Phyllis Willerscheidt:
Helping Victims Become Survivors

By Carol Ann Morrow
Downloaded June 9, 2003

A veteran advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse sets a high standard for the Church at large.

Phyllis Willerscheidt likes to clarify what she's not: "I am not a therapist. I'm not an attorney. I'm not a spiritual director. I'm not a friend of the victim." For her, saying these things helps define her personal boundaries-and what she can offer.

Boundaries is a teaching word for Willerscheidt, one she uses freely in her work as lead advocate for victims of abuse, a position established by the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 1990. Clergy sexual abuse is about priests or deacons who have trampled appropriate boundaries. They have misused the power of their office to violate men and women who are now rising up in great numbers to reassert themselves as whole, healthy human beings.

One dimension of this difficult and draining work is knowing limits, defining boundaries and establishing an identity with edges. Those edges are often raw.

Willerscheidt models healthy behaviors as she listens. "There are no recipes," she insists, no lockstep journey toward healing and empowerment. But she does have a toolbox of strategies and options.

She acquired them on a journey of her own, one she shared during a visit to St. Anthony Messenger last February.

Phone Call in a Snowstorm

Phyllis Willersheidt came to her current demanding post through the venue of the Archdiocesan Commission on Women, where she has been executive director since 1987. Retired Archbishop John R. Roach describes the establishment of the Commission on Women as the single proudest achievement of his 20 years as head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, Willerscheidt says. She had been a member of the commission from 1984 to 1987. That work led to her appointment as advocate coordinator and trainer for victims of clergy sexual misconduct.

In 1990, Vicar General Rev. Kevin McDonough asked Willerscheidt to assume this additional responsibility. She was in the middle of basic training, so to speak, when Archbishop Roach interrupted by phone with an urgent request: "Phyllis, call this woman right away. She needs help!"

Willerscheidt recalls that Archbishop Roach's call came during a snowstorm. She quickly responded to offer her assistance. That woman was the first of many, and the newly trained advocate has become one powerful and present reason that her employer, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, isn't snowed under by the same scandal that has hit most dioceses.

This is not to say that the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis is without offenders. In January, The New York Times reported 16 priest-abusers whose actions may date back 50 years. Willerscheidt thinks that number too low-and cautions that it does not include members of religious orders.

No statistics adequately measure the pain or the extent of clergy sex abuse. Many offenders have harmed more than one victim. Victims-as well as offenders-have moved from one diocese to another. Diocesan statistics do not include deacons or clergy of other denominations, whose victims are also assisted by Willerscheidt and her fellow advocates.

Tallying the numbers may be necessary to measure the problem, but getting their stories out is what the victims need most. Phyllis Willerscheidt says that the people she serves are often seeking only that-not punishment for the perpetrators, but simply to be heard.

She makes sure that listening happens. What happens after that is up to the individual, though Willerscheidt stands ready to assist-with compassion and understanding.

Willerscheidt's undergraduate and graduate degrees are in speech communication and she is a confident, articulate spokeswoman. She is also a class-A listener.

She designed industry programs in facilitation and management and also taught those skills in a brief stint at the University of Minnesota. Those victimized by Church personnel now benefit from her skills, offered at the behest of that same Church.

She has trained a team of eight advocates-men, women, vowed, married, single (no clergy, obviously)-to walk with victims who come forward. She also fills that role with victims who were abused elsewhere but now live in the archdiocese and with victims who have moved from Minnesota.

She works by phone, e-mail and in person. She speaks at parishes and at national conferences. She also trains advocates for other denominations. She co-facilitates a 12-week ecumenical support group three times a year and leads a quarterly supervisory group. She has set up a private Internet discussion area for advocates, where they can discuss policies and practice.

Willerscheidt has been a member and president of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Women in Church and Society. Last June, she served on a panel at a media briefing in Dallas, Texas, as reporters questioned the adequacy of the Church's response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis.

She also has a life of her own. She is wife to Tony for 48 years, mother to five married children, active grandmother of 14, and she volunteers in her spare time! According to Willerscheidt, volunteering, especially with Girl Scouts, is fun-and balances the heavy demands of her employment.

