholic male religious orders joined victims of sexual abuse in a candlelight vigil at the Belvedere last night to help heal the hurt between the victims and the church.

The half-hour ceremony, organized by the victims advocacy group, The Linkup, was held in conjunction with a national assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, meeting at the Galt House through tomorrow.

The conference includes 210 leaders of religious orders representing more than 20,000 priests and brothers. At the vigil, which the conference encouraged members to attend, leaders holding candles stood silently as they listened to victims tell of children molested by members of their orders in both Louisville and around the country.

"I had to choke back the tears," the Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the conference, said after the vigil. "You have these deep feelings of shame and hurt that we could have injured people so badly. ... Then to come out here and find people of such Christian forgiveness thanking you for coming, that's pretty humbling."

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, said that while priests often pray for victims in church, many victims have left the church. For the priests to attend their outdoor vigil "really gave us a lift," she said.

Gregory C. Hall, one of the 243 plaintiffs who recently settled lawsuits with the Archdiocese of Louisville, said that until he was molested as a teenager he had wanted to be a priest. He felt encouraged by the vigil. "It's really good to see fathers and everybody else out here," he said.

The Rev. Tom Picton, major religious superior for a New Orleans-based province of Redemptorists, told the approximately 25 victims and their supporters that he was sexually abused himself as a child, though not by a priest.

"I want to encourage anyone who was abused to never stop speaking their truth and to find healing in whatever way they can," he said.

Much of this year's conference is devoted to the continued struggles of Catholic religious orders to recover from the crisis of clergy sexual abuse.

The orders are cooperating in a study of the crisis and are implementing new Vatican-approved policies that bar abusers from ministry for life, said the Rev. Canice Connors, president of the conference.

Connors expressed hope that religious orders will emerge from the crisis strengthened and begin to reverse their decades-long membership decline.

"We're looking at a hopeful future and not simply being constantly turned around and saying, `Woe unto us because we lament the past,'" said Connors, minister provincial of the Conventual Franciscan order in the United States. "You lament because you want a better future."

A Southern Indiana-based province of Connors' order shared in the $25.7million settlement paid by the Archdiocese of Louisville to 243 abuse victims. Three of the province's members were accused of abuse.

Earlier yesterday, the leaders met behind closed doors to discuss an ongoing study of the extent of the sexual abuse problem in the church.

Kathleen McChesney, head of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, met with the group for the discussion. Also at the meeting, Connors said, were researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who are gathering data on past abuse for the study.

McChesney said in an interview last night that both religious-order leaders and bishops, who are to provide data from their dioceses, are cooperating with the study. She said they have legitimate concerns about its complexity and the ability to keep names confidential, but she expressed hope that the data could be published by early next year.

McChesney also met privately with Archibald, who said she suggested developing a uniform system for reporting to McChesney's office if someone feels a bishop is not following the sexual-abuse policy.

Both described the meeting as positive.

"Our best ideas come from the victim-survivors and members of the laity," McChesney said.

As with Catholic dioceses, U.S. religious orders have been reeling from allegations of abuse. The orders whose members include about one-third of all American priests fall under the same new Vatican policy that states that any priest found to have committed abuse is banned from ministry. But such a priest could still live in a religious community.

Connors' address to his colleagues Wednesday also was closed to the public. He said in an interview yesterday that he believed that the orders have responded to the sex-abuse crisis openly, but the business sessions of the Conference of Major Superiors are always closed under the rules of the group.

Members "look for a setting in which they can count on confidentiality," he said. "Any organization has executive meetings."

In a keynote speech yesterday, the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe echoed the hope for renewal after the crisis:

"Maybe we have been reduced and cut down so that it can be clear that religious life makes visible a power that does not lie in big institutions, in wealth or status, but in the sacramental power of what we do and are."

 
 

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