By Fr. Bill Stenzel
Several years before I was writing pastoral columns as I do now, I was part of a wonderful faith community. Like all communities, it had ups and downs, but it was well grounded in faith and in its own history. It was the 1970’s, and we only expected things to continue to be wonderful. Pentecost words came easy. A new Church was being born!
And then in the 1990’s the shadowy tragedy of betrayed trust inflicted a wound that was unfathomable on our youth and our parish and our Church. A teen in the parish confided to a trusted adult that a member of the parish staff had abused him and others his age. The adult came to tell me, and I told the pastor. The report moved upward as slow wheels of bureaucracy began to move, seeming to absorb the report and leaving the parish and us in the dark.
Little did we know, or imagine, there were other victims and two more wounded faith communities! I know now how little anyone knew then about abuse and about how reports of abuse were being handled. If any of us on that parish staff had known what facts are now common knowledge, the abuse would have stopped much sooner than it did—in fact, might never have occurred. This reality weighs on me heavily.
So my pastoral column on Pentecost 2016 (to be republished in this newsletter at a later date) turned its attention to the wounds of the scandal of abuse in our Church as I experienced it in parishes. It helped me to articulate something of my own healing as a Catholic priest and, moreso, helped me express how this wound among us is a manifold wound. The child and youth victims bear very real scars, but also so do their families, their parishes, their ministers—and their priests.
It has taken many years to work through feeling guilty for thinking of myself as a victim. The atrocities suffered by young people in the Church were so beyond anything that happened to us—priests, ministers and parishioners. But we, too, have been victims of the abusers. We have, too, been victims of some Church leaders. This can be a hard truth for some to see in print, but I learned the manifold wound the hard way, through my own personal experiences after the scandal broke and had its effect on my life.
I experienced the manifold wound when I, alone and privately, wondered about wearing a Roman collar. It was tantamount to doubting the meaning of the gift of my whole life in loving sacrifice. My deepest identity was shaken.
I experienced the manifold wound when, in response to my inquiry about the presence of a young adult in the server’s sacristy, a young man explained he was accompanying his young brother, a new altar server, who was vesting for Mass. In that parish, servers had once been abused in the sacristy. The young man, like many others, was protecting a child from whom I might be. The important trust among us had been shaken.
I experienced that manifold wound when I led a parish cleansing its temple on the Sunday after Easter. They had suffered, it turned out, a long history of more than one priest abusing many young people. So, I broke the silence that had surrounded their wounded faith community and began the conversation. Our conversation ended in a parish ritual of healing. We brought our different wounds from the terrible abuse scandal to the Lord on the Sunday after Easter and gathered to cleanse that temple. We washed the walls with holy water as we sang “Holy God.” After Mass, the jugs of water blessed during the Easter Vigil were placed at the doors of the church, and as they passed people dipped their hands into the holy water, pressed them against the temple and left sacred hand prints on the porous stone exterior as tears flowed from their eyes. Tears flowed from all our eyes.
There are many experiences of healing that continue in my life as a priest wounded along with so many others by the scandals. These experiences give me permission to be a recovering victim with my own unique wounds, too, without seeking to deny or overshadow what child and youth victims and their families suffered.
Healing, too, has had manifold sources for me. My healing in recent years has been helped by visits to a former priest who abused children many years ago. Since then, he has become sober of addictions. Burdened now with clarity about the harm he perpetrated then, he has told me that he prays each day for all his victims. He is constantly aware that what he did hurt all of us. I have shared with him what it did to me. And he has listened. He, too, sees the manifold wound his abuse inflicted on many, and his remorse has brought me some peace as a priest.
Fr. Bill Stenzel was born and raised in Chicago’s South Side, and worked at the General Electric Credit Corporation until 1971. Ordained in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1975, he served in parish ministry until 2014, when he retired (for the first time), retiring again in 2016. Fr. Bill has been an addictions counselor since 1977, supporting family interventions and family recovery work. He is currently writing about his experience applying the principles of 12 Step recovery to systems or groups when leadership has been impaired physically, emotionally or spiritually.