Priest's Death Time for Forgiveness

Stevens Point Journal [Wisconsin]
January 15, 2006

When Bishop Jerome E. Listecki of the Diocese of La Crosse recently celebrated the funeral Mass for a priest involved in the sexual abuse of a child, some eyebrows were raised.

Raymond Bornbach died on Tuesday last week in Marshfield and his funeral was Friday in Rozellville. The funeral wasn't publicly announced until after it had begun at St. Andrew Catholic Church. His family didn't want a disruption at the ceremony.

That could've happened. Some people were hurting.

An advisory board that reviews sexual abuse allegations in the diocese said in 2004 that a Plover woman's contention that she had been a victim of sexual abuse by Bornbach in 1971, when she was 9 years old, had been "sufficiently confirmed."

Bornbach was removed permanently from the ministry, and he was forbidden to wear clerical garb, present himself publicly as a priest or celebrate Mass in public.

Only the Vatican formally can make a priest a lay person again, though, and that never happened. So when Bornbach died, Listecki and Marshfield area priests were celebrants at the funeral, as they would be for any other priest.

Some Catholics said that the bishop shouldn't have been involved in a funeral Mass for a priest whose public ministry ended in disgrace.

The bishop's attendance at Bornbach's funeral shows that the church will try to hide the reality of sexual abuse cases, said Brenda Varga, now 43, Bornbach's sexual abuse victim. "They're losing people's trust by doing things like that," she said.

She would've gone to his funeral if she had known where and when it was taking place.

"I would have liked closure," she said.

"I don't have closure," she emphasized, breaking down in tears.

The Roman Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuses by its American priests has traumatized victims and turned away parishioners. In Varga's case, there wasn't the opportunity that she wanted to meet with Bornbach face-to-face.

It's not a secular newspaper's role to meddle in a church's internal policies and procedures regarding when a bishop participates in a clergy member's funeral. That's for the Vatican to decide.

But there's also a societal interest in the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and churches provide a moral compass for others to follow.

As an example, when someone broke into Marshfield Columbus Catholic High School during its Christmas vacation, among the missing items was the money that the students had raised to buy mosquito netting for students at a school in Africa.

Instead of lashing out in anger, the Columbus student body was asked to pray for the people who stole from them. That was a lesson in Christianity that no one at the high school in Marshfield, or anyone who knew about its response, will ever forget. That's what living your faith means.

While acknowledging the deep wounds that sexual abuse inflicts on children, and with respect for the church's need to care for everyone, including a priest whose career ended in an advisory committee's finding of abuse, there's a time to forgive and heal.

There will be a community memorial service for Bornbach at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at St. Andrew Church in Rozellville.

That service will be an opportunity to achieve a sense of closure as well as to commemorate the positive things that this priest did for people during a career that spanned decades and covered parishes throughout central Wisconsin.

Without a doubt, Bornbach had sins and transgressions. But Christianity's central belief is in grace -- the free and undeserved forgiveness of a loving God.

That's what the community needs to hear about now.

-- Marshfield News-Herald


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