Religious Seek Reconciliation, Conversion with Sex Abuse Victims

By Agostino Bono
National Catholic Reporter [Washington DC]
Downloaded January 15, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Marist Father Ted Keating calls the clergy sex abuse crisis a "terrible dark grace" which is helping religious orders in the United States understand their mission to conversion and reconciliation.

The Rev. Ellie Harold, who was sexually molested by a Marist priest 40 years ago, is "grateful for the whole mess," she said, because the crisis led her to a healing service in 2003 and helped bring closure to a painful part of her life.

"It's no fun to live as a victim. We have to close one chapter and start another which is called 'The Rest of Your Life,'" said Rev. Harold, a minister in the nondenominational Unity Church.

Father Keating is executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella group for the 317 religious communities of priests and brothers in the United States. He is hoping that reconciliation programs involving victims, abusers and leaders of religious orders become a hallmark of the way religious apply the U.S. bishops' policies on dealing with sex abuse of minors.

Religious orders are signs of conversion, said Father Keating. This means getting sex offenders to take responsibility for their actions and to help victims in their healing, he said.

"Christ is here to reconcile, not just to judge people," said Father Keating.

Father Keating, Rev. Harold and several other religious leaders and victims -- also called survivors -- spoke in telephone interviews with Catholic News Service.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men is adapting the U.S. bishops' policies on dealing with clergy sex abuse -- geared mostly for dioceses -- to religious communities. The bishops' policies encourage reconciliation events between victims and church officials. Religious leaders are extending this to include reconciliation meetings between an abuser and his victim.

Many religious and victims said that the key to reconciliation is putting accountability ahead of limiting the financial liability communities face because of clergy sex abuse, even if it means making the community vulnerable to lawsuits.

For Franciscan Father Mel Jurisich, reconciliation meant standing in a parking lot last July 26 in Santa Barbara, Calif., next to a victim while the victim's abuser, a Franciscan brother, walked toward them.

It was a chance encounter as all three were heading for an alumni reunion Mass at the site of the former Franciscan St. Anthony's Minor Seminary where the abuse had taken place. Father Jurisich said he did not know what would happen, as face-to-face meetings were not planned for the event.

"The survivor and the brother embraced in the parking lot," he said.

At the Mass, Father Jurisich, head of the St. Barbara Franciscan Province, based in Oakland, Calif., apologized on behalf of the Franciscans to those hurt by clergy sex abuse.

Reconciliation has double importance for Father Jurisich.

As head of the Franciscan province, he is spearheading outreach to victims and programs to prevent further abuse.

He is also making "amends for my stupidity," as abuse occurred at St. Anthony's under his watch.

Father Jurisich was rector at the scandal-ridden minor seminary in Santa Barbara from 1976 to 1985.

In the 27 years prior to the seminary's closing in 1987, St. Anthony's had 33 high-school-aged students sexually abused by 11 priests and brothers, he said.

"I thought I was pretty hot stuff and I wasn't," he said. "I have friends in Santa Barbara whose kids were abused. They won't talk to me. I'm still persona non grata in their homes."

Victims and religious leaders said that reconciliation and healing are a delicate, difficult undertaking with the ultimate decision resting with the victims who must choose when -- and if -- they want to participate, especially with the person who abused them.

"We can't lead in reconciliation. We can be partners," said Father Jurisich.

The partner for the St. Barbara Franciscans is a group of victims of Franciscans called Survivors Alliance and Franciscan Exchange Network, SafeNet for short.

"SafeNet stands on the bridge. It reaches out to victims and to Franciscans," said Father Jurisich.

Paul Fericano, who founded SafeNet in March 2003, said some Franciscan abusers asked his group to discreetly query if their victims would be willing to have a face-to-face meeting.

"A couple of Franciscans expressed extreme remorse. But they don't want to harm survivors again knowing the pain a meeting can bring," said Fericano, who was abused in 1965 as a freshman at St. Anthony's.

Fericano added that each victim must determine what course of action to take. If the victim wants to file a lawsuit, SafeNet helps them with that, he said.

Marist Father Dennis Steik, head of the Atlanta Marist Province, and Rev. Harold found each other as partners in 2002 when they grappled with the issue of another Marist priest who abused her when she was 10 years old in the late 1960s.

As they both recounted, the partnership was not without disagreements, anger and frustrations.

"But it was a real human encounter," said Rev. Harold. "We were mad and furious. He felt hurt."

But the partnership grew to include other victims who were abused by the same priest while he was assigned to a church in the Atlanta Archdiocese.

Rev. Harold praised "the willingness of Father Dennis to come and listen in a setting where lawyers were not involved" and for believing her story after decades of skepticism by many church officials.

Over 18 months they worked out an agreement covering 11 women. It culminated in a healing service in October 2003 at Rev. Harold's home in Norcross, an Atlanta suburb.

The Marists gave each woman a $25,000 check and each of the women signed a statement that they no longer held the Marists, the offending priest or the Atlanta Archdiocese liable. The checks and the statements were exchanged during the healing service. Father Steik asked forgiveness on behalf of the Marists and the eight victims able to attend forgave their abuser.

"There needed to be another model out there that is not strictly a legal one," said Father Steik.

The offending priest, now 80, did not attend and has been living in a cloistered monastery since 1970 when he left the Marists to join the Trappists, said Father Steik.

Rev. Harold said that more important than the payment was the "heartfelt gesture" that accompanied it, as the sum was small and represented only about 25 percent of her therapy bills.

"But it was a real sacrifice for the Marists. That's what makes the difference. They had gone the extra mile," she said.

Father Steik said the payments were an economic sacrifice and "a sign of contrition."

The province had to sell part of its stock holdings at a time when it was facing other financial pressures and declining vocations, he said. The province has 30 of its 90 priests and brothers in full retirement and has in savings only 63 percent of the money it needs in its support fund for retired members, he said.


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