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American women religious are not only the stalwarts of the church in action. Their congregations are also a living history of who we are as American Catholics and where we came from, as well as a living U.S. history.

A sidelight on the Loretto story (see Page 14) reminds us what this country once held. Loretto Sr. Patricia Manion, who takes people on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, in her book Beyond the Adobe Wall, captures the excitement and newness facing the four brave sisters who set off from St. Louis for New Mexico in 1852. On that journey Sr. Magdalen Hayden wrote “nothing gave us so much alarm as the Indians, at one time we were surrounded by some thousand … whether through curiosity or in order to frighten us, I do not know. Perhaps for both purposes.”

The sisters had their “first buffalo dinner,” shot by a hunter from the “thousands of bison … overwhelming … herds in thousands in a wave.”

A world gone by. Blessedly, their sister descendants are very much still a part of our lives. Those wishing to make the Santa Fe Trail Loretto 150th anniversary commemorative trip can contact www.lorettocommunity.org.

The recent sex abuse scandal has been likened to a wound in a body; someone else has said it is like a fever, a sign that the body is dealing with deep hurt. Such images come to mind easily for Catholics who are so steeped in that sense of connection, one to another. When one part of the body is wounded, we all hurt. So we look to signs that we are breaking through the ache to some kind of healing. We can’t be too quick in our expectations. That’s why the recent round of extended apologies from the pulpits seems not to have made much difference.

But there was an act of sorrow and remorse that I found profoundly moving (see story Page 10). The original report was done by the gifted religion writer, David Briggs, whose work on this subject for the Cleveland Plain Dealer is a splendid example of the craft. Briggs and James F. McCarty wrote a recent series on the sex abuse scandal in the Cleveland diocese that painted a not very flattering picture of Bishop Anthony Pilla, under whose leadership victims were often further victimized by aggressive legal tactics.

In a story that appeared after the series, Briggs describes the scene of Pilla washing the feet of a woman who, as a child, was sexually abused by a priest and then treated badly by the church. That scene speaks more than hours of homilies and prepared-text apologies. It appears a genuine act of love, a pastor restored to what he was called to do, and a member of the community, forgiving and urging forgiveness.

The examples and lessons that emanate from those simple activities on a Holy Thursday night are not only deeply moving, they also begin to point the way to health and healing better than any set of plans or strategies. They involved an act of trust by the bishop. It was he, this time, who became vulnerable and dependent on the response of a woman who had been deeply wounded. It was the kind of connection, human to human, that has been missing in this awful crisis and one that will have to be reestablished over the long haul of healing.

Though it was in the right direction, it was a tiny step. The power of the moment will only be fulfilled by credible acts of the clergy, real compassion for victims, zero tolerance for the abuse of youngsters, putting into place a variety of programs for parishioners and priests dealing with sex abuse, and a serious and deep examination of the secretive clergy culture that allowed children to be harmed and then protected the perpetrators.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002