A Tribute to Father Patrick Cecil (June 21, 1952 – November 14, 2016)

By Michael D. Hoffman

Father Pat was the pastor of my parish, St. Mary of the Woods in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He supported every possible effort to heal from the wounds of childhood sexual abuse by clergy for myself, as a parishioner and an individual survivor of clergy abuse, and for our Church as a whole. He accompanied me through some very critical steps in my recovery, including trusting me with his own wounds. In remembering his life and his vocation, I share this story with you

Father Pat participated in the annual Prayer Service and Pinwheel Planting event, which is held each year at the Healing Garden of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Our event raises awareness of child abuse prevention efforts which protect all of God’s children from any kind of harm. As children and adults sing and pray together, we plant pinwheels in the ground as a public reminder that all children deserve to be safe wherever they go.

At these events, Father Pat was so filled with hope. He would turn to me and enthusiastically ask what else we can do together to make a difference regarding this difficult subject. I was happy he shared his hope, joy and enthusiasm for the annual event and for seeing it as a healing opportunity for our whole Church. These were things we had in common, but our bond stretched back to when I first began the process of reporting abuse.

I had told my story of having been abused by our Catholic priest when I was a little boy, and then I began the Independent Review Board process within the Archdiocese of Chicago. I also began individual counseling.

It was during my therapeutic process that I worked to reconcile myself to the truth of the abuse and the effects it had on me as an adult. One way I chose to do that was to reach out to the current pastor of the parish where I had grown up. It was the parish where much of my abuse occurred. In the spirit of healing and reconciliation, I wrote a letter to Father Michael McGovern, the pastor of Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, Illinois.  He replied immediately by inviting me back to the parish. I accepted his invitation and asked Father Pat if he would go with me. He agreed.

I picked Father Pat up at the rectory, and we drove together. We stopped at a local restaurant near the church for a sandwich prior to the meeting. Father Pat and I were talking casually, but he was struggling with some of his words. He was a bit uncomfortable in the conversation.

Then, there was a moment when he shared with me a deep burden which was weighing on his heart. He told me that one of his good friends, who had been a priest at the time I had been abused, had also abused children. Father Pat felt terrible about what his friend had done and felt badly that he hadn’t been able to see the warning signs of an abuser. He went on to tell me his friend was incarcerated as a convicted sexual offender. Father Pat mentioned visiting his friend in prison and that he continued to pray for his rehabilitation. Father Pat was clearly nervous about telling me all of this.

My sense was that Father Pat needed to unburden himself. I listened to him and thanked him for telling me. He had taken a huge risk in telling me, a clergy abuse survivor, yet had felt like anything less honest would be yet another lie to me.

Knowing what I was about to do to heal from the wounds of abuse in my life, Father Pat shared his heartache about how his friend had harmed children. He shared another side to the wound in my life, in a sense. It took courage to reconcile himself to the truth of what his friend had done, and it took courage to tell me.

There we were, in the lunch shop restaurant, two good people wounded by the same evil of abuse in different ways. We now had spoken the words, shared our heartache with one another, and there we agreed to work to make it better for ourselves and for our Church. Our shared enthusiasm and hope at the Healing Mass and Pinwheel events would spring from this quiet, powerful moment.

We finished our lunch, and together we met Father McGovern. Sitting in the same rectory where much of my abuse occurred over 30 years earlier, I told him Father McGovern story. Father Pat sat next to me. Father McGovern listened to me, thanked me for coming back to my former parish and for sharing my story.

One comment I remember he made was that the sexual abuse of children by clergy cuts close to the heart and soul of every abuse victim as well as of every good and faithful priest. That image remains, as I sat there, in the company of two good and faithful priests. I remain thankful to them for listening to the depth of my sadness.

That was several years ago. As I reflect on our time together in the rectory that day, I hold up my experience as a model of healing, reconciliation and restoration. To reclaim what was lost to the truth of the abuse is a long and painful journey, but I am aware that it starts when we can share our stories of what happened back then with good and faithful people now—in particular with good and faithful priests who understand the extent of the wound.

The one-year anniversary of the death of Father Pat will soon be here, so I wanted to point to his example of courage, compassion and heartfelt effort to support me, a clergy sexual abuse survivor. Father Pat was blessed with a glorious ministry as a Catholic priest, and, among all the service he offered all the people whom he encountered as a priest, he walked with me on my healing journey. One way he did that which I will never forget is by trusting me with his own terrible heartache. I am blessed that he felt comfortable enough with me to do that.

Supported by him, inspired by him, I share Father Pat’s hope, joy and enthusiasm for any and all healing opportunities within our Church.

For more detail about Mike’s steps toward recovery, please read his book Acts of Recovery: The Story of One Man’s Ongoing Healing from Sexual Abuse by a Priest.

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