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

Schwiderski told the group how much he appreciated the words of kindness, as well as other gifts. That included pledges to offer more than 1,000 masses, 600 rosaries and 474 days of fasting and other spiritual gifts for their healing.

Then came the other survivors, one by one, to the front of the chapel, standing in front of the crucifix still draped with Easter whites, sharing their attempts to resurrect their broken psyches after abuse by someone they felt represented God on Earth.

Feeling twice hurt by church

One still-fragile man said he was raped after serving mass as an 11-year-old altar boy, by the parish priest. Another man said he was abused after confession, by his confessor.

Enduring the abuse was one thing, they said. Getting no support from their church, or being told it never happened, magnified the anguish.

And then there’s the public reaction.

“You know what people say when you tell them, ‘I was one of them?’ ” Frank Meuers asked. “Nothing … It feels like abuse all over. That’s why this situation is so unique.”

The testimony was met with respect and few questions. At the end, one parishioner stood up and said, “I would like to hear an apology. I’d love to hear someone up there saying, ‘In hindsight, we made a mistake.’ ”

That apology was soon forthcoming, as Lachowitzer made his way to speak.

“My heart is grieved: my conscience is disturbed,” he said. “I offer you my profound and sincere heartfelt apology.”

Shortly after, the meeting ended. Lachowitzer and Schwiderski embraced.

Unlikely mingling

The social hour afterward brought an unlikely collection of folks to the cookie table. Devout Catholic parishioners. A quiet parish priest. A top archdiocesan official. All mingling, as if it were some ordinary church meeting.

“It’s a lot to process, the pain they’re going through,” said Mark Meuer, a trustee of the church, while surveying the scene. “How do you respond individually and as a church? But it’s good people are here.”

Mary Beth Barbato said meeting people abused by priests was so much more powerful than seeing photos in the media. The stories were heartbreaking, she said.

“I’m just a puddle,” she said, eyes red from tears.

Several church members marveled that their humble outreach gesture had meant so much to survivors.

Meuers, a SNAP member, called the event “a breath of fresh air.”

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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.

  • Ginny Meuers reacted to her husband, Frank, as he talked about how a priest abused him and how it took 30 years of marriage before he told Ginny about what happened.

  • Tom Mahowald of St. Paul teared up as he recounted his abuse.

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