Louisville Courier-Journal religion writer Peter Smith always does a nice job of covering national stories at the local level or showing the broader significance of local stories. For years he has covered the lawsuit against the Vatican (we've discussed NPR coverage here) by a once-local man who said he was sexually abused by a Louisville priest in 1928. That lawsuit ended last week when the plaintiffs conceded that they couldn't overcome various legal obstacles. And now for the rest of the story:
In the annals of people who returned to their childhood faith after a time of alienation, few have had a longer sojourn than James O'Bryan.
The Louisville native has reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church after being away from it for more than 80 years.
In the end, O'Bryan reconciled with the church because of the actions of a priest -- the same reason he said he left in the first place.
I've always wondered about this part of the story -- what happens to the faith of sexual abuse victims? Some of the most poignant and provocative coverage of this sad topic deals with just that.
But what a shock to read that O'Bryan had left the church only to return so many years later. Smith shares the details. O'Bryan's wife of 52 years was dying. Although estranged from the church, she asked for last rites. The Rev. Louis Nichols came, later performing her funeral Mass:
"I saw how compassionate he was and how caring he was," O'Bryan said. So O'Bryan called Nichols for a follow-up appointment, and "I've been going to church ever since."
The priest said the lawsuit was no obstacle to welcoming O'Bryan and they bonded over their shared Marine experience. This was a nice detail to include:
O'Bryan has had to get used to how Roman Catholics have been worshipping for more than 40 years since the Second Vatican Council: in English, with more simplified rites than those used in the past.
"I don't know the liturgy," he said. "I'm used to the Latin Mass."
We get another look at O'Bryan's lawsuit and the details are so sad. When he told his family, some believed him and some didn't. The priest denied he fondled O'Bryan. The whole experience negatively affected his family relations, something which bothered him more than the act itself. He also said earlier marriages suffered from psychological trauma of the abuse.
Near the end, we learn how O'Bryan feels about the demise of his lawsuit:
"I feel it's my church, and I feel the healing process has already started," he added. "They've recognized the things that they're responsible for, so really we'll get on with the rest of my life."
O'Bryan said he received "a nice, handwritten letter" a few years ago from the Rev. John Burke, the priest at [his former parish] St. Cecilia and now at Good Shepherd, expressing regret over what happened to him.
Burke said in an interview that news of O'Bryan's reconciliation with the church is a "wonderful story of healing."
Stories investigating what the Catholic Church did wrong in how it handled abuse claims are important. While working on a recent story -- I asked some sources what they thought the biggest problem with media coverage was. Many talked about how they wished that the media had done a better job of explaining what percentage of priests were involved in heinous conduct. Perhaps that's related to what I liked about this story. We learn about allegations of abuse against one priest but we also learn about the pastoral approach of two others. It just seems to have a better, more accurate balance. And even though it's a great story of reconciliation, it still has drama and it's not a puff piece.