National News

Church Needs Creative Ministries to Care for Abuse Survivors, Advocate Says

Paula Kaempffer will help bring about healing from clergy sexual abuse as she serves the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in her new role as outreach coordinator for restorative justice and abuse prevention. She is pictured in a May 22, 2019, photo. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

WASHINGTON — A ministry for homebound victim-survivors of clergy abuse to receive the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is an example of the creativity needed to help abuse survivors find healing, said the executive director of the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. bishops. 

“It’s the Holy Spirit at work,” said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, who has led the post at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the past 12 years. He said this new program is “leading the way with its ministry,” noting that it has brought “blessing and grace” to the person receiving the Eucharist and the person bringing it. 

Deacon Nojadera also told The Tablet that this ministry, which he described as bringing “the church to survivor victims,” is the only one of its kind that he is aware of. 

He also described it as planting a seed, adding: “Who knows what is to come?” 

The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper of St. Paul and Minneapolis, reported that the idea for this ministry came from Deborah Schiessl, who, with her husband Peter, is a eucharistic minister for the homebound at St. Gerard Majella in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

Deborah, who is an abuse survivor, said she was attending support groups where she heard stories of many people whose “hearts are so connected still to the Catholic Church,” but were finding churches a place of trauma. 

She thought about how she and her husband brought the Eucharist to people who couldn’t attend Mass for various physical, psychological, or emotional reasons. “And I thought, well, wouldn’t that apply here? … Wouldn’t Christ go to those people?” 

Schiessl talked with her pastor and Paula Kaempffer, the archdiocesan outreach coordinator for restorative justice and abuse prevention, about her idea, and the ministry got started. 

Kaempffer told the archdiocesan newspaper that many abuse survivors are “Catholics through and through, but they cannot set foot inside of (a) church again because their abuse either happened in the church itself, or it happened by a priest, and they can’t face a priest.” 

But she said many of them “have a deep hunger for Eucharist” and that this ministry is a way “to bring them Eucharist … to let them know how much they are cared for and loved by Jesus and the Church.” 

Kaempffer said the first person who received the Eucharist from Schiessl said it was “such a healing, profound experience, how loving that eucharistic minister was, and how they could talk” about their shared experiences. 

The experience was also powerful for Schiessl, who said she has never felt she wanted to leave the Church and now hopes God can use her to help others. She plans to talk about this new ministry in support groups, to bring awareness to it and to encourage attendees to consider it.

“Isn’t it interesting that Christ is using the wounded ones to heal?” Schiessl said. “I really think it has to come from victim-survivors; how do we do healing from this?” 

Other dioceses around the country have different programs in place to help survivor victims find healing. 

In the Boston Archdiocese, a project led by survivors brings a rosary for victims of abuse to parishes throughout the diocese. The abuse survivors also bring their stories to parishes to help people understand this problem through their perspective and to engage in discussions with parishioners and staff. 

In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, an abuse survivor created an outdoor healing garden for clergy abuse survivors. The first designated “Garden of Healing” was dedicated last fall at the St. Camillus Center for Pastoral Care in Los Angeles. 

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, who presided over the garden’s dedication, announced it would be the first of several, with the goal to have at least one in each of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ five pastoral regions. 

“This garden is a promise to our brothers and sisters: We will never forget, and you are never alone; we go with you, always,” said Archbishop Gomez during the dedication of the garden of healing. “We pray that in the silent beauty of this garden, many may come to hear God’s voice, to know his love and compassion, and his longing to comfort them, to strengthen them, and to make them whole again.” 

A report on the garden by the Angelus, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said there are signs in English and Spanish in the garden with a message to victims from Archbishop Gomez. 

“To you, who have been wounded by someone in our Church, who have had your innocence taken and your trust broken: I am deeply sorry,” the sign says. “We in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles want to walk with you and help you to heal. As you pray in this sacred space, please know that we, as Church, are praying with you. May you find hope in Jesus Christ, may the Blessed Virgin Mary be a mother to you, and may God give you peace.” 

The Diocese of Brooklyn each year hosts a Mass of Hope and Healing for victim-survivors of sexual abuse and all those impacted by abuse. 

At the Mass last October, Bishop Robert Brennan told the congregation: “We come together in this Mass that we might encounter Christ, that we might encounter Christ in the way we need to encounter Him. Whether it is that we need to have our own wounds healed and set free, or whether to be challenged by Him to look out for one another. We call out to Him, but we call out to one who loves us, the one who shows us the way toward tenderness, toward peace and toward healing.” 

He thanked the abuse survivors for their “kind patience and your goodness as we strive to pull together,” and said they would be invited to speak with the diocese “so that we can, in fact, be truly attentive, really listen, really understand, and walk with one another on that road, that path, to hope and healing.” 

Listening to abuse survivors is a key first step to helping them heal, said Deacon Nojadera. 

“We need to make right with survivor victims,” he said. “We need to hear stories of their journey.”