What Do You Need?

"Every victim has different needs," Willerscheidt explains. "Advocates need to be creative and innovative in responding. First, I hear the story. After that's out, my opening question is always the same: What do you need to heal from this?"

When Willerscheidt looks back on her experiences, she says getting a victim to that first meeting is a big hurdle. Victims often cancel out of fear or mistrust.

They vacillate. They withdraw. Phyllis Willerscheidt waits. "Coming forward takes a lot of courage," she says simply. "So I try to respond immediately.

"Everything I do has the ultimate goal of the victim in mind," she explains. "How would this affect him or her? What will this do to help this person to move forward on life's journey?"

She adds, "My principal role is to listen and respect the individual in a safe and confidential manner. I express my sorrow for the pain they have suffered and thank them for speaking out, for breaking the silence. I try to help them regain the power they lost as a result of the abuse. I ask myself, what can we do now to help them recover from the abuse or exploitation?"

Some options include individual and/or group therapy, contacting and/or confronting the offender, meeting with the offender's bishop or religious superior and/or reporting to other authorities, filing a criminal complaint or a civil suit. (All relevant Minnesota statutes are referenced in a 1998 archdiocesan handbook entitled A Time to Heal: Preventing and Responding to Ministry-related Sexual Misconduct.)

Willerscheidt says that the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis does not request "gag orders." Nor does it recognize statutes of limitations as a valid measure of moral responsibility.

Why not? Willerscheidt says arbitrary time limits interfere with the individual pace of healing. And of gag orders, Willerscheidt asks, "How could victims heal if they were required to keep silent? What we want is healing."

Grace in Action

Healing can be a slow and painful process. One victim whom Phyllis Willerscheidt assisted was glad to speak on the record about the support her advocate has given her. Benita Kane Kirschbaum was abused by a priest elsewhere, but now lives near the Twin Cities.

At a large family gathering in November 1991, Kirschbaum began crying and couldn't stop for hours. She could not be comforted. "I haven't been happy since I was 10 [when her father died]," the 58-year-old lamented to all who tried to soothe her. Her sister Carol, who knew what had begun for Kirschbaum two years after her father's death, gave her Phyllis Willerscheidt's telephone number, published in parish bulletins and available on the archdiocesan Web site (

Today, Kirschbaum says, "I know that if my path hadn't crossed Phyllis Willerscheidt's in 1991, I wouldn't be alive today. I really wanted to die. I couldn't handle the fašade." Kirschbaum calls their connection "grace."

After an initial interview, she began attending support group meetings, although she refused, at first, to say anything more than her name, and she began to see a therapist regularly. She also sees a psychiatrist. She became active in The Linkup and SNAP, victim advocacy groups.

Willerscheidt's instincts sense a connection between the length and depth of the abuse and the time needed to heal. For Kirschbaum, whose widowed mother happily accepted the new pastor's willingness to serve as father figure for her 12-year-old daughter, abuse began with cautious compliments and grooming. She was raped at 15, the beginning of 20 years of secret intimacy until she became engaged to another man.

Her marriage began a different kind of abuse: stalking, obscene phone calls and threats of bodily harm against her, her new husband and her mother. This harassment continued until the offending priest's death in 1998. The grim tally is 52 years, years in which this priest also abused and exploited other women, including at least one of his relatives. Though she now challenges its legitimacy, Kirschbaum agreed in an out-of-court settlement not to name the diocese or the perpetrator.

While no two survivors walk the same path toward recovery, communication with the offender and/or with official Church representatives through a letter and/or a face-to-face meeting is often part of the healing journey. In 1996, Willerscheidt helped Kirschbaum arrange such a meeting with the offender and accompanied her to the meeting, which also included officials from that priest's archdiocese as well as Kirschbaum's husband and two family members.

Did Kirschbaum find this meeting helpful? "I handed my feelings of shame, guilt, grief, pain, sadness, confusion and despair over to that man. He neither admitted to nor apologized for his abuse." The offender told those assembled that the relationship was "mutual."

