NEW YORK — Before Thursday’s executive session to close the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) fall plenary a group of prelates gathered in the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel lobby, pinned on a blue ribbon, and walked in solidarity with child sexual abuse survivors.
The walk — billed the Pathways to Prevention, Healing and Justice Inaugural Sunrise Walk — had the backdrop of a warm sunrise over the still water of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It coincided with the annual day of observance for the prevention of child sexual exploitation and abuse established by the Council of Europe in 2015.
The Catholic leaders and sexual abuse survivors were part of a group of about 25 participants that also included lay advocates, New York Board of Rabbi’s executive vice president Rabbi Joe Potasnik and Islamic Relief USA president Anwar Kahn.
Before the group’s departure, they collectively held hands and listened to prayers from leaders of each faith, capped off by words from Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
“We’re here representing so many survivors, people around the world, we’re united with them in prayer, and in solidarity,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “Father Goodness, we invoke your blessing upon us. Heal all of the broken hearts so damaged by this terrible scourge of abuse. Help us to be ever committed to safeguarding, and bringing some reconciliation, and love into our world. Help us repair the broken world we’re living in. In this, we ask, in Jesus’s name, Amen.”
Cardinal O’Malley then led the group on the walk with a child sexual abuse survivor from his archdiocese by his side, who by the end of the was in tears. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark picked up the rear of the procession. A handful of other prelates were sprinkled throughout.
One of those was Auxiliary Bishop Elias Lorenzo of Newark who has worked on child sexual abuse cases for years, calling them “some of the most horrible stories” he has ever heard.
“This work still needs to be done. We are not finished,” Auxiliary Bishop Lorenzo told The Tablet. “We in the church are trying to address [this problem] and walk, literally, with survivors to find hope and healing in their lives and hopefully in that common walk they will feel comfortable returning to church and into the love that God can give them.”
Auxiliary Bishop Mark Bartosic of Chicago noted that the church has a long history “of walking on pilgrimage in sort of penitential way to do penance for our sins,” and so he was happy to participate in the walk to “show solidarity with victim-survivors and to pledge safety for the children in the church.”
Michael Hoffman was one of the clergy sex abuse survivors that participated in the walk because to him a global day of healing “gives us permission to talk about it in our churches, in our synagogues, and our homes.” He highlighted the way the church, specifically the Archdiocese of Chicago, has helped him recover.
“I still remain a practicing Catholic at my local parish in Chicago,” Hoffman told The Tablet. “I’ve received virtually every outreach effort from the church. It helps me reconcile my abuse with my faith and then hopefully I can help affect some change for the next person.”
Thursday’s walk was organized by Jennifer Wortham, Harvard University research associate at the Human Rights Flourishing Program. Wortham has long been an advocate for child sexual abuse survivors because her two brothers were abused by a priest.
Wortham previously wrote to Pope Francis about the suffering that priest’s abuse caused her family. She then met with the pontiff in December 2016.
“My brothers experienced many challenges throughout their lives as a result of their childhood abuse, but I believe the most difficult challenge they experienced was the loss of their faith,” Wortham said in a news release for the event. “This walk is just one way to show the collaborative work faith leaders and survivors are making to change the spiritual experience for every survivor and their family.”
The walk ended alongside the harbor near the entrance of the hotel, where further words of support and prayers were shared. Through the walk, the skies were clear and the temperature warm — a different scene than the cold and blistering winds from earlier in the week.
Father Gerard McGlone, a clergy sex abuse survivor and member of the Global Collaborative group that sponsored the event, also noted the significance of the walk coinciding with the U.S. Bishops Conference fall plenary, saying that it “sends a clear message” that Catholic Church leaders recognize the problem of child sex abuse both within the church, and general society.
“For us to be able to preach about it, for us to be able to teach about putting survivor’s stories first, is really the point of this,” he told The Tablet.