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Moving Forward, Journeying into the Pain of Clergy Sexual Abuse: A Year in Perspective

By Pamela Walsh

In January, 2017, a special committee was assembled to prepare materials for parish-based services regarding clergy sexual abuse. The diverse group included victims that are parish members, non-victims, clergy, religious, and a victim that has been told to leave the church because of the abuse. The group was tasked with first revising a service, “Light in the Darkness”. In the fall of 2017 the group began to write an original work based on the Way of the Cross.

Preparing the service was demanding. Asking people to move into the trauma of clergy sexual abuse does not come at a cheap price. You cannot unhear what a person has shared without impact. For some it meant reliving their experience. For non-victims, it was seeing the ramifications that abuse leaves with victims.  As one victim shared, “the impact is forever; it is the legacy I am left with.” Having everyone’s voice heard, understood and accepted was not easy.  Through patience and persistencethe group managed to enter into each other’s wounds, creating a powerful text that invited others to hear the painful torment of clergy sexual abuse.

So many aspects need to be brought out about this painful topic; the services could not tackle everything at once. Education and raising awareness within the church structures and for non-victims were among the main goals, with the idea that people might begin to see how victims suffer in silence as the result of clergy sexual abuse. It begins a much needed open and honest conversation within the church, dispelling the commonly held myth that this is an old problem that affects just a few people, and naming the truth that clergy sexual abuse is part of the Catholic Church’s past and part of the present that has caused extreme pain for victims, often for a lifetime. Not a corner in the small Archdiocese of Regina has been untouched by this ugly reality. 

In March of 2017, the conversation began with a special service in one parish. This year the conversation continued in 13 parishes. Two formats were presented: a Way of the Cross meditation and the 2017 Light in the Darkness prayer service. The Way of the Cross was written with victims’ voices sharing their pain in the context of Jesus’ passion, as indicated in the opening of the service:“In this meditation you will hear different voices. Interspersed with an account of Jesus as he is led to his crucifixion, at each station you will hear the words, the pain and anguish of victims of clergy sexual abuse, how they are crucified and the crosses they bear.” Archbishop Bolen’s message in the same service indicated“This is not an easy way of the cross to participate in, and is not for the faint of heart. It asks us to listen to the voices of victims of clergy sexual abuse, so that we might get at least a glimpse of the darkness experienced there.”This was difficult for people to hear, but it is the reality that many victims live with daily.

With the services written, Archbishop Bolen invited two members of the committee who prepared them to speak to the Council of Priests and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council about experiences of victims. What resulted was a service being held in every deanery, though not all services were deanery events, as some parishes took upon themselves organizing a service. With the journey of victims’ pain being echoed through out the diocese, the education was started. As winter continued its grip on Saskatchewan, with wild winter storms that eventually gave way to thawing ground and new growth, so too is the silence within the church giving way to faint cries being whispered in the pews. For many decades victims of clergy sexual abuse have felt the experience of being turned away, silenced, berated and considered the least of the least, the blight of the church; a cancer needing to be cut out and eradicated. All the while the abusers were proclaimed as good pastors, held in the highest of ways. The services began to challenge the perspective of just how wrong that kind of thinking is.

On a storm filled evening in Shaunavon on March 8th, the first service was held. The storm did not stop people from coming to Light in the Darkness and victims’ words echoed into the night. On May 15 in Yorkton during the calm of the evening the cry of victims called out in the Way of the Cross and the last of the services were completed. In between, in Estevan, Coronach, Resurrection –Regina, Weyburn, Rockglen, Fort Qu'Appelle, Christ the King – Regina, both Moose Jaw parishes, St. Jean Baptist- Regina (French) and Whitewood, the cries of victims were heard over and over again.

From reaching 75 people one year to over 325 the next is progress, albeit slow. The change cannot just occur through words, but also needs to occur through actions, support, education and understanding. Walking with victims is not easy; their trust has been shattered, their lives forever altered.  Many victims have told the church what happened to them and were not believed or told to get over it, or told they were no longer welcome. The winds of change are blowing, no longer is it acceptable to cast aside victims, no longer is it acceptable to doubt them and take the side of the abuser. It is simply no longer an option for the church to turn its backs on the least of the least and praise and parade those who abuse as better than. Victims didn’t ask to be abused, they just were. Do not be afraid of victim’s anger; rather, walk, listen and begin to understand the deep pain they live with daily. Archbishop Bolen asked “I invite you to find the courage to listen deeply and compassionately to those who were wounded, where they should have found love.  And look for the presence of the wounded Jesus walking in solidarity with the victims and calling us all to conversion and compassion.”

Many comments were made about the services. Some questioned, where do we go from here? Others were deeply moved by the service, having not every really understood the trauma victims endured. Others indicated that the need for education and continuation of the conversation was necessary for victims to be heard and understood. Many found the services very difficult to hear, but recognized the power of the words that victims spoke.  Some people felt the church was still doing nothing and that nothing had changed. Some victims that attended services indicated that they still don’t feel welcome or heard, and left feeling nothing had changed. Others left the service without even being acknowledged, a continued painful aspect of being a victim, faceless, voiceless and unnoticed - leading to the realization that much more work has to be done.

As more services are planned, more people will become aware of the devastating lifelong impact that clergy sexual abuse victims live with and the collateral damage to all. Perhaps people might begin to lookat who might have sat beside them one day at Mass and suddenly that person or family is no longer there. The reason why might just be that they were a victim of clergy sexual abuse and can no longer stand inside the church, or were asked to leave. The question remains, how do laypeople, clergy, religious and all non-victims within the church reach out to those deeply wounded? Is it not time to stop being a bully or a bystander and start a conversation on this painful topic?


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