Willerscheidt denies that possibility. "It's all about power and trust-the abuse of boundaries and the fact that the boundary violation was caused by the offender. It's never O.K. It's not the fault of the victim."

Catholics are extremely reluctant, Willerscheidt says, to lay blame on priests, "who represent God on earth." She continues, "They want to blame either the victim (who may have been five years old) or believe that it was seduction. The priests are very often good men, doing a lot of good work, building parishes and communities-very charismatic people.

"But priests are human beings. So much depends on their age when they began studies, how they were trained, how they viewed their sexuality and considered issues surrounding celibacy. Sometimes they themselves have been abused," Willerscheidt adds. "But anything that happens out of the offender's need is abuse!"

Her calm demeanor is taxed by some memories. "I have seen evil," is all she chooses to say in that vein.

Coping as Church

But Phyllis Willerscheidt remains staunchly Catholic, active in her parish and active in fund-raising for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, who taught her five children. Her faith hinges on her profound belief that we are all Church, not priests alone. "I am an optimist and I have hope. Boston gave me hope!"

She refers to recent activism regarding the scandal in Boston. "Women rose up and said enough!" she explains.

This woman says "enough," also. She says the whole Church needs to do its healing homework. She highlights three important areas: prevention, education and intervention.

Prevention, she says, "is about boundaries. We need to make those clear." Children are not to be guests of a priest late at night, for instance. Everyone benefits from knowing appropriate safeguards for the vulnerable.

Education, says Willerscheidt, can be about such preventive measures and also about alertness to signs of abuse. It needs to include everyone: "children, parents, parishes, priests, seminarians..."She notes that her archdiocese participates very actively in the ecumenical and interfaith arena-perhaps more than most.

Intervention, she continues, is engagement rather than denial, cover-up and delay. Willerscheidt deplores the number of multiple or serial offenders. Prompt action could stem this pattern.

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, men who have been abused stepped forward in greater numbers in 2002. This is consistent with revelations of male-on-male abuse elsewhere.

Willerscheidt suspects abused women religious will be next to speak out. Whatever story breaks, "We as a Church must recognize the pain that all victims have endured for many years. Their lives have been changed forever," she says.

The call now is for the Church to become a national leader in ministry to the abused and exploited, to set the pace for recovery, to extend outreach to secondary victims-the families, the parishes scarred by exploitation, abuse and secrecy. "If the Church could become a flagship institution in responding to these victims' needs, we'd be doing a wonderful service for our country-and for the world!"

Is restoration to the Church a part of Willerscheidt's dream, since many, if not most, victims no longer count themselves Catholic? Benita Kirschbaum cites the prevailing view in survivor circles, "Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who've already been there!" Phyllis Willerscheidt's dream is that victims will be free to choose Church membership at some point in their healing. Spiritual direction is one of the services her office arranges for victims who request it.

Willerscheidt sees a place in the Church for everyone-including offenders. They are part of the Body of Christ and "you need to hear their voices," she states. She also feels that keeping them squarely in the fold is one way to have a shepherd's eye on them.

No Longer Silenced by Fear

Sometimes victims' voices have literally been muted by offenders. Willerscheidt remembers driving to meet one woman at a distant therapist's office, because of the victim's mistrust of the Church-and related fear of Church employees in Church-owned buildings. "She had this teeny, teeny, tiny voice," the advocate recalls.

Willerscheidt met her where she felt safe and Willerscheidt listened to that small cry for help. She didn't speak for the woman. She spoke with her, translating Church jargon and legalese into plain words: "My whole purpose is to encourage victims to use their own power." Today that survivor speaks for herself.

Phyllis Willerscheidt was honored last December by her archdiocesan peers for being a "person of faith and high honor, generosity of spirit and abundant goodwill, who has shared her gifts in service to the people of the Archdiocese." It's called the B. Charles Tierney Award, after another person who served the local Church.

Phyllis Willerscheidt is pleased to have been acknowledged, but she isn't into reaping rewards. "I just keep thinking about the next victim. What can I do for the next one?" Someday, she hopes, she will no longer need to ask that question.

Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor of this publication. She earned her M.A. in humanities from Indiana State University.


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