Cardinal Apologizes for Clergy Sex Abuse
By Russ Olivo
June 3, 2006
BELLINGHAM -- To the many victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley last night stepped down from his lofty perch at the top of the Boston archdiocese to offer something they have been waiting so long to hear: an apology.
In an austere ceremony steeped in symbols of humility and renewal at St. Blaise Church, O'Malley candidly acknowledged the mishandling of the clergy sex abuse scandal by the church, and pledged to work toward rebuilding the trust of Catholics alienated by its actions, or lack of them.
"In my own name, and in the name of all our faithful, I express my profound apology," said O'Malley. "We are resolved to avoid the failures of the past."
Imbued with tones of heartfelt gravity, the words came mid-way through the latest installment of the Pilgrimage of Repentance and Hope, O'Malley's "healing tour" through nine churches most wracked by clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse. St. Blaise has no such history, but in 2004, the parish absorbed shuttered Assumption Church, where five priests who served from 1966 to 1998 were dismissed for sexual misconduct.
About 200 parishioners attended the service, which began when Robert Doucette, 43, took the lectern to tell his own story of criminal encounters with a priest in Methuen, Mass., beginning in 1978. It began, he said, after his father died from a heart attack and he was "on a quest for a male role model."
Father Ross Frey "gave me a hug," said Doucette. "He told me he loved me. He told me God loved me and he was sorry for my loss. Still holding me tightly, he began to kiss me."
And so began a series of attacks that left Doucette paralyzed with fright, and wracked by shame and guilt. He eventually became one of 12 people to file suit against the church in a harbinger of a larger scandal yet to unfold throughout the region. Although there was eventually a settlement, the church played legal hardball with him, acknowledging neither wrongdoing nor the psychic scars he still bears.
"I was dismissed by my church without being validated," he said. "In the end, money goes and pain remains in some form."
Parishioners loudly applauded Doucette's brave narrative. Then O'Malley, together with at least a dozen of St. Blaise's clerical staff, responded with the most dramatic gesture of humility of the evening, lying prostrate before the altar. A choir upon the altar voiced a prayer of healing set to hymn-like music during the rare rite, which lasted more than five minutes.
Wearing the crimson monk's cap and plain Franciscan robe, O'Malley set the tone for the hearing when he entered the church and took a seat in one of the pews in the front row beside everyday parishioners.
"We are praying so that the Holy Spirit will transform our hearts," O'Malley said later from the altar. "The Catholic church in the United States has experienced the worst crisis in our history. Sexual abuse by priests carries with it a special horror and shock."
The priests who violated the innocence of young boys and girls in their stewardship not only committed crimes and sins of their own, said O'Malley, but the "the crime was compounded when the church leadership failed to respond in an appropriate way."
At least one overarching lesson of the scandal, said O'Malley, is the enduring psychological trauma to the victims of sexual abuse, in which "even the passage of years cannot wipe away the violation of innocence."
Protesters from victims' advocacy groups have consistently dogged the healing tour, and last night was no different. Anna Hagen Webb, the coordinator of the New England Chapter of SNAP -- the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, and Steve Sheehan, co-chairman of Voice of the Faithful Survivor Support Group, stood in a torrent of rainfall outside the church, holding signs as parishioners arrived.
The healing tour, said Webb, is little more than a colorful ceremony, but she doubts it will help survivors much.
"I think it's symbolism without substance," she said. "He's promoting it as something that's helpful to survivors. The venue is actually hurtful to survivors. Many of them cannot go into a church."
If any of the victims from Assumption Church attended the healing service, they blended into the crowd. Among the church's better-known victims are 18 men who, as altar boys in the 1880s and 1990s, were molested by the Rev. Paul R. Desilets. After years of hiding in Canada, Desilets, then 81 years old, was extradited to Worcester County authorities last year and later pled guilty to numerous charges of sexual assault.
After the service, Guy Fleuette, a lifelong Assumption Church parishioner with a distant relative who was touched by the scandal, said O'Malley's expression of conciliation and been a long time coming.
"I was a lifetime member of Assumption parish," said Fleuette. "The people of Assumption parish were just shocked when the news broke. It just kept getting worse as time went on."
The healing pilgrimage was "a welcome event," and hopefully it won't be the last of its kind, Fleuette said. The saddest thing of all, he said, is that Assumption, one of 80 churches shut down by the archdiocese in a 2004 consolidation, will never be part of the prayed-for renewal.
The healing tour has been a big draw for many of the faithful, luring not just St. Blaise's flock, but Catholics from far away.
"I want to be part of the healing," said Kathleen Garon, of North Andover, Mass. "As a Catholic, we're all in this together."
Garon has attended almost all of the nightly services since they began on May 25, except for one on Thursday. She missed that one only because she got lost on the way to St. Paul's Church in Hingham.
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