A unique way to heal church after abuse

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
May 18, 2015

A unique way to heal church after abuse

Abuse survivor Michael Hoffman hands Archbishop Cupich a pinwheel during Mass. The Archdiocese of Chicago has processed background checks on and trained more than 160,000 priests, deacons, religious, lay employees and volunteers in identifying sexual abuse; conducted more than 3,000 training sessions; and trained more than 200,000 children to protect themselves from sexual predators. (Julie Jaidinger/Catholic New World)
Ryan Garofoli plants a pinwheel, symbolizing the innocence and playfulness of childhood, on the grounds of St. Mary of the Woods Parish, 7033 N. Moselle Ave., on April 18. The parish had just celebrated the fourth-annual child abuse prevention Mass. (Julie Jaidinger/Catholic New World)
Joe Mastri jumps over the pinwheels planted on the grounds of St. Mary of the Woods on April 18. (Julie Jaidinger/Catholic New World)

Twelve people gathered around in a circle in the hall of St. Mary of the Woods Church on the evening of April 16 to make an effort to heal the wider Catholic Church and its members of the horrors of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

They gathered for “Healing Journey,” led by victim-survivor Michael Hoffman, a member of St. Mary of the Woods; Father Larry Dowling, pastor of St. Agatha Parish, where convicted abuser Daniel McCormack was once pastor; and Thomas Tharayil, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Assistance Ministry where he counsels victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The three came up with the idea to hold a “healing moment” with a priest, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and a counselor to talk about how abuse affects victims, the parishes where the abuser served and the community as a whole. This was the third time they held the Healing Journey gathering.

Hoffman started this evening off sharing his story of abuse by his pastor at St. Mary’s in Lake Forest and how he finally acknowledged the abuse to his wife and family. He reported the abuse to the archdiocese in August 2006.

In January 2007, just five months after he first reported his case to the archdiocese, Cardinal George sent him a letter stating the archdiocesan Review Board substantiated Hoffman’s claim of abuse. That was a pivotal point in his healing process.

“I am now free to be myself,” he told the gathering he felt after receiving the letter. “Letting it out enabled help to be provided to me.”

Father Patrick Cecil, pastor of St. Mary of the Woods, and parish staff have also aided his healing because they let him share his story openly and often.

“For me to continue to participate in Sunday liturgy with an open heart and open mind I had to talk about it,” he said. “It eases my burden. Truthfully.”

Dowling followed Hoffman’s comments and offered the perspective of a priest ordained 24 years who has served at three parishes where a priest has abused children.

Dowling’s first assignment was at St. James in Arlington Heights. After he left, allegations became public against the pastor there.

His next parish, St. Denis, 8301 S. St. Louis Ave., was one where the previous pastor was an abuser. This time Dowling had to break the news to his parish and try to bring healing to the community. That healing meant being present to families, kids and parish and school staff, he said.

When tapped to take over at St. Agatha following serial abuser Daniel McCormack, Dowling said he knew he was going into something “very intense.” St. Agatha is a lowincome, predominantly African-American parish with a school.

“I was very clear with people.” He said he told parishioners from the pulpit, “I expect you to be watching me. Your trust has been broken,” he said, adding “I hope you’re watching every adult your children are with.”

It’s been eight years since he moved to St. Agatha and he knows well that the abuse affects more than just the victim, he said. The families of victims, the school, the parish and wider community are hurt as well.

Dowling says he has worked hard to win the trust of the parish and has tried to be attentive to the youth in the school — not ignoring news reports about McCormack.

He recalled a day when news media reported McCormack going to court. He went over to the school and spoke to the upper grades about what was going on.

“And kids, as they are, did ask questions,” he said.

One of them asked him if he thought McCormack was guilty. He told them he would always believe a child who said they were abused. Then he invited them to talk to him on their own if they wanted, with another adult nearby, of course. Two boys took him up on his offer.

One of them revealed McCormack abused him. The student had already reported it and was getting help.

“The kid said, ‘I want you to know I’m ok,’” Dowling recalled. When the priest asked if there was anything he could do for the student, he asked for prayers for him and his family.

In his 24 years as a priest, Dowling said at least 50 people have confided in him some kind of abuse, whether by a priest, a family member or a friend.

“They see the church as a leaven to society on this issue.”

Tharayil finished up the evening by sharing some of what the Catholic Church has done to help victims and to prevent further abuse.

He pointed to large groups like the Boy Scouts or USA Swimming who don’t have any kind of screening for volunteers like the Catholic Church does.

All church staff and volunteers in dioceses around the country must pass a background check and attend Virtus training before they can interact with children.

If an abuser wants to get access to children they are less likely to go through all of the hoops that the Catholic Church has put in place, Tharayil said.

“To me there is hope in all of that,” he said.


  • clerical sexual abuse of minors
  • st. mary of the woods
  • st. agatha
  • father larry dowling

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