Monday, November 15, 2010

Coming together in Community is a Sacred Act: Part One of the Screening of Hand of God

I was baptized Catholic in 2001, by a dynamic priest who was removed 11 months later because he abused boys.  These events caused me to look closely at how the Catholic Church handled abuses inside the Church as well as to look closely at the abuses I experienced as a child and young adult.  I concluded that the Church needed to do more to care for survivors of clergy abuse.  After discovering that other Catholics were often unable to listen compassionately to the stories told by survivors, I learned the spiritual discipline of Compassionate Listening from The Compassionate Listening Project and Eryn Kalish of Workplace Solutions.
The first time I brought other Catholics together to listen compassionately to a survivor of clergy abuse was the first Sunday of January 2007.  We met in my living room and listened to Elizabeth Goeke tell her story of being assaulted by a priest when she was a young nun.  Then she listened as we parishioners told our story of coping with the removal of an abusive priest.  Everyone present felt uplifted by the experience.  We all felt that more Catholics and survivors would come together for mutual healing and understanding if only they knew how good it felt.
Ten days or so after this event, the Public Broadcasting show Frontline, screened the film on clergy abuse, Hand of God.  I liked the film very much, but for me the story was one I was very familiar with.  I didn’t realize how much impact the film would have on other Catholics.
The movie moved one of my supporters at Ascension parish in Portland, Oregon, to act.  That parishioner connected with other interested parishioners and pushed to show the movie at Ascension Catholic Church.  We screened the movie in the parish on a weeknight.  Only ten people attended.  After the film ended I listened as other parishioners spoke about their feelings.  I could see the lights going on in their minds as they came to a deeper understanding of the issue of clergy abuse.  Hand of God tells a very personal story of one survivor, Paul Cultrera, and his devout Catholic family, as they came to terms with his abuse by a Catholic priest.  Paul and his family were lied to and treated unkindly by Church officials when he came forward.  Later, the local Church officials closed the parish Paul Cultrera’s devout Catholic parents attended, treating the parents and other parishioners much as the Church had treated their survivor son.
One Ascension parishioner said, “That movie makes me mad at Church leadership all over again.”
That same parishioner confessed that he stopped attending Mass for a few years after the abusive priest was removed from our parish in 2002.
Another parishioner recounted her grief after her daughter permanently stopped attending Mass in 2002.  Others admitted they still had unanswered questions form the events in our own parish.
That evening I saw how the movie, Hand of God, touched Catholics and helped them better understand the clergy abuse issue.  I concluded that we needed to reach out to more Catholics and show them that movie.
That is how Elizabeth Goeke and I ended up hosting the screening of Hand of God on September 22, 2007, at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon.  Unfortunately, interesting other Catholics in the clergy abuse issue is really difficult.  Those attending our screening included the usual, supportive parishioners from Ascension Catholic Church and a few other members of the community including a couple of ex-Catholics, a nun and a Benedictine Oblate, two priests including Fr. Armando Lopez, the Franciscan pastor of Ascension Catholic Church, Billie Mazzei, a clergy abuse survivor who studied with the Faith Trust Institute, a dozen or so other survivors, clergy abuse attorney Kelly Clark, and Paul Cultrera and his brother Joe, who directed Hand of God.  We used the concept of Compassionate Listening to set the atmosphere.  We came together at 9 AM.  Although some people drifted in and out, many people stayed for the entire day of movie screening, presentations, and discussion -- until 6 PM.  Survivors criticized the Catholic Church backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards and every which way all day long.
Yet, many of the Catholics who approached me that day and the days to come thanked me for the uplifting presentation.
As St. Francis would say, we Catholics sought not so much to be understood as to understand.
When you listen compassionately, when you set aside your own agenda to be present to a person in pain, you become a part of their healing process, and as they heal, you experience your own transformation.  As Elizabeth Goeke explained to me after the screening, when you walk with Jesus to the crucifixion, you end up being resurrected spiritually yourself.
Our group didn’t come close to filling up the 300 plus seats in the Hollywood theater; there was plenty of room to spread out.  One woman sat in shadows at the back of the theater.  During one discussion this woman came forward to express her feelings.  She was angry.  Why hadn’t female clergy abuse survivors been mentioned?  She had other complaints, but we did not argue.  We listened.  During breaks people went up to her and offered their support.
When the time for the closing ceremony came, we held candles and stood together in silent prayer.  The angry woman joined the rest of us, but her anger had dissipated, a faint smile rested on her cheeks.  Fr. Armando stood with us in his brown Franciscan habit. After a while we broke apart, giving people a chance to mingle one more time.  
One clergy abuse survivor who had been thrown out of his parish many years before said, “I want to go back to church.”
“Come to our next Gathering at Ascension Catholic Church in November,” I said.
“No the man,” said, “I want to go to Mass tomorrow morning.  Your church seems like an open church.  I want to go to your church.”
As I led the man to Fr. Armando to talk about attending Mass at Ascension, another survivor commented to Fr. Armando, “If it hadn’t been for St. Francis, I would have chucked the whole ‘kit and caboodle’.”
The next day after Mass, Fr. Armando said to me, “You are a very brave woman.”
Fr. Armando knows that I have faced fierce opposition from other parishioners for my support for clergy abuse survivors, but no matter what happened to me I never lost my faith or stopped attending Mass.
From then on, whatever Elizabeth and I wanted to do to support clergy abuse survivors at Ascension Catholics Church, Fr. Armando supported us.  In September 2007, he experienced himself how Compassionate Listening brought about healing and reconciliation for survivors of clergy abuse as well as for survivors of other forms of abuse.  
Next Blog:  Every Person is Sacred:  Part Two of Screening Hand of God in Portland, Oregon.
© 2009 Virginia Jones

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