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  Made Whole, Made Holy
Church where man was abused is rededicated

By Megan Twohey
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 1, 2004

More than 30 years ago, when he was a teenager, Michael Sneesby was sexually abused numerous times, he says, by his parish priest from St. Augustine Catholic Church.

One of the incidents, Sneesby says, occurred inside the south side church, behind the altar. Last year, church officials declared the abuse substantiated.

On Sunday, Sneesby returned to the site of the abuse for a rededication ceremony performed at his request. According to canon law, such an act is needed when sacred spaces are desecrated by acts that are "gravely injurious." The purpose of Sunday's ceremony was to cleanse the brick building of sin.

For Sneesby and other abuse victims, the rededication also was an opportunity to reclaim the church and their faith in God.

"This is something I've wanted for a long time," said Sneesby, 47, his voice shaking as he stood in front of the altar.

"I lost part of my childhood," he said. "But he could not take God or my faith away from me."

Sneesby has identified Father Frederick Bistricky as the priest who abused him. Bistricky, who has said he would continue to challenge allegations against him, is now retired and living on disability.

The ceremony came two days after the release of a national report documenting more than 10,000 "substantiated allegations" of abuse by Catholic priests.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan approved the rededication after meeting Sneesby last fall, said Roberta Manley, a parish nurse who has advocated on behalf of Sneesby.

The rededication, attended by about 50 people, was performed by Father Tom Wittliff, the parish's current priest.

"That at this altar, a youngster was molested 30 some years ago, I can't get this out of my mind," he said, walking toward the altar.

Clad in a black robe and Birkenstocks, the white-haired priest asked on behalf of the church for forgiveness from victims and others whose faith has been shaken. He also made a plea for the trust of parents.

"Please, entrust your children to us," Wittliff said. "Don't be afraid. We love them."

"I'm so sorry," he added, before strolling down the aisle.

First he rubbed oils and used incense on the front doors. Then, with the help of Sneesby's two sons, who were serving as altar boys, Wittliff anointed the church's marble walls, its pulpit and, finally, its altar.

When Wittliff was at the altar, Sneesby, who was seated in the front row, between his wife and sister, shook with sobs before tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling.

Five other people rose to speak about incidents of abuse.

Robert Kaminski, 55, of Oak Creek talked of his efforts to maintain faith after what he says were decades of abuse by a priest at St. Joseph's, also on the south side.

He said he's found comfort and inspiration from other people who say they were victimized.

"We are the church," he said. "Each and every one of us within ourselves."

With solemn faces, dozens of people rose from their pews, walked to the front and dropped black stones into a glass bowl with water, in a gesture that was meant to symbolize an acknowledgment of sin.

Later, they returned to take from another glass bowl clear glass stones symbolizing new life through the healing of Jesus Christ.

The ceremony ended with a hymn called "Streams of Living Water."

Sneesby joined in.

"Streams of living water shall flow from within you," he sang. "God will wipe away every tear from your eye."

 
 

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