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Parishioners vent feelings

Frustration immediately swept across the room.

“All of us are victims,” Frank Cheyney told other Catholics last week during a gathering at St. Aloysius’ O’Malley Hall. “A horrific violation of trust has taken place.”

A lifelong Catholic and chairman of St. Paschal’s finance council, Cheyney spoke of the sorrow he felt for victims of clergy sexual abuse. He also expressed disappointment with the bankruptcy proceedings that continue to embroil the Diocese of Spokane.

“We do not resolve these issues with attorneys,” he said. “We do it through community.”

While most parishioners continue to support the diocese, a growing number – including the more than 100 who recently gathered at St. Al’s – have started to challenge its decision to file for bankruptcy.

Many who came to St. Al’s Wednesday night were upset – with the lawyers, the hierarchy, the entire situation that’s now tied up in court. They were outraged by what they perceive as the “re-victimization” of clergy sex abuse victims. They also were troubled by the skyrocketing attorneys’ fees – millions of dollars that they say could have gone toward settlements.

While Cheyney continues to contribute to his parish, the campaign to build a new seminary and the Annual Catholic Appeal, others have become so disillusioned with the bankruptcy that they’ve stopped giving at all.

This year’s Catholic Appeal has one month left to meet its goal of $2 million. So far, the diocese has received less than $1.5 million in pledges – about $400,000 less compared to last year.

“The only way we can influence change is with our pocketbooks,” said Dermot Ryan, who attends Mass every Sunday but has chosen to cut back on donations to the diocese. “I don’t want to give money to lawyers.”

Many who came to St. Al’s for the “listening session” – an opportunity for both parishioners and victims of abuse to share their feelings during this confusing time – admitted that there was little else they could do.

They have no control, many said.

“This is an evening of lamentation, an evening of broken hearts,” said Kent Hoffman, a local psychotherapist who facilitated the gathering. “We don’t know what will happen. There is no solution in sight.”

But there is a grace that happens, he said, when people gather to listen to each other so that no one feels alone. “Somehow, this is church,” Hoffman said.

For more than two hours, parishioners from throughout the diocese gathered in groups of five or more at tables inside O’Malley Hall, taking turns to describe their experiences. Those who were molested as children spoke of their vulnerability, the betrayal they experienced at the hands of clergy and the pain that pervaded their lives. Parishioners also described their own struggles, especially as they came to grips with the extent of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

There were tears, moments of rage, an outpouring of compassion.

“The victims of clergy sexual abuse are not the enemies of the church,” said Molly Harding, one of the co-founders of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They are the people who once attended Catholic schools, the children of faithful Catholics, she said. Now, they are wounded adults, survivors who struggled with alcoholism, drugs, failed marriages and trauma.

Many of them never intended to file lawsuits, said Harding, but the church didn’t offer the healing they needed. “It wasn’t the decision of the victims to declare bankruptcy,” she said.

Parishioners who attended the gathering this past week said they were overwhelmed with helplessness. Despite their desire to make it all better, they can do nothing to ease the pain and to resolve the crisis that’s now “locked in lawyer hell” – in the words of one of the participants.

“There’s not a great spirit of joy in the church, and it deflates our ability to move forward and be the body of Christ,” said Rick Fairbanks, a social worker and parishioner at St. Al’s. “We’re not doing the work that the church is supposed to be doing.”

Many Catholics can’t bear to accept the reality of the abuse crisis and the bankruptcy, said Shirley Ryan, who attended the listening session with her husband, Dermot. “Where is the anger? Where is the outrage?” asked Ryan, who sent her three children to St. Thomas More Catholic School in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “We have to get the laity to admit there is a problem.”

Despite their frustration with the bankruptcy, Cheyney and others say they have no intention of ever leaving the Catholic Church. He loves his church, said Cheyney, but he believes the bishop is getting bad advice. He plans to keep giving money to the diocese while simultaneously questioning the hierarchy’s decisions.

“Don’t put your faith in humans,” a priest once told him. “Place your trust in God.” The advice, given years ago, empowered him to attend the listening session this past week. It also gave him the courage to speak – to vent his frustration with the bankruptcy and stand up for victims of clergy abuse.

“My faith is strong – I will remain Catholic until the day I die,” Cheyney said. “But I disagree with the bishop’s decision. We need to throw the attorneys out and take a Christian approach.”