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Northwoods Catholic priests address sexual abuse, Church cover-ups with parishes Submitted: 09/13/2018
Story By Ben Meyer

Northwoods Catholic priests address sexual abuse, Church cover-ups with parishes
WOODRUFF, EAGLE RIVER - The leader of the American Catholic Church admits sex abuse scandals have "lacerated" the church in the United States.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo made the comment after he and other American bishops met with Pope Francis on Tuesday at the Vatican.

We've heard story after story about abuse by Catholic priests this summer. That's left Northwoods priests and parishioners with a challenge. How to talk, think, and pray about the scandals?

"It just feels like a plague in the church," said Fr. Aaron Devett, the priest at Holy Family Catholic Church in Woodruff.


Devett has been following the stories closely. He's originally from Pennsylvania, and last month, a grand jury report found more than 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year span in that state. The church worked to cover it up.

That report came after Archbishop Theodore McCarrick resigned, accused of molesting teenagers and seminarians.

"The more I read, it came as a sick feeling in my stomach," Devett said. "I absolutely knew I would have to talk about it. But, also, I have talked about it."

He also talked to his parish about sexual abuse in 2016, after a different grand jury report found widespread sexual abuse and a cover-up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese of Pennsylvania.

That's the diocese in which Devett grew up.

"I read that report, knowing names, and knowing that there would have been victims I knew whose names were not there," he said.

This time, Devett preached a message of deepening faith in Jesus, even when parts of the Catholic institution fail.

He's shared the letters of the Most Reverend James Powers, the Bishop of Superior, the diocese covering the Northwoods.

In an August 31 letter, Powers offered prayers, support, and apologies to victims. He also wrote he's not aware of any currently-serving priests or parish staff in the Diocese known or rumored to be abusers.

"I want to ensure that our Church protects not only our children, but everyone from abuse," Powers wrote. "As your Bishop, I promise, there will be no cover-ups in our Diocese."

In a different part of the Northwoods, Fr. Patrick McConnell is also addressing the issue head-on.

"I think people are feeling despair and fear and even kind of a spirit of betrayal," McConnell said. "I think the people really want us to be able to say, 'Hey, this is part of our reality, but it's not all of it.'"

McConnell leads parishes in Eagle River, Phelps, Land O'Lakes, Sugar Camp and Three Lakes. He's seen people turn to the Church even more.

McConnell tells them of an idea by Saint John Bosco, who saw the Church as a boat.

"The boat will sometimes take the wrong direction, sometimes make some errors in where it's going, but it's always drawing towards this destination," McConnell said.

At Holy Family, Devett hopes the Church corrects more than just its issues with sexual abuse.

He hopes it corrects something he sees as even broader, the abuse of conscience.

"If we just think this problem is about sexual abuse…we're missing a huge part of the problem because it was the rest of the problem that allowed that to happen," Devett said. "They're playing with and manipulating and abusing an individual's sense of right at wrong."

Devett's message to Catholics is even as the Church struggles with institutional challenges, faith marches on.

"I'm not walking away," he said. "Please don't walk out. Walk on with me."

The Diocese of Superior requires adults in its parishes to take safe environment training before working with children. It also encourages children to take their own version of the training.

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