It was a first in Minnesota, and perhaps a first in the nation. A support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse hosting the man who represents the church they believe betrayed them — Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The ground rules for last weekend’s meeting quietly were laid in advance. No media allowed. No robes or collar on the archbishop. The survivors would be respectful.
Held in a suburban library conference room, the unlikely meeting allowed survivors to share their painful stories with Minnesota’s top Catholic leader and provided Nienstedt a rare and inside look at the impact of abuse.
“I really didn’t think he’d be there until he actually showed up,” said Shawn Plocher, a Minneapolis man who was abused as a child. “This is a group of hurting people who want some sense of healing or closure. … I’m hoping things are heading in the right direction.”
Nienstedt said after the session that he was “honored and thankful that so many have shared their experiences with me.”
“I have been deeply moved by the devastating stories I have heard …” he said in an e-mail. “Their stories have been very touching and further encourage me to continue in our direction of protecting children from any abuse …’’
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he was unaware of any similar event elsewhere. Former Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn met with Louisiana clergy abuse victims in a prayer group several times, he said. And SNAP met with some bishops at the 2002 U.S. Conference of Bishops meeting in Dallas that hammered out the church’s policies on clergy sexual abuse.
“In Dallas we heard, ‘This isn’t the last time you hear from us,’ ” said Clohessy. “Without exception, we heard nothing when we got home.”
Conversations spark forum
The meeting originated in conversations between the archdiocese and Bob Schwiderski, former Minnesota SNAP director. Schwiderski said he had suggested the archbishop attend a support group, provided members approved.
“I was concerned about an opportunity for survivors to confront some of the anger they had because the church did not listen to them before,” Schwiderski said.
It wasn’t supposed to be a church-bashing session or a lovefest, he said. Just the opening of a door that had always been locked shut.
The group met in a conference room in the Wayzata Public Library. The shades on the glass doors were drawn, and about 25 people — abuse victims and some family members — gathered around a large table.
Introductions were first names only. Each person had three minutes to speak his or her piece. The format was identical to other meetings of the support group, said Schwiderski — except one of the men at the table happened to be in charge of the archdiocese.
Plocher, 42, who said the abuse drove him to drink and drugs, addictions from which he only now is recovering, said he reminded the archbishop that continuing psychological care is critical for survivors.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I know in my case that door was closed when the civil case was over,” said Plocher, recalling his remarks.
“Mike,’’ the father of a boy abused in the 1990s in a Hopkins church, said he told the archbishop about how both his church and the archdiocese did nothing to help his family.
“The church should be a safe haven for kids, not for pedophiles,” said Mike, who didn’t want to reveal his last name.
Schwiderski, accompanied by his daughter and son-in-law, said his message was that the impact of abuse does not stop with the child. He said he never hugged his daughter while she was growing up, because the priest who abused him used to hug him. Without those hugs, he said, his daughter grew up thinking he didn’t love her.
The archbishop listened to the group’s stories, as did the other invited guest, the Rev. Tim Norris, the priest at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, which held the first meeting between survivors and an archdiocese vicar general in May.
“Their suggestions will be extremely helpful as we move forward,” Nienstedt said.
Tough sell for some
It was a tough sell for some group members to attend, said Schwiderski. Some were nervous about the possibility of seeing a collar, which sparks memories of their own abuse, he said. Hence the no-collar rule. Some worried that the archbishop might “use what I say against me.” Others worried the media would show up and wanted to protect their anonymity.
Others, however, joined in with little concern about sharing their story with an archbishop.
“The veneer has worn off,” said Mike. “At one point, I would have been intimidated.”
When the meeting was over, there were “handshakes and thank yous” said Schwiderski.
But Clohessy said the historic gathering signified an archbishop “is under fire.” Public appearances are a common tactic to diffuse tension and shore up support, he said.
In addition, Nienstedt participated Monday night in his first “Mass of Healing, Reconciliation and Hope” at St. Patrick’s Church in Inver Grove Heights. Participants could pray with clergy and lay professionals after the service, as well as obtain information on postabortion resources and annulments, according to the archdiocese.
Plochor is hoping that the stories from Saturday’s meeting stay with the archbishop. He sent Nienstedt an e-mail Monday thanking him for attending, adding, “You can’t change the past, but you can have a significant role in determining the future.”