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Cathedral offers garden to sex abuse victims

By October 31, 2008July 17th, 2022No Comments

OAKLAND, California (CNN) — Terrie Light stands outside Oakland’s stunning new modern cathedral in a first-of-its-kind garden that honors victims of clergy sexual abuse. She was abused by a priest at age 7.

For the first time, the Catholic Church has offered a garden that honors victims of clergy sex abuse.

"It’s a really small, important physical representation of a horrific thing that happened in many places," she told CNN.

She says the garden’s centerpiece, a symbolic low stone sculpture that’s broken, is fitting for those whose lives were shattered by priests. "The energy that the artist put was this circular stone trying to pull itself to become unbroken. That is our journey. That is what we try to do every day — is to try to be unbroken."

The garden is placed near a wall of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, which was consecrated September 25.

Two low-curved benches bracket the sculpture, one facing toward the cathedral, the other facing away. The benches are surrounded by hedges. 

The bench placement is deliberate and takes into account the feelings and needs of abuse victims.Those who choose not to face the cathedral end up facing a small lake across the street.

Father Paul Minnihan, the provost of the cathedral, says it was important to have the garden — for the victims, and for the church to atone for the sins of its past.

"Part of the church’s mission is to make sure we bring healing to people who are in need of it, even if we were the cause of it," he says. "Having this garden on the campus says we are serious about our desire to help in your healing process on whatever level. As this cathedral will be around for 500 years, so will that garden as a place of healing and hope."

The Catholic Church was rocked earlier this decade by allegations of children being sexually abused by priests, with scores of victims filing lawsuits against their alleged abusers. The church was accused of covering up the abuse for decades by sending offending priests to other parishes.

The church wound up paying hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. Some priests went to jail; others resigned. Pope Benedict XVI in July apologized to victims and called the abuse "evil."

At the garden’s dedication on October 11, Allen Vigneron, bishop of Oakland, once again offered the church’s apology. "To the hurts of so many innocents, we preferred the darkness to the light. And for that, I again make heartfelt apologies to all victim survivors. As it says on the plaques at the entries, ‘We remember and we affirm: never again.’"

Terrie Light, who has been a vocal advocate for abuse victims for many years, says getting the garden built was not an easy process. "We got silence, then we got passed around," she says.

She said Barbara Flannery, the former chancellor of the diocese who became the church’s point person on helping victims, advocated for the garden to the bishop.

"He thought it was a good idea. But it’s different from ‘It’s a good idea’ to ‘Here’s the people to meet with to make it happen,’" she says. "When we finally met with the architect, things really changed."

"He really understood what we were trying to accomplish and put together some architects to create this garden that he thought would give us what we wanted for a place for people to come and connect to their spirituality not inside the church."

Why outside?

"There are people that want to go into a church that cannot. It’s too painful, too emotionally traumatizing," she says. "There are other people that are ambivalent — that want to be there and not want to be there. This gives them the option."

The garden is not what survivors had originally envisioned — a lush, English garden with flowers and trees. But they are pleased with the outcome.

"It’s a very simple space," Light says.

Most victims of abuse in the Oakland area favored the garden; a few opposed it, feeling that it implied closure to a problem that still exists.

Minnihan says the church has sought "to bring back healing and wholeness and work with those who are survivors" since the scandal. The garden is emblematic of that.

"We wanted to have a place respectful for their needs and their wishes," he says.