by Gordon Nary
Several events at Holy Name Cathedral were scheduled during the months of Feb – May 2019 to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis in our Church. This has been a collaborative effort with priests from the Archdiocese of Chicago and Holy Name Cathedral, along with victims of clergy abuse all working together in the planning of these prayerful public outreach events. One victim of clergy sexual abuse who is involved in the planning of certain events, Michael Hoffman, is the chairman of the Hope and Healing Committee of the Archdiocese of Chicago, author of Acts of Recovery. The Story of One Man’s On-Going Recovery of Sexual Abuse by a Priest, Board President of Prevent Child Abuse – Illinois, active catholic at his parish, St. Mary of the Woods, Co-Founder of The Healing Voices Magazine, married for 25 years, with 2 children in college. Michael and his family live in the Edge-brook neighborhood of Chicago.
Gordon: You are a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Please share with our readers when it first occurred, the trauma that you experienced, and who abused you.
Mike: I was sexually abused by our Catholic priest who was a dear friend to my parents. They felt any time I spent with him would be quality time spent in a mentoring relationship. This abuse lasted for a period of 4 years, from 12-16 years old. In any person’s life, the teen-aged years are the most formative, innocent and sweet, and my abuser stole that innocence away from me and he disrupted my family relationships.
Gordon: When and with who did you first discuss your abuse and what as their response?
Mike: My primary act of recovery was telling my wife my story of childhood sexual abuse. This was 10 years into our marriage. I was anxious about telling her because I thought she might think differently of me, as her husband, father to our children and as a provider. Nearing an emotional breakdown from suffering alone in anguish from many painful memories of abuse, I realized I needed help. I shared my story with my wife, who listened to me and treated me with love and compassion.
Gordon: When you confessed this to a priest, what was his response?
Mike: Because I am active at our parish, the second person I told my story to was Father Greg Sakowicz. He was the pastor of St. Mary of the Woods at the time. It was difficult to tell my current parish priest that I was sexually abused by my Catholic priest when I was young. I felt Father Greg might think I had a problem with him, or I was questioning his ministry or his character. Father Greg listened to me and he heard the depth of my sadness. We continued to talk and because that conversation was so good and went so well, soon after, I felt comfortable reaching out to the Archdiocese of Chicago, and I began the Independent Review Board process. During this time, I was able to tell my story to officials of the Archdiocese, who responded to me with professionalism, decency, and kindness. In short, they believed me, and with that, I was able to begin a therapeutic process of healing. One aspect of that healing process was a meeting with Francis Cardinal George who apologized to me for the abuse imposed upon me when I was a little boy. Because of the time, he spent with me, and because that conversation was so good – I feel comfortable continuing practicing my faith. I am grateful to Father Greg, Cardinal George, Cardinal Cupich and for the many priests who have walked with me on my healing journey.
Gordon: What impact did this experience have upon your faith?
Mike: For the past 10 years, I have volunteered my time to help break the silence which surrounds childhood sexual abuse in our church and society at large. The goal is to raise awareness that childhood sexual abuse occurs in all aspects of society and to support best practices of child safety wherever children are. As a survivor, my only hope is no other child endure what was imposed upon me when I was a little boy.
Gordon: What educational services do you provide parishes who address the childhood sexual abuse crisis?
For the past 7 years, a Child Safeguarding Liturgy has been celebrated at my parish, St. Mary of the Woods. Cardinal Cupich has led this Liturgy, at which all parishioners are invited to plant Pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention on the grounds of the church and school. The result is a dramatic, visual, public display of support for protecting all of God’s children from any kind of harm. Our 8th annual Child Safeguarding Liturgy is April 6, 2019.
Additionally, for the past 7 years, a Prayer Service and Pinwheel Planting is held at the Healing Garden of the Archdiocese of Chicago. This event, attended by over 200 schoolchildren, parents, school principals, teachers, and other concerned adults, draws attention to the love and dignity all children deserve. The planting of the pinwheels in the Healing Garden represents our deeply held sacred duty that all children should be protected from harm, so they may grow and thrive in love and dignity as children of God. Our 8th annual Prayer Service is May 3, 2019. It has been a joy for me to work on these successful public outreach events.
