Remembering the victims

Churches and survivors of sexual abuse debate the wisdom and meaning of memorials

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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OAKLAND, Calif. - The new lakeside cathedral here commands attention with its oval shape and glass and steel sheath, but the small garden on its lush lawn catches the eye in a quieter way - two curving rows of privet hedges and mahogany benches embracing a 1,760-pound basalt boulder that has been broken into three pieces, then put back together.

At each entrance to the garden, a plaque spells out its purpose: "This healing garden, planned by survivors, is dedicated to those innocents sexually abused by members of the clergy. We remember, and we affirm: never again."

The garden at the Cathedral of Christ the Light is the nation's first permanent memorial to abuse victims at a Catholic cathedral, and it appears to mark a new stage in the abuse crisis, as survivors and church officials debate whether and how to commemorate the victimization of more than 10,000 youngsters by more than 4,000 priests. Two Catholic parishes, in Iowa and New Jersey, already have memorials; a religious order in Chicago agreed to build one as part of a legal settlement, but that project stalled when the order asked survivors to suggest the design.

In Boston, the epicenter of the abuse scandal, survivors and archdiocesan officials have been contemplating the wisdom of such a memorial since the crisis erupted seven years ago.

But within the survivor community, there are significant differences of opinion about whether memorials are an important way to acknowledge the phenomenon of clergy sexual abuse and lessen the secret shame many victims feel, or are hollow symbols that relegate an ongoing crisis to the history books and allow church officials to avoid taking more concrete actions.

The most visible step to date in Boston was the creation of a hand-painted book of 1,476 local victims' first names that the archdiocese presented to Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States last year. The archdiocese is now contemplating displaying images of the book on the Internet and a facsimile of the book at undetermined locations around eastern Massachusetts. And survivors, sometimes among themselves and sometimes with church officials, are discussing whether to do more.

The Oakland garden was suggested by survivors who are part of that diocese's "No More Secrets" support group. That diocese reported in 2004 that 24 diocesan priests had been credibly accused of abusing 72 children in the East Bay since 1950; at least another 17 religious order priests and brothers were also accused of abuse.

The Oakland diocese's previous cathedral was destroyed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and when church officials decided to build a new one, survivors of sexual abuse by clergy began to talk about how their experience might be reflected in the project. They wanted something at the cathedral, because of its significance as the headquarters of the diocese, but not inside, because some survivors are uncomfortable entering Catholic churches.

"All we wanted was our shame not being such a secret, because part of what has been so wounding has been the denial of what happened," said Terrie Light, a 57-year-old nonprofit executive who said she was abused by a Catholic priest in Hayward, Calif., when she was 7 years old. She helped design the healing garden, which opened with the cathedral in September. Light said the process of creating the garden was fraught with debate and challenges, but that she is pleased the garden is now a part of the popular cathedral tours and is shown in some of the cathedral's printed materials.

"We thought that having something permanently attached to the cathedral would make it historically real," she said.

But not all survivors in Oakland are enthusiastic.

Joey Piscitelli, a 53-year-old Martinas, Calif., contractor who said he was abused by a priest as a 13-year-old in nearby Richmond, calls the garden "meaningless" and said the diocese should instead focus more on helping victims and keeping abusers out of ministry.

"It's a small little garden, and what has it done for victims, or what is it doing for victims in the future?" he said.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, who was the bishop of Oakland when the cathedral was constructed, said in a telephone interview that some Catholics tried to dissuade him from allowing the garden, but that he firmly believes in its value.

"If we're going to keep kids safe in the future, it's important that we keep before us reminders of what can happen if we don't pay attention," he said.

Asked about the criticism from some who see the garden as simply a symbol, Vigneron argued that just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has reminded Americans of the toll of war, abuse memorials can have an effect on Catholics.

"Part of the very ecology of the Catholic Church is that symbols are actions - they're not substitutes for moral activity, but they are foundations, they are impulses that might lead to action," he said.

The debate in Oakland has echoes around the nation, but only a few places have constructed memorials. In Grand Mound, Iowa, a 3-foot-tall granite monument, with a quotation from the Gospel of Luke, was installed at a parish in 2007, while in Mendham, N.J., a large sculpture of a millstone, an allusion to a quotation in the Gospel of Matthew, was installed in 2004 on the grounds of a parish where children had been abused.

"We had a lot of opposition to this - 'Why do we have to look at this and be reminded of this' - but my reply was that the thing we endure is lifelong as well, and by putting some kind of memorial in every diocese in America it sends a message that the church is behind victims and what they've endured through the selfishness of priests pursuing sexual desire with children," said Bill Crane, a 42-year-old Oregon landscaper who said he was abused as an 11-year-old in New Jersey. He proposed the millstone memorial when a fellow survivor killed himself.

In Boston, Maryetta Dussourd, a Jamaica Plain woman whose seven sons and nephews were abused by the Rev. John Geoghan, in 2007 proposed a memorial at the Forest Hills parish where the abuse took place. But the parish had closed, and the property was sold by the archdiocese to a Protestant congregation.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represents multiple victims, said interest in a memorial is increasing among survivors.

"The survivors are extremely proud of coming forward, and they want to keep the public's eye on the crisis as it moves forward," he said.

And Phil Saviano, 56, a longtime survivor advocate from Roslindale who said he was abused as a 12-year-old in East Douglas, is intrigued.

"The concept is a good one," he said, "and it's an acknowledgment by the church that there was this history, and it's also a way of showing respect to the people that had to endure those experiences."

But several local survivors expressed skepticism about memorials.

"I would hate to think there's going to be a bronze statue somewhere of a little girl or little boy that represents the tens of thousands of us that were harmed," said Jeannie Cratty, 40, who said she was abused as an 8-year-old in Weymouth.

Susan Renehan, 60, of Southbridge said she was abused as a 12-year-old in New Jersey, and called the idea of memorials "absurd."

"If they built a monument with all the files in it of the abusive priests - a big filing cabinet - that I would call a great monument, but that's not going to happen," she said.

Boston church officials said they will take their lead from survivors. They have been discussing the possibility of a memorial for years, they said, but no action is imminent.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley's top aides for abuse-related issues said the cardinal is aware that whatever Boston does will have meaning beyond this area because of the centrality of the archdiocese to the crisis.

"There's been discussion about it since the beginning of the crisis, and we remain very interested in it, but we're still in the process of learning more and understanding more the depth of the impact of the crisis and looking for something that will really reflect the enormity of that suffering as well as reflect the longing for healing," said Barbara Thorp, who heads victim outreach efforts for the archdiocese.

The debates over abuse memorials fit into a larger cultural phenomenon, in which Americans increasingly seek to mark tragedies rapidly with memorials, and the nature of those memorials is increasingly contested.

"There are always critiques of the proliferation of memorials from people who ask if they offer a kind of cheap grace - if you do a memorial to the victims of sexual abuse, does that mean what you really want to do is close the book on it, and it's not a live issue anymore?" said Edward Linenthal, a professor of history at Indiana University and a leading scholar of memorials.

But, he added, "Memorials are part of the contemporary language of struggling with the immediate, visceral meaning of events or people."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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