There was the man who had been sexually abused as a boy by his priest. The priest who felt shunned within the Catholic Church after he spoke out against such abuse. The husband who had never told his wife about his assault decades earlier. The couple in their 80s who raised seven children in the church but finally, tearfully, decided to leave the pews.
They’ve all been participants in a healing circle, a pilot program launched in Boston a year ago by the Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), an organization of progressive Catholics formed in 2002 in response to the priest sex abuse scandal. Based on a restorative justice model, the circles allow those who have suffered harm to meet in a small group and tell their stories.
This month, the organizers seized the occasion of Pope Francis’s US visit to try to win awareness of their project at the highest levels of the church. In a full-page ad in the National Catholic Reporter, VOTF issued an open invitation to the pope to attend a healing circle in New York during his Sept. 24-25 visit. “Welcome to the U.S. We invite you to join us in a Healing Circle. Time does not heal all wounds. Some wounds fester, like those the survivors of clergy sexual abuse suffer, and the wounds their families and communities experience. They are broken people, as is their Church,” the ad read.
It concluded: “Help us apply the wisdom and practices of the early Church, and others throughout the world, to heal our wounds.”
The pope did not respond, nor did organizers expect him to attend, given a packed schedule that included addressing the United Nations, services at the 9/11 memorial site, a visit to a Harlem parochial school, and Mass at Madison Square Garden. But they did want him to know about the circles.
Three years ago, the idea began to form among VOTF board members, who grew frustrated at how little healing had taken place 10 years after the scandal broke.
“There were protests and vigils and lawsuits and name-calling and all the rest of it,” says Bill Casey, a restorative justice mediator in Virginia who was the facilitator for two of the three pilot circles thus far, “but it wasn’t about the direct victims.”
Adds Donna Doucette, executive director of VOTF: “Everything has been about the offender. An abuse victim exists primarily as evidence in a criminal or civil case. . . . There’s no one seeing to their needs.”
The circles grew out of a plea from the parent of a survivor who asked VOTF to help his traumatized adult son, who had refused to sue his abuser or go public with his story. The frustrated father wondered: Could something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission work?
Jayne O’Donnell, a lawyer and cofounder of the West Hartford, Conn., chapter of VOTF, began researching truth and reconciliation bodies, most notably in post-apartheid South Africa, where a commission was tasked with revealing state wrongdoing in hope of resolving conflict.
That model brought victim and offender together — something that in this case no one wanted. But the broader principle of restorative justice still held appeal. Restorative justice, which has ancient roots among indigenous peoples, emerged in the 1970s as a collaborative process that aims to repair harm or wrongdoing by bringing together victims, offenders, and the community.
The VOTF group opted for a healing circle, bringing together people with a similar experience. “They could be connected in a way that moved from the harm to the healing opportunity,” says Casey, a former VOTF trustee who works with Fairfax County, Va., schools, police, and juvenile court.
Rules were set. Meetings, generally a day long, would be in a secular space, with a trained facilitator, by invitation only. No one could talk while someone else had the floor. There would be no judgment by others.
The first was held Nov. 1, 2014, at the Wellesley Country Club. A cross-section of people were invited: victims, family members, whistle-blower clergy, as well as faithful, both those still in the pews and those who had left. The second was held in Alexandria, Va., and the third in a meeting room at the Shrine of St. Anthony in Boston in June.
“We open it to people who have been harmed on any level,” says O’Donnell. “But not people who just have an ax to grind or want to get on a soapbox.” Whoever is speaking holds some sort of “talking piece,” either a special rock or vessel, which is then passed to the next speaker.
Michael Mack, a playwright and actor who lives in Cambridge, was invited to the first one. Mack, whose play “Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith” details his abuse when he was 11 by a priest in North Carolina, says the circle helped him. “For me, it was deeply emotional,” says Mack, who opened a four-week run of his play on Sept. 17 in New York. “Healing is a lifelong process. In the circle, I felt a kind of exhilaration, and an important part of it is having a new community really dedicated to this particular issue.”
Mack says he was impressed by a couple of clergymen who apologized on behalf of the church, even though they weren’t involved in the scandal. “I was struck by their willingness to own the church’s failings in this area, and they said what a lot of us haven’t heard from the church which is, ‘I’m sorry, we failed as an institution.’ ”
Casey knows that the scandal is still acute for some, including those who aren’t considered traditional “victims,” such as friends, family members, and faithful Catholics. “You have a range of people who have really not expressed harm,” he says.
And the organizers know that the healing circles will not heal all. “It’s not a substitute for therapy or criminal or civil actions,” Casey says.
Though Cardinal Sean O’Malley has been invited to the Boston circles, he has yet to accept. “We are not getting much receptivity within the hierarchy,” says Casey.
A spokesman for O’Malley said in a statement: “The Archdiocese has a longstanding commitment to programs and services for persons who have been impacted by the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.”
As the circles move from pilot program to permanent initiative, organizers here have heard about others that have popped up throughout the country. They want to train more people in how to lead a circle, perhaps engaging Suffolk University’s Center for Restorative Justice.
“It’s the secrecy and not naming the pain that is so damaging,” says Doucette. “We’re trying to name the pain and help people move forward.”
Correction: The title of “Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith” was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.