By Elizabeth Brick
Awake Leadership Team
I don’t remember exactly how I found out that my former pastor had been arrested for criminal sexual conduct against an adult. Did I see the article on Facebook? Did my husband send me the news before someone else could? I do remember how the news felt: the immediate sinking feeling in my stomach, the sense of disorientation, and the thought, “Oh. So that’s what happened after all.”
The recently announced investigation of clergy sexual abuse by the Wisconsin Attorney General is likely startling to many. Catholics may be experiencing some combination of feelings, such as anger at the attorney general or the Church, confusion, gratitude, sorrow, or fear. Given that this is a new process for most Catholics, who may not know what to expect, I’m writing to share my experience as a transplant from Metro Detroit. When the Michigan Attorney General launched a similar investigation in that state in 2018, the former pastor of my home parish was arrested the following year.
Here in Wisconsin, where I now live, we face the possibility of new arrests and new revelations. I can tell you from experience just how unsettling it can be to learn how much happened in my parish community without me being aware of it at the time.
In January of 2015, I was the chairperson of parish council at a cluster of parishes including the church where I had grown up. A few hours before a regularly scheduled parish council meeting, I received a call from one of the parish secretaries, alerting me that all parish staff had been asked to attend the meeting. The auxiliary bishop responsible for our vicariate would be there too.
I learned just minutes before the meeting started that our pastor was leaving. The person who shared the news with me was devastated, but didn’t know why he was leaving. We didn’t learn much more during the meeting itself. Fr. Pat announced from a podium at the front of the room that he had asked the Archbishop for a leave of absence for personal reasons and his request had been granted. He told us how much he valued his time at the parish and that he wouldn’t be gone permanently. One of the lay ministers told Fr. Pat that we wished him the best and would pray for him. Fr. Pat left the room, and I never saw him again.
The auxiliary bishop took the podium next and assured us that things were exactly as Fr. Pat had said. There were no allegations of anything untoward, just a personal matter that needed addressing. If we wanted to send cards or letters of encouragement to Fr. Pat, the bishop explained that we could send them to the parish office, and the Archdiocese would forward them from there. After a few minutes, the bishop also left, and parish council was left to handle our previously scheduled business.
Our parish cluster banded together as best we could to keep moving forward in the months that followed. After our charismatic pastor departed, we realized that our financial situation was more dire than we’d understood. The numbers were always concerning, but Fr. Pat had assured us he was working closely with the Archdiocese on plans to pay back the debt we owed them. He was optimistic we could keep all parish sites in our cluster open. When he was gone, that optimism faded.
The financial problems were insurmountable, and the clustered parishes were officially merged and given a new name. The last Mass was celebrated in my childhood church in June 2016, a loss my family grieved.
Making Sense of the Truth
Fast forward to 2019, when Fr. Pat was arrested for sexual assault of an adult. As I read the arrest reports and the official criminal complaint, my thoughts whirled, and I was forced to reassess everything I remembered from that period in 2015. Some things from that time made more sense, and some things were more confusing than ever. His “leave of absence” was now characterized by the Archdiocese of Detroit as a “removal from ministry.” It appeared that behind the scenes, the Archdiocese launched an investigation and petitioned Rome for Fr. Pat’s dismissal from the priesthood. We were not told any of this; we were told how to send him cards. I know I don’t know the whole story, but it feels very much as though they lied to me. As a result, I have a very difficult time trusting the bishops of the Church now.
While the experience was profoundly disorienting, in the end, I am still Catholic, still rooted in the Church. If the Wisconsin Attorney General investigation unearths some truths that affect you, I’m hoping that some of the things I realized in my own journey might be helpful to you.
Expect Your First Reaction to Change. After I learned of Fr. Pat’s arrest, I spent most of that first day feeling numb and physically ill. From there, I cycled through myriad feelings. Shock, anger, sorrow, guilt, relief, loneliness, loss—my emotions were heavy and erratic, and pointed in many directions. At the time, I had already joined the small group of people who would become the organization now known as Awake, and had participated in a pilot small group discussion series with Sara Larson, who later became Awake’s executive director. I had people with whom I could process these many emotions. I also watched from afar as my hometown community coped with the news. Some people denied that our pastor could ever have done such a thing; others immediately believed in his guilt, but denied that he had ever actually been our pastor. I had a lot of thoughts and emotions to process and the place I am now is not where I started. Whatever you feel in response to any revelations is valid, but it doesn’t have to be where you stay.
Recognize That Yours Is Not the Only Experience. One step in my journey was bewilderment and guilt. I felt strangely guilty when I learned what happened to the young man Fr. Pat victimized. He and I were the same age, but my experience with Fr. Pat was so radically different! When I got to know him as a depressed young adult in 2013, he brought me deep into parish life and a rich liturgical experience. He empowered me, and offered important opportunities for belonging and leading. But my relationship with this pastor was not the only relationship he had. There was a lot about his life that I never knew, and others had a very different perspective. It was disconcerting to try and fit those different perspectives together, and it took some work to both accept this other experience, and not see my own experience as a lie.
Know That Grace is Grace. I also had to accept that the spiritual growth I attained through my relationship with this priest was real. I had become closer to God, and I trust that God rejoices in that closeness. Most importantly, the grace I received through the sacraments Fr. Pat administered is real and valid. The Catholic Church teaches that the grace bestowed in the sacraments is the result of the holiness of Jesus, not the holiness of the human minister. While my memories of the experiences feel more complicated now, a priest’s sinfulness does not lessen the effects of the sacraments. My sins were forgiven in Reconciliation, and I received Christ in the Eucharist.
Accept Your Wounds, and the Wounds of Others. As a member of the Catholic Church, and a member of the parish community where this abuse occurred, I am wounded by it. I believe it’s important to acknowledge that woundedness, both of self and community, for the Catholic Church to heal. Yet at the center of that woundedness is a specific survivor, a person who suffered the most deeply and personally. As I acknowledge my own pain, I hope to keep that person and his experience at the forefront. If I had the opportunity, I would want to tell him that I believe him, and that I’m sorry this happened. In my time with Awake, I’ve learned from victim-survivors and their advocates just how crucial those words are to people working to heal from clergy sexual abuse.
As a Catholic, I value truth and justice. Personally, I welcome the attorney general investigation here in Wisconsin. I believe whatever comes to light can only help victim-survivors and the entire Catholic Church heal and strengthen. Still, my experience in Michigan leaves me a little uneasy. I know what might be ahead, and I am sometimes a little scared to consider it. No matter what comes out of the Wisconsin investigation, I encourage fellow Catholics to remember that there are real people behind every allegation, and to consider their pain in our response.
Born in Connecticut and raised in Michigan, Elizabeth Brick (pictured above) is lifelong Catholic who has served the Catholic Church in paid and volunteer positions, including as a youth minister, parish council member, lector, Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist and sacristan. She has a BA in English and Theology from the University of Notre Dame. She, her husband, and their young son live in the suburbs of Milwaukee and are parishioners at the Church of the Gesu on Marquette’s campus.