“I feel like I have a scarlet letter on my chest!” That was a common feeling among us as we walked in to the first listening session hosted last month by Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg.
However, that feeling dissipated as the voices of the parishioners in attendance — voices filled with hope, support and love for us and all victims — echoed throughout the church. Our scarlet letter was no longer a symbol of shame but rather a powerful symbol of assurance.
Out of our large family of nine children (eight girls and one boy), five of us sisters were sexually abused by the Rev. Augustine Giella when he was assigned to St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Dauphin County in the 1980s. Had the Harrisburg Diocese acted on a complaint, Giella’s abuse could have been stopped. (He was permitted to retire from ministry voluntarily, was arrested on pornography and child sexual abuse charges in 1992 and died while awaiting trial.)
Listening sessions started last month and will continue this month throughout the Diocese of Harrisburg (including one scheduled for Wednesday at Saint Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg at 7 p.m.). Initially intended as a forum for the bishop to hear feedback and answer questions, the listening sessions — for us and many victims as well as parishioners — have become refuges for healing and empowerment.
While some church members still refuse to acknowledge the darkness behind the pulpit and choose to use their voices simply to win the bishop’s favor, we also have witnessed victims standing up and speaking out for the first time. We also heard parishioners — enraged and full of disgust — pleading for transparency and truth from the church. Some spoke out with questions and concerns, while others offered ideas and solutions.
It was clear to us that the majority of Catholic parishioners in attendance were there because they love their church. This is their community, their family; and it is broken. But they aren’t giving up. They have been beaten down many times and continue to pick themselves back up, but this time something feels different.
The parishioners’ strong and faithful voices bravely speaking out in support of victims and demanding truth at these listening sessions made us once again assured of our purpose.
It has been almost six months since a Pennsylvania grand jury report outlined the widespread sexual abuse of children — us included — and the systematic cover-up of that abuse by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican. The report sent shockwaves around world. But why?
Were the two previous grand jury reports — covering the dioceses of Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — showing the magnitude and scope of these criminal and grotesque violations against children by their faithful leaders not enough for people to stand up and demand change? What about movies such as “Spotlight”?
Maybe the abuse and cover-up were just too much to comprehend or maybe, by acknowledging their existence, we then had to acknowledge that all this happened. But the shock is wearing off and the world can no longer deny the truth — on the contrary, the world is demanding it.
What exactly does the truth look like? For many, the truth will hurt. But are those the ones we should be helping and protecting?
For victims, the truth is justice; it is an opportunity for their voices to be heard so that the perpetrators and those who covered up their crimes are held accountable. The truth is public safety; by giving victims an opportunity to be heard, perpetrators will be identified so that fewer children will fall victim to them.
The truth is healing. And the truth is always the right thing to seek.
Your presence at these listening sessions matters.
This guest editorial was co-authored by Patty Fortney-Julius, Jeanne Fortney-Webster, Saundra Fortney-Colello, Teresa Fortney-Miller, Carolyn Fortney and Lara Fortney-McKeever.