Green Bay Diocese Reaches out to Abuse Victims
By Todd McMahon
Green Bay Press-Gazette
April 14, 2016
At the bottom of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay marquee on Riverside Drive in Allouez are the words “Compassionately Serves Those in Need.”
Gene Van Asten is thankful the diocese has been practicing what it preaches.
After decades of having nowhere to turn, Van Asten has been getting the help he needs from the diocese the last few years.
Molested as a teenager by a Catholic priest in central Wisconsin, the 66-year-old Van Asten credits the comforting support of Bishop David Ricken and others from the Green Bay diocese for easing the enduring pain.
Ricken for the third straight year led a Prayer Service for Healing at two diocesan churches this week. More than 125 people attended those services, including about 50 at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere on Wednesday night.
The solemn services of more than an hour focus on individuals in need of healing from the Roman Catholic Church, including those who have been sexually abused by clergy.
Ricken offered an apology at the service Wednesday.
"It's nothing you did to deserve this," Ricken told those in the pews. "It's not your fault."
Many in attendance have been directly or indirectly impacted by church abuse.
“I am very grateful to Bishop Ricken for his stance on wanting to help the victims. It is a courageous stand,” said Van Asten, a retired teacher who lives in Appleton. “I believe he’s doing the right thing.”
Van Asten has attended the healing services every year. He and other victims also have helped the diocese plan the services, which are held during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and participated in them as well.
A small group of victims, who meet every couple months with diocesan advocate Jayne Stefanic, added a new element to this year’s services. Attendees received a chain link and, during the service, were invited to reflect on the link and then come up to place it at the foot of the cross, as a way to let go of what has been holding back that person or a loved one in their life, or "chaining them down," Stefanic said.
|A cross against a colorful sky at Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. (Photo: Evan Siegle/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)|
Creating a safe environment
Ricken said the diocese has “zero tolerance” for misconduct, especially that of a sexual nature, by clergy, employees and volunteers in its churches and schools.
“We have to do our due diligence with regard to accusations that might be brought forward,” Ricken said. “Most of the information like that (regarding sexual misconduct) that we have seen has been from the past.”
Ricken cited the diocese’s approach to fostering a safe environment for kids since 2003, when the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was imposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The charter came in the wake of widespread media reports of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the U.S. going back to the 1960s. It includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse.
The Green Bay diocese requires background checks for all employees and volunteers as well as mandatory safe-environment training for those who may come in contact with children and at-risk adults. The diocese also trains nearly 30,000 children in its schools and enrolled in religious education on how to be safe, recognize signs of abuse and how to report it.
“I think our people really have wrapped themselves around this,” said Stefanic, the assistance coordinator and safe environment department director for the diocese. “I always say it’s the most important ministry in our diocese, is protecting our children and our vulnerable adults.”
|A woman takes a chain link, that represents all that is holding us back, chaining us down to fully receive healing from Jesus Christ, before a healing prayer service at Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. (Photo: Evan Siegle/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)|
Pushed to silence for many years
Van Asten said he was molested by a priest from his home parish when they traveled, along with two of Van Asten’s cousins, to the World’s Fair in New York in 1965. Van Asten had just turned 16.
His church was in a small town west of Stevens Point in the Diocese of La Crosse.
Van Asten said his accused perpetrator “instilled a deep sense of shame” in the teen after their one and only encounter.
“He left me feeling like I was the one who was guilty,” Van Asten said. “After he had finished molesting me, he said, ‘Well, tomorrow, you can go to confession.’ And, I’m like … I was (left to feel like) this really bad person, and I had nobody I could turn to.
“For the next 20-some years, I never spoke of it. I wouldn’t allow myself to rethink the situation, to understand that I was the one who was the victim.”
His marriage on the rocks, Van Asten finally spoke of the abuse when he met with a Catholic priest in Steven Point in the mid-1980s. The priest encouraged Van Asten to tell his parents and his siblings about the abuse at the hands of their church pastor, who had died.
Van Asten’s family was indifferent to his account, a dismissive sentiment reflective of many Catholics for several decades when any thought of misconduct by church leaders was broached.
“In those days, there was no questioning,” Van Asten said. “It was what the priest said goes; they could do no wrong.”
He stayed quiet again about the abuse for nearly another 20 years, during which time the father of three moved to the Appleton area and remarried. He let his second wife know about the incident after they started dating.
An invitation to 'come forward'
At his wife’s urging, Van Asten attended a few events hosted by the Green Bay diocese that addressed sexual abuse and healing in recent years. Though he was filled with guilt, shame, fear and also anger by what he experienced on those occasions, Van Asten started to open up and share with others his horrific story.
He made a pivotal connection with Stefanic at the first healing service hosted by Ricken two years ago. At the end of the service, she invites those in attendance who are victims of abuse to stay afterward and meet with any number of advocates there — whether it’s her, a professional counselor, the bishop, another clergy leader, or the participating victims.
“(Ricken) wants as many people as possible to come forward because if they don’t come forward we can’t help them heal,” Stefanic said.
During the service Wednesday, Ricken condemned sexual abuse by a person of authority in the church, especially that involving a minor.
"There is nothing more heinous, more evil than taking advantage of a child," Ricken said.
Stefanic is the first point of contact with the diocese for reporting sexual abuse of a minor who is now an adult.
She said abuse of children presently younger than 18 should be reported to civil authorities and then the diocese.
Stefanic worked with Van Asten on reporting his abuse from 50 years earlier to the La Crosse diocese. Van Asten said resolution came last summer, when he received a letter of apology from the bishop there after a diocesan board heard and reviewed Van Asten's case.
“They did finally say, ‘We believe that (the abuse) had happened,’” said Van Asten, adding, “I have found peace again.”
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For more information
Contact Jayne Stefanic at 920-272-8174 or firstname.lastname@example.org