Parish Responds to Abuse Charge with Rite to Purify Church

By Sam Lucero
National Catholic Reporter [Milwaukee]
Downloaded April 7, 2004

On the first Sunday of Lent, Michael Sneesby said he experienced his personal resurrection.

At Milwaukee's St. Augustine Church during a Feb. 29 healing service for those sexually abused by priests, Sneesby shed tears as Fr. Tom Wittliff, pastor, presided at a rarely performed rite called a 'public prayer after the desecration of a church.'

Sneesby, 47, said he was sexually abused in the church more than 30 years ago by the priest who was associate pastor at St. Augustine at that time. That priest, who retired in 1995, denies he abused Sneesby.

According to Jerry Topczewski, administrative assistant to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, a review of allegations against the priest is still pending.

The penitential rite of purifying a Catholic church is not new -- Canon 1211 of the Code of Canon Law describes its use -- but performing it in response to the sexual abuse of a minor that took place there is new.

Msgr. Anthony Sherman, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Liturgy, said he was not aware of the penitential rite being used for this purpose, but any bishop could designate its use.

Plans for the healing service and penitential rite began last September, when Sneesby, family members and other supporters and abuse victims met with Dolan to discuss a way to symbolically cleanse the church.

Sneesby told the archbishop 'that he felt that the church had been desecrated and needed to be blessed,' said Roberta Manley, parish nurse, who attended the September meeting and helped plan the healing service.

'The archbishop said there is a canon that said when crimes are committed in the church we would have to do this [rite],' she said.

Before the service, Sneesby stood at the church entrance, greeting people as they arrived.

'I have been a member of this parish my whole life,' Sneesby told the Catholic Herald, Milwaukee archdiocesan newspaper. 'This is my church, my faith community, but I still have that awful feeling of what has happened here and I hope that [the service] brings a sense of healing to me, a calm serenity of what God has to offer.'

About 60 people attended the healing service. Wittliff, dressed in a black cassock and wearing a purple stole, opened the service by addressing the congregation.

The somber ceremony was accentuated by a bare altar, empty tabernacle and the absence of overhead lighting.

Wittliff said that what was once a normal practice of reverencing the Blessed Sacrament, stored in the tabernacle located atop the altar of repose, was now difficult.

'For as I approach here,' he said, walking toward the altar of repose in the rear of the sanctuary, 'I know that in the back of this altar, so revered by the people of God in this neighborhood, a youngster was molested 30-some years ago. I can't get that out of my mind. It never goes away.'

Therefore, he continued, it was appropriate for the community to purify their church. 'In the name of the people of God, I rededicate this parish to the purpose of our mission statement, which means the honoring of God and the care of neighbor,' he said.

The priest then walked from the sanctuary to the church entrance and began the penitential rite. Assisting him were Sneesby's two sons, Justin and Adam.

Using incense, holy water and chrism oil, Wittliff proceeded to purify the church. He anointed the entrance doors and back walls with chrism oil before returning to the sanctuary.

With Sneesby looking on from the front pew, flanked by his wife, Cheryl, and sister, Rosemary Mutulo, Wittliff approached the altar of repose and purified it with incense. Atop the altar stood the empty tabernacle, and a near life-size crucifix behind it.

Wittliff continued the ceremony, walking around the altar and sprinkling the area with holy water, near the same spot where Sneesby said he was once abused. As he watched the priest perform the rite, Sneesby wept openly.

'Just as the sacrilege was proclaimed and identified here in this church, so may the people of God identify their sins,' said Wittliff after the rededication.

Victims of sexual abuse by clergy and religious were then given a chance to speak. Sneesby and four others addressed the congregation.

'I lost part of my childhood, but [the abusive priest] could not take God,' Sneesby said. 'He could not take my faith away from me. My parents have raised me in the right way to believe in God and I thank them for that.'

After the two-hour service, Wittliff said that if purifying other churches where sexual abuse by clergy took place helps to heal victims it should be allowed.

'If it stands in the name of healing and bringing grace to the people, by every means' it should be used, he said. 'I'm sure other communities where violence and sacrilege took place will pick up on this.'


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