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On a brilliant summer day, July 30, 2003, I was seated in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in and among many survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their family members. I was painfully aware of the survivors who stood outside of the cathedral in protest. And I was particularly attuned to one survivor who sat as far back in the cathedral as possible, prepared to bolt out the door if it all became just too much.
By July 30, 2003, we were a year and a half into the crucible of the clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. The pain of abuse, the pain of betrayal, the pain of broken promises, the pain of families overwhelmed and heartbroken and most poignant of all, the pain of deep spiritual abandonment, was raw and festering. It was no doubt an extraordinary grace and a testament to the human spirit longing for new life that drew us on this day to welcome a Franciscan Capuchin Friar as the new archbishop of Boston.
The tension was palpable as we sat jammed in the pews waiting for the point in his homily when he would address the abuse crisis. And then the words came: “We must not flee from the cross of pain and humiliation... This should be of some consolation to those victims who have opened old wounds in their hearts by coming forward. Your pain will not be in vain. Our Church and our nation will become a safer place for children. I’m pleased that so many victims have come to this installation Mass. The healing of our Church is inexorably bound up to your own healing; you are the wounds on the body of Christ... we see you as our brothers and sisters who have been wronged, we thank you for coming forward.”
“You are the wounds on the body of Christ.” These nine words rang out with truth and deep compassion. Eyes filled with tears and we were grateful for the closeness of the seating even on this hot summer day. Laity, priests, survivors of abuse and their family members, bishops, religious, those inside the church and those outside--we were the body of Christ. It was good for us to be together and to hear these words spoken from the heart of our new archbishop to our hearts.
A key to understanding Cardinal Seán’s tenure these past five years is the image of standing by the cross of Christ as the only sure path to healing. The many pastoral visits with Cardinal Seán and survivors and their families throughout these years have been filled with anguished stories of broken family relationships, struggles with addiction and depression, tragic deaths by suicide and haunting memories of abuse. Cardinal Seán’s listening heart during these encounters embodied the words of his installation homily. These brothers and sisters will not be forgotten, but embraced by our love and the love of Christ.
In the spring of 2006, Cardinal Seán led a Pilgrimage of Repentance and Hope, visiting nine parishes where children had been abused by clergy. At all nine churches, following a testimony by a survivor of abuse, he invited the clergy who were present to prostrate themselves with him as a gesture of humility and sorrow for the sins of abuse. Cardinal Seán’s determination to carry forward with the settlement process, to continue to offer therapy and pastoral support to survivors and his commitment to do everything possible to ensure a safe and wholesome environment for our children and teenagers are all touchstones of his unfailing resolve to stand by the cross of Christ.
At the close of his homily on July 30, 2003, Cardinal Seán prayed the words of St. Francis: “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.” On April 17, 2008, in Washington D.C., Cardinal Seán was asked to lead the prayer at the meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and five survivors of clergy sexual abuse from the Archdiocese of Boston. This same prayer, “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world,” was again offered as the spiritual center of this encounter. The survivor who sat in the last pew of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on July 30, 2003, was present and embraced by the Vicar of Christ in a gesture of reconciliation and hope.
Preaching during the Mass at Nationals’ Stadium in Washington, D.C., our Holy Father spoke to the clergy and faithful of the United States as he said, “Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt.” Cardinal Seán has consistently put these words into action during his first five years as our archbishop. May we continue to stand in the light of the victorious cross of our loving Lord with our Holy Father and our archbishop and, most of all, with our brothers and sisters who have been so terribly hurt by the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
Barbara Thorp is director of the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach of the Archdiocese of Boston.