Waterloo parishes host forum on clergy sex abuse crisis
Catholics air views, panel listens and
responds to people
By Pat Kinney
For The Witness
WATERLOO — Anger, sorrow and disappointment were very palpable emotions expressed by many in an impassioned but civil two-hour meeting on clergy child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, conducted by the Catholic parishes of Waterloo Aug. 30 at St. Edward Catholic Church.
Equally strong sentiments were expressed by many to fight within the church to effect change through greater empowerment and oversight by the laity, criminal prosecution of offenders and placing child safety and survivor support above all else.
“Let’s not forget the abuse victims themselves,” said Dave Cushing, adult faith formation director for the Catholic parishes of Waterloo. “We’re not trying to demean or diminish the great pain they carry, that we can’t imagine.”
At the same time, several want the church to adhere to strong moral teaching despite the failure of some individuals in authority to practice what they preach.
“This is my church. I believe in the institution of the church. I believe in the sacraments, and I couldn’t live without that. And I’m committed to this. I’m not walking away from this. I love my church,” said forum panelist Joan Hoffman, a former victim witness coordinator for the archdiocese.
In that position, she said, “I’ve heard lots of terrible, terrible stories. And it kept me awake at night. Still, I have hope for the church because I know so many good priests that I count on to remain good, and I pray for them every day.”
About 125 people attended the meeting. The Waterloo parishes wanted to provide an outlet for parishioners to “vent” Cushing said, following a couple of national developments — a recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania outlining widespread child sex abuse – of some 1,000 children by more than 300 Catholic clergy over several decades; and the resignation of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick amid sexual abuse allegations.
The Dubuque Archdiocese dealt with its own wave of allegations, most of them in the 2000s, said Father Jerry Kopacek, pastor of the Holy Rosary Cluster of churches and former spiritual director at St. Pius X Seminary in Dubuque.
The archdiocese paid out more than $17.5 million on 83 claims of clergy sex abuse involving clients represented by the Dutton law firm of Waterloo, which handled the bulk of claims within the archdiocese. Most of those settlements occurred from 2006-08. A last batch of settlements was announced in 2015. The claims involved incidents decades old. None of the claims involve currently practicing priests, and most are deceased.
Retired Waterloo attorney E.J. Gallagher III, a lifetime St. Edward parishioner not involved in any of those claims, said, “I know people of my generation who were victims of abuse, not as their attorney, but individually they told me about some of the things that went on,” he said, including a young woman driven to suicide after her parents did not believe her allegations.
“Most of these people had multiple victims, and they get passed down the road. Unfortunately, that’s what happened here many years ago,” Gallagher said.
“I think this diocese, once things came to a head, has done a pretty good job of responding,” Gallagher said. “My biggest comment is I think there needs to be more lay governance of the church — because ‘Father doesn’t always know best.’ We need more lay involvement, so this doesn’t happen so much as it has in the past.”
Gwen Bramlet-Hecker, a St. Edward parishioner and development director of the Riverview Center, a sexual violence prevention counseling center, challenged people to put their hurt feelings into action.
“Sexual violence is prevalent all through our society. … Think about now what the opportunity is once we finish our grieving,” she said. “We stop thinking about ourselves as the victim; we stop thinking of the church as the victim; we stop thinking about the good priests as the victims. Decide we’re actually going to be the problem solvers. That the church is going to take leadership not just about dealing with this in their own house but become leaders in dealing with this in our society at large.”
Father Jerry Kopacek (standing), pastor of the Holy Rosary Cluster based in Elma, listens and responds to a crowd at the forum on clergy sexual abuse Aug. 30 at St. Edward Catholic Church in Waterloo. About 120 people expressed themselves and heard from a panel. Behind Father Kopacek are panel members (l to r) Deacon Len Froyen, Dave Cushing and Mary Pedersen. Panelist Joan Hoffman is to the right of Deacon Froyen. (Photo by Pat Kinney)