Gordon: What commendations would you give the Vatican in more effectively addressing the childhood sexual abuse crisis?
Mike: I ask the bishops to show leadership, vision, and courage. I have a personal experience of Francis Cardinal George when he spoke about the difficulties of fellow priests who have abused, and I considered those words, coming from a man in his position, even though they must have been really hard for him to say, they were the right and proper things to say. I thought that was leadership at the time, and I think it’s leadership now. Additionally, I am grateful for the leadership shown by Cardinal Cupich during the recent Vatican Summit for the Protection of Minors.
With the Maria Goretti Network support group based at Holy Name Cathedral underway for several months, for all survivors of any abuse, it seemed an important time to update Michael Hoffman’s interview. The Maria Goretti Network reaches out to abuse victims, their families, and to those who support recovery efforts, with God's love as witnessed in the life of Saint Maria Goretti. Maria's example of forgiveness of the one who harmed her inspired us to seek God's help to forgive in that same way.
Gordon: Have you forgiven the priest who abused you? If so, how difficult was it?
Mike: Thank you, Gordon, for raising the issue of forgiveness. This issue cuts to the core of our Catholic faith. I don’t have a straight “yes’ or “no” answer. In terms of forgiving my abuser, I must consider all of the destruction he caused to me, my family, other children, and their families, the Church and the community at large. If his abuse was a simple “one-off” act of violence, I feel I can forgive that. However, his abuse of me and other children were sustained over many years. He manipulated so many adult relationships, like my parents, to gain access to children. He betrayed his vows of sacred ministry to sustain his sexual urges. He caused destruction, heartache, and pain for many people and our Church as a whole.
I have reconciled myself that he is sick and needs help.
I have forgiven my childhood self for not being able to cope with the sexual nature of the relationship. Also, the fact that he was a dear friend to my parents, my 12-year-old self was unable to navigate those implications, as he was held up in high regard in our family and the community. I have forgiven myself for not knowing what to do and for keeping it all inside.
I have forgiven my parents for not protecting me from this bad man. My parents encouraged me to spend time with him. They felt any time I spent with him would be quality time spent in a mentoring relationship. My abuser groomed them to trust him. Given my parent's own upbringing, they simply felt they were doing the right thing. I have forgiven them and I love them dearly.
In 2009, I met Bishop Raymond Goedert at a clergy abuse survivors retreat sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Assistance Ministry. Bishop Goedert was the Vicar for Priests at the time my abuse occurred and he kept my abuser in ministry. I have forgiven him. I have a full understanding of my abuser betrayed his sacred vows. He would lie and manipulate his relationship with Bishop Goedert, all to keep access to children. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, we didn’t know what we know now, and I believe Bishop Goedert was only trying to do the right thing. I say that because when I met him, he reminded me of my own father who said to me he didn’t know a priest could do such things to children. Bishop Goedert was devastated and apologized for not doing more. I accepted that apology and I have forgiven him.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of the Maria Goretti Network
Mike: Thanks for asking about Maria Goretti Network. It is an abuse survivor-led support group inspired by the model of Saint Maria Goretti. We reach out to all who have suffered abuse, not only clergy abuse survivors. By this, I mean domestic abuse, physical, sexual, emotional, financial abuse and any other form of abuse which caused heartache and pain for the survivor. We welcome survivors, family members and those who support survivors. We start each meeting together with a prayer, then we separate into groups; a small group of men and a small group of women. We share our stories as it relates to a particular topic. We regroup together and we discuss various aspects of forgiveness. We conclude with a prayer.
Gordon: Who was Maria Goretti?
Mike: Maria is the youngest saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in modern times. Maria died in 1902 at age eleven and was canonized in 1950 as "virgin and martyr." She is the patron saint of chastity, rape victims, girls, youth, teenage girls, poverty, purity, and forgiveness.
Gordon: Thank you for this powerful and insightful interview that I know will help many other victims recover from their pain and how their faith can be so helpful.