Archdiocese issues open letter, apology to victims of sexual abuse on Ash Wednesday
It took decades for Pamela Walsh to conquer her shame and talk about being sexually abused by a priest when she was not even old enough to go to school.
She opened up for the first time in 2005, telling a priest in the Archdiocese of Regina. She says the conversation was quickly shut down.
“After a bit, I was basically shown the door to the Catholic Church, and told the Catholic Church could not and would not help me, and that I needed to leave,” she said.
She felt like a piece of garbage tossed aside.
“I was physically shown the door and it was locked behind me.”
Walsh said the Archdiocese of Regina did not listen to her for years, but that a shift is now occurring, one aimed at listening and empowering victims.
On Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lent season of penance and fasting, Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen issued an open letter to those impacted by clergy sexual abuse.
Bolen said the letter is meant to acknowledge not only that were people victimized, but that the church did not listen to victims.
“We hear you and we hear the depth of your pain. We hear what was done to you and we are profoundly sorry,” he said.
“We’re sorry for the abuse you suffered, that should have never happened.”
For Walsh, that acknowledgement is both the result of years of effort and the first step on a longer journey. Other letters issued from the church have spoken about regret and contrition, but this letter spoke directly to victims, she said.
“It’s very moving as a victim to have an archbishop say that. Very, very few archbishops have said that publicly and it’s a real testament to the work that has been done here,” she said.
Finding courage to come forward
Walsh said her abuse happened on and off from 1969 into the 1970s and took place when she met the priest in question during visits to a family home.
Many victims take their stories of sexual abuse to the grave, or share with very few people, she said, explaining she wants others to feel they can come forward to the church if they wish.
“This is a deeply shameful thing we live with, and it’s not our shame to carry,” she said. “Part of it is placing the shame on people it belongs [to].”
After the installation of Bolen as archbishop in 2016, Walsh brought forward her story again, telling him he had inherited a problem that still needed redressing.
This time, unlike others, she was heard.
“There’s been bumps in the road, but he’s listened,” she said.
Bolen said he’s learned from listening to victims who have slowly started coming forward about the devastation, the shame, the guilt and the erosion of self-confidence caused by abuse. Young people are shaken when a priest — a person of leadership and who comes to represent God in their hearts and minds — is the one to abuse them, he said.
Bolen said the church wants to create an environment where victims of sexual abuse can come forward if they wish.
“We’re taking a lot of steps to try and accompany them and to try and create a church which is welcoming and safe for everybody, for vulnerable people,for children, everybody,” he said.
Some of those steps include a program of education not just for priests and deacons, but for the parish and its organizations as well, revising policy to make it more victim-centred, and involving victims in its efforts to address and prevent sexual abuse.
“It’s a comprehensive effort to deal with this and respond to victims in a way we haven’t done before,” said Bolen.
The Catholic church is still grappling with clergy sex abuse scandals. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, held a summit on sexual abuse of minors in February, after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse coverup case in Chile last year.
For Walsh, the Archdiocese of Regina is showing a way forward, but there’s a long way to go. She won’t be satisfied until there are no further abuse and no victim is treated the way she was by the church.
“This is not just a small problem. This is a big problem,” she said, adding it’s impossible to know how many people have had their childhood and lives ripped apart by clergy sexual abuse.
She and Bolen both said they want to continue reaching out to victims and to show they are ready to walk with them.
“They don’t have to feel the shame and blame and pain of this alone, and live in darkness,” said Walsh.