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Christopher ParkerApril 11, 2023
The Eucharist rests on a paten on the altar in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, Del., May 27, 2021. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

In December 2018, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis emerged from bankruptcy court, one of the largest dioceses to date to go through the process. Over 450 plaintiffs had filed suits against the archdiocese over sexual abuse claims that went back as far as the 1940s. The archdiocese’s reorganization was long and arduous.

At the time, Archbishop Bernard Hebda said, “Our efforts to reach out to those hurt by people in the Church is just beginning and will continue indefinitely, along with our core commitment of creating and maintaining safe environments for all.”

A new ministry within the archdiocese is doubling down on that commitment. Starting in March 2023, victims of sexual abuse in Saint Paul-Minneapolis who still wish to receive the Eucharist but find it too traumatic to enter a church can have the sacrament brought to them.

Starting in March 2023, victims of sexual abuse in Saint Paul-Minneapolis who still wish to receive the Eucharist but find it too traumatic to enter a church can have the sacrament brought to them.

The lay people behind this and other initiatives in the archdiocese are survivors of clerical sexual abuse themselves. In interviews with America,they communicated their hope that, in an archdiocese where the wounds of the sexual abuse crisis are still fresh, they can chart a new path to healing.

Paula Kaempffer is the Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis. She is the first person to hold this position, which was created four years ago, just after the archdiocese emerged from bankruptcy.

Ms. Kaempffer started organizing sexual abuse support groups soon after taking the post, but she said the results were initially not what she had hoped.

“We would get one or two [attendees], and then we would get none the next month, and then we would get one,” she said. “Nobody was coming.”

However, when the pandemic hit, Ms. Kaempffer moved the support groups online, and suddenly she was seeing double-digit attendance at every meeting. Survivors joined from across the United States to share their stories with other Catholics who still felt called to their faith, even after suffering harm at the hands of clergy.

Survivors joined from across the United States to share their stories with other Catholics who still felt called to their faith, even after suffering harm at the hands of clergy.

“I know Covid isolated a lot of people, but it also brought together victim survivors,” Ms. Kaempffer said.

One of those people was Deborah Schiessl. Ms. Schiessl had served as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for years in her parish in Crystal, Minn. But that ended when she was sexually abused as an adult, which she said became a source of shame and self-doubt that pulled her away from her church.

“We actually switched parishes, and we moved, and I did not get involved at the new parish in any form of ministry, even though in my past I’ve done a lot of things with Bible study and confirmation and all that when my kids were little,” she said.

The road to healing was a long one, Ms. Schiessl said, but one thing that helped her process her trauma was participating in the trial of her abuser, helping prevent the same thing from happening to others.

Ms. Schiessl ended up in one of the support groups run by Ms. Kaempffer and found a place of profound healing there. The two women and survivors connected through the support group. They realized quickly that they both had the same idea for a new ministry.

Abuse victims in these groups, Ms. Kaempffer said, “really still feel like they’re Catholic to the core. But they cannot suffer inside the church, and they hunger for Eucharist.”

Abuse victims in these groups “really still feel like they’re Catholic to the core. But they cannot suffer inside the church, and they hunger for Eucharist.”

The Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, the pastor of Ms. Schiessl’s home parish of St. Gerard Majella in Brooklyn Park, Minn., approved of the idea, as did Archbishop Hebda.

Last month, Mr. and Ms. Schiessl made their first house call. Ms. Schiessl said the experience was one of spiritual renewal, even years after the abuse she experienced.

“It was so healing for me, because here’s something Christ can still use me to do for these people,” she said.

Ms. Kaempffer predicts that the ministry will be slow to grow; she said that overcoming shame and restoring trust in the church is a long process. In the meantime, she has been expanding the archdiocese’s offerings for support groups. Separate groups exist for all survivors of any kind of abuse: adult victims, family members of abuse victims, and most recently, present and former employees of faith institutions.

[When a Catholic diocese goes bankrupt, does it help or hurt sex abuse survivors?]

The process at work in Saint Paul-Minneapolis, one of mutual support and leadership by lay leaders and fellow victims, has generated attention from around the country. Twelve dioceses in the U.S. church are currently undergoing bankruptcy reorganization. After financial settlements are paid out, the question remains: What next steps will dioceses take to heal after their time in court is over?

“When I first heard the solution proposed by Paula Kaempffer and Debra Schiessl, a model based on having survivors minister to survivors, I recognized that they were light years ahead of me.”

Ms. Schiessl was involved in the 2018 bankruptcy proceedings for the Diocese of St. Cloud, where she suffered her abuse. She said that she hopes initiatives like this one can serve as a model for similar programs in other dioceses.

“[Financial compensation] is not a healing thing. It’s a demand for justice, and a demand that something is acknowledged,” Ms. Schiessl said. “But then people need to look outside of that for healing. Because that isn’t healing in itself.”

Archbishop Hebda said in an email that he is “repeatedly humbled” by the inspired work of lay leaders in his diocese and beyond.

“While I had all too often heard survivors of abuse speak about both their hunger for the Eucharist and their struggles in returning to Mass, I repeatedly came up empty handed in trying to address this dilemma,” he said. “When I first heard the solution proposed by Paula Kaempffer and Debra Schiessl, a model based on having survivors minister to survivors, I recognized that they were light years ahead of me.”

Both women said that there is no straightforward path to recovery after sexual abuse and that when it comes to clerical abuse, some people may never desire to return to the church. But Ms. Schiessl said that for those who do wish to receive the Eucharist again, she too feels “humbled” to be part of their spiritual restoration.

“I’m just so honored that God is offering an option to be part of his plan for healing. Because the church doesn’t know how to do it on its own,” she said.

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