Ceremony of sorrow

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Aug. 27, the three bishops of Alaska, Archbishop Roger L. Schweitz of Anchorage, Bishop Donald J. Kettler of Fairbanks and I boarded an Alaskan Airlines flight from Anchorage to Nome to conduct a ceremony of sorrow in response to the clergy sexual abuse cases that took place in that small town and elsewhere. As we were getting off the plane, a woman indicated to Schweitz she was aware of why the three of us were in town and said that she was very pleased with the initiative and shared that such steps would help bring about healing.

This trip to Nome was intense. The night before we left Anchorage we were interviewed by one of the TV stations in Anchorage. Upon our arrival into Nome, after we were greeted by Ross Tozzi, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, we were interviewed on KNOM radio. Through it all, we expressed our sorrow for the pain and anger caused by the clergy sexual abuse. In addition to speaking to the press, throughout the weekend in Nome we had a number of opportunities to apologize in person to abuse survivors and their families. Saying that you are sorry is never easy, but I am grateful for the opportunities throughout the weekend to meet with survivors face-to-face.

It was arranged that the three bishops of Alaska would lead a procession through the small town of Nome. It was identified as a 'procession of tears.' We had prayers at the site of the former church, a vacant lot now, but where a number of abuses took place. After processing through town, we concluded with prayers at the Nome cemetery, where prayers were offered for any of the dead who may have experienced abuse at the hands of clergy or a church worker but never had the chance to tell their story.

Following the 'procession of tears,' the parish provided a listening session for anyone who wanted to tell their story and speak to the bishops of Alaska. During this gathering I witnessed the pain caused by the abuse of those who should have been trusted. I felt the rage of those who acknowledged that the bishops and leaders in the church had betrayed a trust by failing to respond to such abuses. And some expressed their anger at the false accusations - acknowledging that some people received settlements who had fabricated a story of abuse. Nevertheless, the goal of the gathering was about sorrow and healing.

Sunday's Mass was powerful. The introduction to the Mass informed the people that we had gathered in sorrow and this moment of the Mass was to acknowledge the bishops' desire to seek forgiveness for the sins committed. We bishops vested in red and the entrance procession was in silence. We laid prostrate on the floor before the altar while the church bell tolled for every person abused by a priest or church worker in this Catholic community. It was a poignant moment in the midst of the whole weekend. Kettler read a letter of apology during his homily - a message he is taking to all the parishes in the Diocese of Fairbanks.

After the Mass, the bishops greeted the parishioners and we all shared in a potluck meal. Throughout the trip to Nome, the anger and rage was coupled with warmth and appreciation. Many people told of their gratitude for our presence. They acknowledged that this was an effective step in the healing process. While I was not happy about having to be there under such circumstances, I was glad to be a part of it. I was eager to minister to them as a bishop in the Church and equally as eager to assure them that the Church would be present to them in order to heal and hopefully once again restore trust in the Church and her ministers.

Many of you are aware of my concern for the victims of this abuse and their families and for all those who have been scandalized, Catholics and those who belong to the wider community of Southeast Alaska. In June, the priests serving in the diocese, and myself expressed our profound sorrow at the harm done by abusive priests in a pastoral letter. In it we pledged that we will do everything we can to ensure healing for victims and to restore trust in the leadership of the Catholic community. We recommitted ourselves to priestly service and to work to grow in personal holiness. As a sign of sorrow and a pledge of their commitment to service and holiness, all of our priests will offer a special prayer at every Mass in throughout the diocese on the first Sunday of Advent Nov. 28.

The "Ceremony of Sorrow" in Nome was my first trip to the Diocese of Fairbanks. It continues to amaze me how long it takes to get to most places here in Alaska. In a similar way, I have understood more clearly that it will take the Church a long time to repair and heal the harm done by abusive clergy. May God continue to guide us with his grace and heal us with his love.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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