Bridge of Understanding

By Paul Fericano
SAS Class of 1969 
Santa Barbara Independent
August 12, 2004

The young man who handed me the flier in front of the Old Mission Santa Barbara appeared both concerned and troubled by his task. He was there that day with several others from SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, warning the public about Brother Gerald Chumik, a Franciscan friar who was suspected of child sexual abuse in Canada.  

“Are you aware,” he asked me as I accepted the flier, “that there is a child molester living at the Mission?” He then informed me that he and others were demanding that the Church remove Brother Chumik from the Mission and return him to Canada to face criminal charges. He went on to talk a little about himself and as I listened I could clearly see the pain in his eyes.  

I recognized that pain. We were both survivors of clergy abuse. And when he finished speaking I told him how sorry I was that he had suffered so much and that he continues to suffer. I admired his courage and thanked him for sharing his feelings with me. These words came so easily and naturally that I was startled at first, until I realized I had spoken almost the exact same words several days before to the very friar this young man was warning me about, Brother Gerald Chumik.  

Stories of hurt and betrayal by members of the clergy are always painful to talk about and painful to hear. I’ve been privileged to hear many stories of personal suffering over the years. These are told by survivors as well as by others impacted by this crisis: mothers, fathers, other family members, friends, classmates, community members, non-offending religious priests and brothers, and yes, even the perpetrators themselves, like Brother Gerald. The common thread is that each story begs for understanding and healing. 

I’m often distressed by society’s cry for punitive justice, particularly when it trumpets the safety and welfare of its people. Whose idea of justice is being served? How does this help society? Who is being protected when we act in this manner? And in the case of Brother Gerald, what sort of justice would be served by punishing someone who is not well? I believe restorative justice is the correct response for a society that cares about its people. Society benefits when an individual is given the means and the opportunity to contribute to the very society she has wronged. This belief often places me at odds with those who vigorously promote punitive measures with regards to the clergy sexual abuse scandal. 

As survivors of clergy abuse we never fully escape the confused, cyclical pain that swirls around us. Our anger is both a refuge and a prison. I served some necessary time in that place. I, too, was once a member of SNAP, handing out fliers. I once shouted down a priest on the steps of his parish church in front of his congregation for simply making an inaccurate statement. I lobbied for stronger legislation that protected the rights of survivors and severely punished offenders. I brought a personal injury suit against the Franciscans and forced them to settle with me. And my desire to see my own perpetrator locked up for the rest of his life sometimes found me scheming of ways to destroy him, to wipe him off the face of the earth forever. I was blunt: “You hurt me, I hurt you.” Those responsible for my suffering needed to suffer too so that I could feel good about myself. How could I care about the betterment of society when I myself wasn’t getting better? I hated what had happened to me, I hated the man who hurt me, and I hated myself. Eventually I came to understand that if I didn’t break free of this dark place I could very well die there miserable and alone. 

Therapy, support of family and friends, and the realization that I was going to be okay helped me to acknowledge my own pain and the pain of others. Finding my voice was essential, but I also learned that listening to others was more helpful than just hearing myself speak. I found compassion for myself and for others and it allowed me to open a door to forgiveness, a powerful place that was self-determined and deeply personal. 

The very word “forgiveness” today seems to carry with it both a condition and a stigma in our society. Some say they have no problem forgiving someone who has personally wronged them provided the offense doesn’t impact them on an extreme emotional level. A friend who hurt your feelings because she said something mean about you can be forgiven. A drunk driver who runs over your mother cannot. Some equate forgiveness with absolution, releasing the offender from any responsibility. This makes it virtually impossible to forgive because in doing so you must also condone the person’s behavior. The word forgiveness also conjures up religion’s moralistic stance that tells us that we must forgive, regardless of whether or not we feel it inside us. Forgiveness then becomes something that is artificially imposed from the outside. As a result, there is an almost allergic reaction to the word itself.  

True acts of forgiveness spring from deep within a person’s heart. It’s the movement of the heart to willingly release a burden. Forgiveness makes it possible to free us from the tyranny of fear and the slavery of resentment. In many ways it may be the greatest act of personal courage we can perform for it challenges us to really look at who we are and to love the person who dares look back. Forgiveness is liberation. 

In this horrifying world of clergy sexual abuse, reconciliation work helps to create a bridge of understanding where all wounded parties can meet in safety. Healing begins on this bridge. The simplest gestures and overtures of support have brought people together and offered welcome signs of hope. And I believe there is a place for this kind of outreach with the very ones who had offended. They should not be rejected nor excluded from this healing process. 

Knowing very little about Brother Gerald’s case, and realizing that his circumstances would soon be a matter of public record, I contacted him and asked if he would speak with me about any concerns he might have. He agreed to see me without hesitation. He said he was aware of the work I was doing and had, in fact, attended a talk I gave in January at the Mission regarding the sexual abuse crisis.   

Listening to Brother Gerald that day in the Mission garden, I immediately became aware of the sorrow and pain he carried with him; a pain that very few of us might ever acknowledge or even be concerned with. He struggled at times to articulate his feelings, but he seemed relieved and grateful to be given any opportunity to tell his story and to speak freely and candidly without fear of judgment. Living with diabetes now and recovering from cancer, he made no excuses for what he had done and accepted complete responsibility for his actions. He spoke about the hurt and suffering and damage he had caused others and the deep remorse he felt. His life had certainly not unfolded the way he once dreamed it would when he first decided to be a servant of God. But he talked about his renewed faith in that same God and how he was learning to heal from self-inflicted wounds. He also talked about how his work in the Mission garden, digging in the soil and tending to the flowers, had brought some meaning and purpose to his life, and he even acknowldeged how pathetic that might seem to others.  

When Brother Gerald finished speaking we sat in silence for awhile. I told him how grateful I was to hear his story and how sorry I was for his pain and the pain of all who had been hurt by him. He told me that he felt as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. We embraced and promised to meet and talk again. When we parted I felt blessed by the encounter. It was as clear and unmistakable to me as our shared humanity. 

Walking away, the imposing tower of St. Anthony’s Seminary next door to the Old Mission was clearly visible behind me. It seemed to preside over me like a reccuring dream. Some of the abuse that took place at St. Anthony’s happened in one of the rooms in the stairwell that led up to the tower. Here, at the seminary, is where my own perpetrator, a Franciscan friar, molested me and several other schoolmates while we were students studying for the priesthood in the mid-sixties. It’s a place I revisit and reclaim to help me remember, understand and heal.