Laity and Abuse Survivors Will Help Change Church

By Warren Wolfe
Star-Tribune [Minnesota]
February 28, 2003

The Catholic Church has not done enough to atone for the sexual abuse of children by priests or to change the system that led to the abuse and protected abusive priests, members of several Minnesota groups say.

"The bishops and cardinals are saying they've got things under control now, to trust them. But I don't think the laity is buying that anymore," said A. W. Richard Sipe, a therapist, author and former Minnesota priest who has spent 30 years studying celibacy and the priesthood.

"The laity is educated, thoughtful and very disturbed by the revelations that diocesan leaders knew of abuse for years and didn't stop it," he said. "The parishioners are like a Midwestern tornado, a force of nature, and it's the parishioners who will force the church to change."

Sipe is one of the speakers at a two-day symposium on childhood sexual abuse that starts today in Minneapolis, financed by St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., part of an out-of-court settlement of lawsuits filed by a number of people abused by monks from St. John's.

The event is among a number of actions taken by Catholics and survivors of abuse to draw attention to the issue of abuse and the accountability of church leadership.

Service of healing

On March 9, hundreds of Catholics will gather at a Burnsville parish hall for a special healing service to ask forgiveness for the church's sins, with opportunities for individuals to hear expressions of remorse for the church's failings from priests, nuns and lay Catholics.

"As Catholics, we feel strongly that whatever the bishops do or don't do, we need to do more than just feel bad about the sexual abuse of children by priests," said Debby Reisinger, an organizer at Mary Mother of the Church in Burnsville. "We need to express our remorse, and ask for forgiveness on behalf of the whole church."

The activism by lay Catholics and survivors of abuse "is something that we could not have imagined when I was a seminarian at St. John's," said Sipe, a native of Robbinsdale who attended prep school and seminary in Collegeville.

"We did not examine the sins of the priests, much less the bishops. We took what they said on faith," he said. "But the faith has been broken, and members of the church are no longer offering blind acceptance."

Despite approving a national sex-abuse policy, and paying as much as $1 billion to settle lawsuits with victims and care for abusive priests, "the bishops still think they can apply words when what is needed is action -- action to change the fundamental system that generated abusive priests and protected them," Sipe said.

Lay Catholics have been "waiting for some bishop to stand up and take strong moral leadership. It hasn't happened. So parishioners are realizing that they must provide the leadership, they must set the course in their parishes and dioceses," he said.

'We're growing up'

The parishioners at Mary Mother of the Church certainly do not see their healing service as the start of a revolt against church leaders.

"We do not intend to be divisive or blaming. But we do have questions, and we are becoming aware that we have to step forward and assume some responsibility to find answers," said Reisinger, who convenes a parish lay group called Call to Accountability.

The group began meeting last summer in the wake of the widening scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests that in 14 months has led to more than 425 priests nationally being removed from ministry.

"The revelations were shocking, both for liberal and conservative Catholics," said Margery English, another member of the group. "Some of us have related issues: ordination of women and married people, celibacy of priests, the whole power structure of the church that has evolved over 2,000 years.

"But the basic questions are what we, as lay Catholics, must do to take responsibility for ourselves as a body of Christ," she said. "We believe the church is vitally important in our lives, and we can't just complain about things. We have to talk, to think, to work -- not just wait for Father or Bishop to tell us what to do. It's like we're growing up."

Some members of Call To Accountability also are members of the national Voice of the Faithful, a lay group begun in Boston a year ago as the sex-abuse scandal began, and now with more than 25,000 members in 40 states.

One Minnesota chapter was started last year in Winona, with members from nine nearby parishes. Several groups are talking of starting a chapter in the Twin Cities later this year.

-- Warren Wolfe is at


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.