Healing Broken Trust
Allegations of Child Sex Abuse by a Priest Give Parishioners an Unwanted Test of Their Faith
By Manya A. Brachear
February 5, 2006
For two weeks, Julia Bledsoe hasn't been able to recite the Lord's Prayer.
She cannot ask God to forgive her trespasses because she cannot forgive the parish priest who may have trespassed against her church's children. Forgiveness is a doctrine she simply can't embrace at the moment.
In fact, it took a reminder from her granddaughter that everyone needs prayer before she knelt to pray for Rev. Daniel McCormack.
Facing the realization that she may not be able to forgive McCormack for the abuse of which he is accused left Bledsoe racked with guilt and shame.
"I am really sorry for my rush to judgment," said Bledsoe, 56, a longtime parishioner at St. Agatha Catholic Church, where McCormack served.
"I'm Catholic. I'm rushing to judgment; I'm doing everything that's not right," she added. "That's not a good thing, especially being an African-American. That's appalling, because we're always judged so quickly. But I always err on the side of the children. If it's not true, Daniel McCormack is an adult, and he'll be able to defend himself."
Bledsoe's struggle is part of a pattern familiar to psychologists who counsel parishioners after their priests are removed for allegations of child sex abuse. Even when church members aren't directly touched by the alleged indiscretion, the revelations can be almost as painful.
It might take generations for a parish to recover from the loss, betrayal, fear--even guilt if people feel they missed warning signs that could have stopped the wrongdoing before it started.
On Sunday, parishioners at St. Agatha in North Lawndale will try to heal as they honor their patron saint and namesake on her feast day. One by one the faithful will file to the altar, where Rev. Tom Walsh will anoint their foreheads with holy oil to mend their wounds and strengthen their faith, which for some has been shaken since McCormack was charged with abusing three minors.
The sacrament of anointing the sick on the first Sunday of February--St. Agatha's feast day--was a tradition inaugurated by McCormack several years ago. Its purpose was to empower those in the parish ailing physically, emotionally and spiritually. Those receiving the sacrament believe they are infused with the Holy Spirit, restoring their confidence and faith in God.
Parishioners also recite a prayer in honor of their namesake, a 3rd Century martyr who also suffered sexual abuse: "St. Agatha, you suffered sexual assault and indignity because of your faith. Help heal all those who are survivors of sexual assault and protect those women who are in danger. Amen."
No one could have guessed how appropriate the timing of this year's service would be. On Jan. 21, the priest who opened every mass by declaring, "We are a sinful people," was charged with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving two boys younger than 13. On Wednesday, he was charged with a third count accusing him of abusing a third boy in the church rectory.
On Jan. 29, staff members from the archdiocese were on hand to counsel parishioners as they coped with the reality that their parish priest was gone. Ralph Bonaccorsi, head of the archdiocese's office for assistance ministry, said staffers would continue to visit the parish, offering assistance and referrals to therapists and spiritual counselors.
"Any church that has to go through this, unless their approach is rooted in their faith beliefs, it will fall short," said Bonaccorsi, who has reached out to parishes since his office was formed in 1992.
"One of the things that troubles people is when they see a dissonance between what they have heard preached to them about who they should be in light of their faith and ... doing things that don't seem in keeping with what our own Scriptures tell us how to be," he said. "That is the quickest way to erode people's trust."
At Queen of Angels in Lincoln Square, parishioners are still feeling the effects after their pastor was removed in May. Rev. Bill O'Brien was accused of sexual misconduct alleged to have happened 25 years ago while he was an associate pastor of St. Cajetan Church in Mt. Greenwood; the archdiocese has since found those allegations to be credible.
Judy Feller, 46, said she felt conflicted, as it was O'Brien's own words that persuaded her years ago to stay in the church.
"Unbeknownst to him, [he] kept me going," she said. "Personally, I thought that it was kind of strange somebody telling me every Sunday how to live my life and they're not taking their own advice. For me, the biggest problem, if this allegation is true, was a vow had been broken--the vow of celibacy. That's what nags me."
A sense of loss
Feller recalls the sense of loss when the parish was told the pastor would not return. "It felt like a funeral mass. It really did," she said. "It was very sad and you begin to question your faith."
Some stability returned when a new priest, Rev. James Kaczorowski, stepped in to fill the void in the pulpit. "I don't know if people really get over this ever," Kaczorowski said. "You have to do a lot of listening."
Bledsoe is afraid fellow parishioners--who have split into factions for and against McCormack--will not stop shouting long enough to listen. She looks forward to the healing service as a time when everyone will be in accord. And she will look to her 12-year-old granddaughter, Mariah, for guidance to get her through.
"We don't have to forgive him," said Mariah. "That's God's part."
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