Priests in South Dakota Give Part of Their Pay to Abuse Victims Fund

By Andrea Domaskin
North County Times [Rapid City SD]
Downloaded February 12, 2004

RAPID CITY, S.D. ---- Six months after waves of sex abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests began hitting dioceses across the country, clergymen in South Dakota decided to do something to help heal both victims and the church.

Their solution: Creating the nonprofit Lazarus Fund. Now, about 30 active and retired priests in the Rapid City Diocese are donating 5 percent of their monthly salaries to the fund, which picks up therapy costs for victims of sexual abuse and for abusers.

"The name of (the fund) is very revealing," said Bishop Blase Cupich of the Rapid City Diocese, noting it refers to the Gospel story of Jesus bringing a dead man named Lazarus back to life.

In addition to their monetary contributions, the priests fast one day a week and hold weekly Masses to pray for healing the pain that sexual abuse has caused.

"In a way, it's for them to be able to leave behind the darkness of collective shame and guilt by association," Cupich said.

Since January 2002, when the scandal erupted, four U.S. bishops have resigned over sex-abuse issues and hundreds of priests have been removed from public ministry because of abuse allegations.

The Lazarus Fund started in June 2002 at an annual retreat of Rapid City diocesan priests. The Rev. Brian Christensen, director of vocations for the diocese, said the Rev. Steve Biegler called him a few days before the retreat to tell him about the idea. (Biegler is on assignment in Rome).

"I was really excited about it," Christensen said. "I thought this was a way to be a part of the solution."

The Lazarus Fund received a special commendation earlier this year from auditors who investigated the diocese's compliance with U.S. bishops' toughened sexual abuse policy. The diocese received seven total commendations in the auditors' report.

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a national support and advocacy group for survivors of clergy abuse of all denominations, said she was encouraged when she learned about the Lazarus Fund.

"Number one, it recognizes that it is a problem," Archibald said. "There needs to be attention paid to healing the wound."

Archibald hopes other U.S. priests will follow suit.

"It's a real demonstration of compassion that demonstrates what the church is about," she said in a telephone interview.

Bishop Cupich said people are stunned when they find out the priests are fasting and giving 5 percent of their income. Priests make about $1,100 a month, he said.

"It has captured the imagination of people who are members of the church and not part of the church," Cupich said.

The fund is a South Dakota nonprofit organization, independent of the diocese. In fact, Cupich said, the diocese could apply to the Lazarus Fund for money to pay for counseling abuse survivors or priest abusers.

"It's not the diocese that's doing this," Cupich said. "It's their (the priests') effort."

The Lazarus Fund has so far made one disbursement for counseling victims, said John Raforth, an attorney who is president of the fund and a member of its board of directors.

Raforth refused to say how much money the fund has, but said it isn't large. "To me it's tremendous what (the priests) have done, given their vows of poverty," he said.

The priests renewed their commitment to the fund at their annual retreat last June. Christensen and the Rev. Mark McCormick, pastor of Our Lady of the Black Hills Catholic Church in Piedmont, said the priests plan to keep it going indefinitely.

"There's still healing that needs to be done," McCormick said.

The Rapid City Diocese released a report in August showing 31 people made sexual-abuse allegations against 11 priests in the diocese since 1953. The diocese has had a sexual abuse policy in place since 1993.

"They do so many good things, and all the good things are being dwarfed by this horrible thing that such a small percentage have done," Cupich said. "They're being judged by something that 2 percent of the clergy have done."

It was painful when the abuse allegations became known, McCormick said. "I felt powerless or helpless. Priesthood, for me, is the very fabric of life."

The Lazarus Fund is a way to help restore the priesthood, he said.


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