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Milwaukee Priests Join Abuse Survivors in Urging Victims to Report
Maryangela Layman
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2012
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MILWAUKEE (CNS)—Four Catholic priests have collaborated with victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy to make a joint public appeal urging survivors to come forward by a Feb. 1 court deadline and urging full accounting by the Milwaukee Archdiocese for the "action or inaction that may have allowed these crimes to occur, the offender to go unpunished, and other children to be harmed."

Their message, in the form of a full-page advertisement in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Dec. 27, featured a small dove with an olive branch at the top of the page.

That image sets the tone for the message, according to Father James Connell, pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus parishes in Sheboygan, vice chancellor of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and the person who paid for the $10,320 ad with money from his personal savings account.

Although he said he had not specifically requested that art appear with the ad, "it showed up in the final drafts ... and it's a great symbol of what we were trying to say. It's time to turn the page, there's got to be another way" to deal with the abuse crisis, he added.

"A Message from Priests and from Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Clergy" was signed by Father Connell; Father Richard Cerpich, a senior priest of the archdiocese; Father Howard Haase, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Waukesha; and Father Gregory Greiten, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish, Milwaukee.

Other signers included survivors: Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP; John Pilmaier, SNAP Wisconsin director; Mike Sneesby, SNAP Milwaukee director; survivors Vicky Schneider and Karen Konter; and the mother of a survivor, Marilynn Pilmaier.

In addition to encouraging victim/survivors to come forward, the ad includes an apology from the priests.

"As priests and pastors of the archdiocese, we publicly declare our unqualified support to every victim/survivor. We hold ourselves and our institution fully accountable for any action or inaction that may have allowed these crimes to occur, the offender to go unpunished, and other children to be harmed. We are truly sorry that this happened to you."

From the victim/survivors is a declaration of support for priests who take "the courageous step of publicly standing with survivors."

The ad includes a listing of resources, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where victim/survivors can seek help.

The group discussed the message and their alliance during a news conference at Plymouth Church, Milwaukee, on the afternoon the ad appeared.

Their group has been meeting monthly for about a year, according to Father Connell, after Isely asked him if a group of priests might join them to talk—no agendas, just discussion.

Father Haase said he agreed to join once he came to the realization that "if healing is to take place, there cannot be winners or losers; we must be brothers and sisters," adding it is important to have the two groups, often perceived as enemies, come together.

Julie Wolf, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, said the alliance's goal of encouraging survivors to come forward for help is also a priority of the archdiocese.

"Reaching out to them in reconciliation and healing support has been a priority of the archbishop, of the bishops and priests for many years," she said, praising the efforts of these priests and many others who have done so in a less public manner over the years to reach out and minister to the victim/survivors.

To encourage victim survivors to come forward by the "bar date," the Feb. 1 court deadline for filing a claim for restitution against the archdiocese through the reorganization process, Wolf said the archdiocese has put together a comprehensive campaign. It includes notices posted by parishes, schools, on websites in English, Spanish and Hmong and an extensive advertising campaign.

Responding to the alliance's calls for complete truthfulness regarding past abuse, Wolf said multitudes of documents have been shared with the local district attorneys, the courts and on websites.

The archdiocese and the alliance have the shared goal of doing everything possible to heal and learn from this, she said.

"We all want the same thing, for this to never happen again and to be there in support of those who are in need of healing," said Wolf.

In parting with his own money to spread the message, Father Connell said he willingly did so to send a message he believes "brings light and life to something that has potential and promise."

The healing process, he said, must include "having the truth come out." For him, that doesn't mean reams of documents, but rather an explanation as to how the abuse could have taken place and been covered up for so long.

"When I talk about truth, it's not just statistics," he said. "I wish somebody would talk to us about how this came to be, and if that level of truth were to come out, I think people would begin trusting their bishops and the church again."

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