It was an evening of hope, quiet dignity and courage, even as three adult survivors of priest sexual abuse shared disturbing and unsettling accounts of its impact on their lives and families.
More than 60 friends, family members and others turned out at Egan Chapel of Fairfield University for the service of prayer, music and personal reflection. “I stand before you as a brother in faith. I am so deeply sorry for the burdens you have carried and for all that has happened to you,” said Bishop Frank J. Caggiano in his opening reflection after reading a passage from the Gospel of John (1:35-39).
Referring to sexual abuse as a “scourge and evil,” the bishop said that it represents a “betrayal of trust that robbed young people of their innocence and damaged the entire life of the church.” “Some of those who carried the title of ‘Father’ broke that trust and harmed you in a way that has changed your life forever and the lives of your family,” said the bishop.
The Healing Service was planned by a group of survivors of priest sexual abuse who worked with the diocese for months as part of the reconciliation process between survivors and the Church. In between the readings and music, two men and one woman came forward to share their survivor reflections. “Why me?” all three said they asked themselves as they tried to come to terms with the abuse they suffered. It was something they couldn’t talk about for years: because they thought they did something to deserve it, because they didn’t think anyone would believe them, because they didn’t want to upset their families.
Jim DiVasto said his abuse began at age 13 after his mother’s death in an accident. He was serving as an altar boy and found solace in many Church activities. When it first happened, he was confused “and I didn’t want to talk about it. It was another secret to keep.” However, as he entered his teen years, he became an over-achiever who found it difficult to socialize. In 1998, he sought marriage counseling and came to understand that the abuse “affected every relationship I had. Including with God and the Church.”
DiVasto credited the diocesan Safe Environment Office and meetings with both Bishop Lori and Bishop Caggiano with putting him on the path toward healing. “They’ve all accompanied me on my journey. Healing is what I have been longing for and tonight makes me very hopeful.”
Peggy Fry said she was 16 and very active in the parish youth group when she experienced abuse. “I was ashamed and embarrassed,” but continued to practice her faith and she never told anyone but her husband. However, as stories of priest sexual abuse began to be reported in the media, she wrote letters to Church officials, both locally and nationally, and “No one responded to my cries for help.”
She said she was grateful for her attorney and a Connecticut Post reporter because they were the first people to believe her when the Church failed to respond. She thanked her husband and three sons for standing by her and said that the abuse “stole my innocence but not my faith.”
While admitting that she still has “trust issues” related to the Church, Fry said she felt that during the evening “an olive branch has been extended,” and in working with the diocese to plan the event, she sensed genuine remorse on the part of the bishop and others, and “saw the doors of my Church being open and welcoming me back.”
Peter Philipp began his reflection by saying, “The leadership of our church let us down. They decided to protect the institution rather than the People of God. And some still haven’t gotten it right.” Like the other speakers, he said his healing began when he realized other young people had been abused. “I used to think it only happened to me, so I never talked about it. Then I realized I was not alone in my experience,” he said. “Why me? Why didn’t anyone notice?” he asked, noting that he became part of his “own cover-up, not just for a short time but for decades” because he couldn’t talk about what happened to him.
Meeting other survivors and working with the Safe Environment Office has helped him to move forward, said Philipp, who taught and worked as the director of an AIDS Hospice. “How often do we pray for the sick to be made well! Healing is a gift and we have to accept God’s will,” he said. “I’m planning to leave her tonight with a renewed sense of hope, risking to love and to be loved.”
In a moving moment after reciting the “Our Father,” the survivors walked into the gathering to share the Sign of Peace with handshakes and embraces for those who had come to support them. Fr. Jim McDevitt, pastor of St. Agnes Church, led the faithful in the “Litany of Healing.” Music for the service was provided by Michele Schule, organist and Michael Orzechowski, cantor of St. Agnes Parish in Greenwich.
For information concerning healing and victim’s assistance, please call Erin Neil, LCSW, Director of Safe Environment and Victims Assistance Coordinator of the diocese at (203) 650-3265 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Michael Tintrup, LCSW, Victims Assistance Counselor at (203) 241-0987, email@example.com.