NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Survivors and whistleblower priests are joining together in an unconventional way. They’ve found common ground in their personal experiences speaking out about clergy sexual abuse while continuing their fight for transparency from the church.
On Sunday mornings, you will find a sanctuary for survivors. It’s a private mass that doesn’t take place within church walls.
“Yes, it is a strange experience after so many years presiding and celebrating Eucharist, not to be able to be with the people in the church and behind the altar,” said whistleblower priest, Father Ryszard Biernat.
“We deal with betrayal a lot as victims and survivors so there was the thought of betraying other victims who have completely cut themselves off from the Catholic religion, so we decided to grow it organically,” said survivor Mark Vath.
On the weekly zoom call, clergy sex abuse survivors and their families come to worship, Father Ryszard Biernat presides over the online service.
“We are there to pray together and worship God together,” said Biernat.
“I can tell you that I speak to many survivors and victims and they tell me, no, they said, they can never go back in that building, in that church again, and myself is included, if it was anybody else, I probably wouldn’t go,” said survivor Richard Windmann.
Biernat is a whistleblower priest in Buffalo, New York, credited with helping expose an alleged church sex abuse cover-up within the Diocese there. He secretly recorded Bishop Richard Malone and released the recordings to the public. In November of last year, the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo and former senior leaders including Malone, “for failing to follow mandated policies and procedures that would help to prevent the rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests within the Catholic Church.”
“I have been suspended by Bishop Malone, day before he left, for the reason of recording him and making those recordings public and for criticizing him and my co-workers in the media,” said Biernat. “In addition to that, I would like to add that when I was in the seminary in the year 2003, I was sexually assaulted by one of the priests of the Diocese of Buffalo.”
Both Richard Windmann and Mark Vath relate. Both men say priests sexually abused them as children decades ago. They both received settlements for the abuse, yet they haven’t abandoned their faith. Together, they came up with the idea to hold the virtual mass.
“What Father Ryszard has given me as a survivor is hope,” said Vath.
“Faith is not something that a guy in a white collar gives me, faith is a gift from God and sometimes when you have everything taken away from you and you suffer from depression, PTSD and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and eventually suicide, what else do you have left but your faith. It’s the one thing that no one can take away from you,” Windmann said.
Father Mark White of Virginia also takes part, not as a priest holding the mass but as a participant standing in solidarity with survivors. White has spoken out against church sex abuse. Like Biernat, White says he has paid a price for his public criticism of the church’s handling of the crisis. He says he was suspended indefinitely from ministry for continuing to write about it.
“I blog a lot about the Bishop who ordained me who has since been laicized for abusing seminarians and minors, Theodore McCarrick is his name. He is probably the most high-profile sex abuser clergyman in the history of the United States, and he ordained me a priest and when we found out about what he had done that was really a severe challenge to my faith and sense of my own priesthood,” said whistleblower priest, Father Mark White.
Even though they all live in different states, their lives and personal experiences intersect through the mass.
“Part of the experience of sexual abuse is this feeling of being alone and this feeling of facing it by yourself and I think prior to this social media, I think it was much harder for victims of sexual abuse to come together to find strength in one another,” said Biernat.
They share common ground, speaking out against church sex abuse and fighting for transparency.
“The truth will set you free, there can be no forgiveness without the truth,” Vath said.
“There is a notion that if something becomes public then it becomes scandalous but actually keeping things hidden, I think is even more scandalous,” said Biernat.
We reached out to the Diocese of Buffalo and Richmond about the suspensions of both Father Biernat and Father White. But, they have not given us an answer whether the church plans to reinstate the priests.
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