Ham Lake talk sets aside discord to heal a hurting Catholic Church

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Abuse victim and advocate Bob Schwiderski, right, embraced the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer of the archdiocese after they met in Ham Lake.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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The thick manila envelope landed in Bob Schwiderski’s mailbox in March. He tore it open — and found something he’d never seen in his 25 years advocating for victims of clergy abuse.

Inside were 20 notes of support from parishioners at a local church. “We love you and hold you in our hearts,” wrote one woman, pledging to devote four masses, 30 rosaries and other prayers to the abused. “I am praying for healing for us all,” another wrote.

Stunned, Schwiderski eventually called the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake and proposed a face-to-face meeting with church members. They invited the vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, and on Thursday night a rare evening of reconciliation unfolded. There was no talk of lawsuits. No priest bashing. No victim blaming. Just people coming together “to try to heal,” church members said.

“Some of us have been digging in the trenches for 25 years and have never had an opportunity to do anything like this,” Schwiderski, state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told parishioners gathered in a chapel at the Church of St. Paul.

“This is huge,” he said. “You’ve got the vicar general and this old war horse on the same stage,” he added with a smile.

As many Minnesota Catholics struggle to reconcile their faith with the revelations of clergy sexual abuse, the gathering provided one grass-roots model to bridge the divide.

The Rev. Tim Norris, who shepherded the project on the church’s end, called it a “small step” to help all parties involved.

“It’s kind of like when something goes wrong in a family, the whole family can be hurt,” Norris said. “We’re trying to bridge those hurts.”

Lachowitzer acknowledged he was “nervous” about coming to such an event, “but I didn’t hesitate.” He is the archdiocese’s point person on priest misconduct, a position he assumed last fall.

“I expected the anger, the pain,” he said, and then like Schwiderski, he joked that even if he got verbally “beat up” he knew he’d still be able to drive home that night.

Unlikely gathering

About 35 parishioners and a half-dozen abuse survivors sat in the pews of the airy chapel, with boxes of Kleenex strategically placed in the front rows near the lectern.

The gathering started with prayer petitions directed at causes not typically addressed from the pulpit. For example:

“For the healing of those hurt by abuse’’ was the first petition. “Lord, hear our prayer,” went the response.

“For repentance for those who caused the abuse” was another. “Lord, hear our prayer … ”

Then came a few hymns, which prompted tense reactions among some survivors. One crossed his arms over his chest. Another rocked nervously.

Schwiderski then walked to the front of the chapel with a large photograph of himself as a young boy pinned to his suit jacket.

“I had already been abused by a Catholic priest by the time this was taken,” he said, pointing to the photo of a wide-eyed little boy. “This was the kid who didn’t know what to do.”

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