By Mary Gentile
Awake Leadership Team
Standing in front of Notre Dame High School in Green Bay nine days ago brought up many memories and feelings for me. As an educator who spent more than 15 years teaching high schoolers, I watched hundreds of freshmen make their way from their buses, or parents’ cars, up walkways to enter similar buildings on their first day of high school. Some would be eager and excited, while others were worried and shy. For most of them, it was a mix of emotions as they began this new chapter of their lives. As a mother of three young men who were, not long ago, freshmen boys, I recalled the combination of love and worry and excitement that I felt on their first days, wondering how it would go for each of them. Nine days ago I wondered about Nate Lindstrom’s own first-day journey up the very walkway on which we were gathered.
As an adult, Nate revealed that in the late 1980s, when he was 14, he was abused by three priests at the Norbertine abbey where he worked in the dining room. One of the priests was convicted in 2004 of abusing another student, and Nate’s allegations led the abbey to begin sending him checks of $3,500 annually beginning in 2009. But after ten years, the Norbertines halted the payments and told Nate that they did not find his allegations credible.
I was at Notre Dame High School on Sunday, March 7 to help mark the one year anniversary of Nate’s death by suicide at age 45. I traveled with Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, and Patty Ingrilli, another member of our leadership team, to stand with Nate’s family, friends, and supporters. They recently established Nate’s Mission, an initiative of the nonprofit Ending Clergy Abuse, which aims to support survivors and advocate for further investigation of clergy abuse in Wisconsin.
During the rally, Nate’s brother Aaron and his mother and father spoke about Nate, his life, and their hopes for the organization founded in his name. Peter Isley and Sarah Pearson, who direct Nate’s Mission with Aaron, also spoke at the event. In fact, Peter began the rally by asking those gathered to imagine Nate Lindstrom’s parents dropping him off on his first day of school as a 14-year-old freshman. That is when I found myself recalling similar images of anticipation and excitement from my past experiences. Picturing Nate’s walk into school, and into a time of his life that would involve traumatizing abuse, made this image a haunting one.
Speaking for People in the Pews
Nate’s Mission invited Awake Milwaukee to attend the rally, and asked Sara to speak on behalf of the Catholic community. Sara began her powerful personal witness by saying, “I recognize that transformation and healing can only come when we know the whole truth of what has happened in the past—and what continues to happen today.” After thanking Nate’s Mission and his family for the honor of standing with them, she offered an apology to the Lindstroms, and to all victims and survivors on behalf of Awake and the Church. Citing Awake’s Open Letter to Survivors, she expressed our desire to listen to survivors and work for justice and healing. She urged all Catholics to “be the loudest voices calling for truth, transparency, accountability, and compassion in our Church.” We are called, she said, to “truly listen to those who have been harmed and consider how God is calling us to respond to Nate’s story and the stories of so many others who have been wounded by our Church.”
Hearing testimony from victims’ family members is always moving; you can’t help but picture your own siblings and children in the stories they tell. I listened to Nate’s brother Aaron call upon the leader of the Norbertines to “step down” or “step up” to account for the past and prevent future abuse. I listened to his father David ask for support for Nate’s Mission, which aims “to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anybody else” and to give others who have been molested “a place to come forward.”
After the event, Patty and I talked about something particularly moving that Nate’s brother Aaron said. He explained that they had been very deliberate in choosing the phrase “We Believe Nate” for their signs. They even requested that those words be added to the school’s marquee that day. Aaron knew that Nate’s suffering in the months leading up to his death centered on the fact that his allegations were viewed by the Norbertines as “not credible,” and he was not believed.
When Patty, Sara, and I arrived at the high school that morning, we were pleased to see that the school had put the message “Remembering Nate Lindstrom” on their marquee. But Aaron helped us understand that more than being remembered, victims and survivors want to be believed. “Survivors are not seeking attention or to be remembered,” Patty reflected after the event. “The situation is not one they will ever forget. Rather, survivors want to be surrounded by a community that believes the abuse occurred.”
Standing in solidarity with Nate’s supporters, with those who knew and loved him, has once again reminded me of how important it is to take the time to stand side by side with those who suffer, in order to listen and to learn. This experience, along with Sara’s words from that day, have strengthened my resolve to be a louder voice for “truth, transparency, accountability, and compassion,” and have reinforced my commitment to working on healing and renewal in our Church.
Mary Gentile works at Cardinal Stritch University in the administration of programs that support lay ministers and Catholic school educators. She is a member of St. Gregory the Great parish on Milwaukee’s South Side. She and her husband have three amazing (almost) adult sons. Awake has given her a space to work for healing and renewal in our Church.
HEAR NATE’S BROTHER AT OUR NEXT COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION
Awake Milwaukee will host Aaron Lindstrom, Nate’s brother, for an important Courageous Conversation, “Telling Nate’s Story,” held virtually via Zoom on Thursday, April 15, from 7 to 8:30 pm. To save your spot for this event, register here.