Repairing the Harm From Clergy Sex Abuse

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For the last ten years I have worked in the field of restorative justice. My students, community members, and I, along with the survivors of crimes of severe violence, regularly participate in intensive three-day healing circles we conduct in maximum-security prisons. Our MULS Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI) also facilitates victim/offender dialogues in very serious cases. My students help teachers, social workers, and students in central-city schools to develop restorative processes which address bullying and other harmful behaviors. Each experience reminds me that when serious harm has occurred, it is important to afford victims a safe environment to be able to tell others what has happened to them. People need to understand how some of their decisions and actions can send out negative ripples that have far-ranging effect. One of the most effective ways to promote that conversation is to create a facilitated talking circle in which a symbolic “talking piece” is passed from person to person. One can only speak when in possession of the “talking piece.”  These circles succeed in getting everyone present to deeply listen to each other and provide a safe environment in which to speak from the heart. I have participated in hundreds of circles through the years and still am amazed at what I learn from people through this process.

A few years ago, I started thinking about how the Catholic Church, as a community of people, really needed to look  from different perspectives at the deep-seated and far-ranging effect of the sex abuse scandal. So the RJI, with the assistance of Amy Peterson, Victim Assistance Coordinator of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, began the project of gathering people for a circle. 

The circle included clergy-abuse survivors and a variety of other kinds of people: then-Archbishop of Milwaukee Timothy Dolan (recently installed as the New York Archbishop), parish staff, an offending priest, two parish priests, a woman who left the church over the scandal, and another parishioner whose children are no longer Catholic.  All the participants knew that the secondary purpose of the healing circle was to create a documentary, The Healing Circle ( ), that would promote dialogue in churches (all denominations), victims’ groups, seminaries, and other community groups about sexual abuse of children by trusted adults.  I wanted people to see and listen to the victims to better understand why, despite some people’s beliefs, they can’t “just get over it.”  I also wanted the viewers to recognize that the institutional response to the abuse had in of itself also created great harm. The only way I believe that the Church will heal from the incredible harm that has occurred is for its members and hierarchy to recognize the ripple effect and to discuss openly how everyone can work together toward repairing the harm.

Last month, we finally completed the The Healing Circle project, which brings the viewer into the restorative justice circle along with some of the actual participants. who included a mother whose son committed suicide after clergy abuse and a priest who was fondled in seminary.  Archbishop Dolan introduces the film and offers a prayer for healing. The RJI has offered a number of showings of the film and it has received great reviews. Diane Knight, the Chair-Elect of the National Review Board of the Bishop’s Conference, has recommended the film

to anyone who has an interest in gaining greater understanding of the depth and breadth of the impact of the clergy abuse crisis. The individual stories in this documentary are compelling, and they are a powerful springboard for meaningful discussion that can extend the healing process in all of us.

Attorney Audrey Skwierawski, Coordinator of the Milwaukee Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told us that

The Healing Circle is an intense and powerful film. You will walk away from the film with a new and profound appreciation for the damage done when those in positions of trust violate that trust through sexual abuse. The real power in the film is the recognition of the harm done not just to the victims and their immediate families, but the ripple effects of that abuse for all those who literally put their faith in the offender and the system the offender represents.

This project has reinforced my belief of the importance of training our future lawyers to understand that their professional role as leaders includes helping people to recognize the harm that occurs in people’s lives and to find ways to give them a voice that will be heard by others. This film serves as a catalyst for all of us to continue to recognize how harmful conduct can ripple through many people and to find ways to work toward healing and protecting others in the future.

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6 Responses to “Repairing the Harm From Clergy Sex Abuse”

  1. Peter Heyne Says:

    What a laudable project! As a young Catholic just out of college, I was deeply confused and ashamed when I heard about the heinous scandals breaking in 2002 (e.g., concerning my own native diocese of Dallas) and the decided lack of ecclesiastical, particularly episcopal, accountability and proper response. For a sobering perspective on the abuse crisis, especially the failure of many bishops, I recommend reading George Weigel’s The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform And The Future Of The Church (Basic Books (March 2, 2004)).

    This 2009-2010 year, could MULS host a screening of the documentary, e.g., in the Weasler Auditorium, not only for law students, but for the whole Marquette University community, the Archdiocese, and the Milwaukee area at large? I can also see great benefit from a panel and audience “talk-back” afterward.

  2. Benjamin Barrientes Says:

    I am glad to find out about the Healing Circle project. The clergy sex abuse scandal makes it difficult not to remain skeptical of the Catholic Church’s future. A most disheartening aspect of the scandal is the type of response by the leadership of the church. “Repairing” is a term that places the onus of the church’s future on the true believer. I look forward to viewing the documentary some day.

  3. Kelly Mathews Says:

    Dear Ms. Geske,

    I run a support group for clergy abuse victims/survivors in the Diocese of Marquette. This is a lay group started by survivors.

    We would very much like the oppurtunity to view the film. Please contact me.

    Thank you,

    Kelly Mathews
    “Mended Wings”
    Marquette, MI
    Marquette Diocese Clergy Watch

  4. Ms. Geske,
    I applaud your efforts to help survivors of abuse. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Bridges to Life but I think you’d find it very interesting since they also are into restorative justice. Their website is

    Best Wishes,
    Miguel Prats Founder
    Maria Goretti Network

  5. Elizabeth Linehan Says:

    I have seen the one-hour version of this film, and it is powerful (even haunting at times). The one thing I missed in it is the participation of an offender — at the level of seriousness of the offenses described by victims — who really “gets it” about the harm he has caused. The offending priest in the film portrays his offenses as relatively minor, happening only once, and seems to see himself as a victim. There is validity to that, considering the way accused priests have been treated, but there is still a missing perspective for a fully restorative process.

  6. Lynne Newington Says:

    May 25 2009, it is now June 2011, just over 2 years since this project initiated.
    Angel Ryan csb had been trying to establish something similiar throughout every Australian parish since 2007.
    Our Church
    A safe community
    A shared commitment
    Considering the Australian Catholic Bishops connection to the Professional Standards Committee, co-operation from the individual parish priest’s, were appalling.
    So much for her efforts and support of the Bishops’ Conference.

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