In a small room at Ascension Catholic Church in Southeast Portland last Saturday, a half-dozen people listened to Steve Fearing recount the childhood sexual abuse he suffered in middle school at the hands of a priest.
Fearing, a 52-year-old teacher, spoke to a small group of Catholics remorseful about decades of sex abuse by some priests. The group, founded last fall, calls itself Compassionate Gathering and meets monthly as a support group for the church's sex-abuse victims.
The fledgling organization claims only a handful of members. But during Lent from Ash Wednesday, Feb. 6, through Easter, March 23, some members are broadening their visibility by wearing—and urging other Catholics to wear—small burlap pins as penance for sex abuse victims such as Fearing.
Fearing doesn't really feel a connection to the pins, but says he appreciates others choosing to wear them.
"[The Catholic Church] has to get rejuvenated," he says. "This issue has to get brought out, back into the light."
During Lent last year, Ann Czuba, a parishioner at the Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland, first created a pin last year to symbolize that penance.
Czuba made the pins out of two-inch pieces of burlap sack with brown ribbons in the center.
Last November, Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny blessed the pins, but the archdiocese is taking a more guarded stance toward Compassionate Gathering. "It's a very fragile situation," says Dennis O'Donovan, the archdiocese's vicar general. "If these things are helpful, that's wonderful. But they need to be handled with a certain amount of care. You don't want to be hurtful or get into things that might be better served through professional help."
Now the group is trying to distribute and introduce pins to other parishes after Mass. Czuba made and distributed nearly 500 pins at Madeleine. Another Compassionate Gathering member, Dottie Griffin, made almost 500 pins and distributes them at her Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland.
Members of Compassionate Gathering say it remains a struggle to get many Catholics to acknowledge the sex abuse.
"It's really hard for people," says Virginia Jones, a co-founder of Compassionate Gathering. When first handing out the pins, Jones says, "Reactions ranged from, 'Oh, I don't care,' to 'Oh, this is wonderful.' But there were enough good reactions.… It gets the conversation going."
The Archdiocese of Portland, which has about 400,000 members, settled with more than 100 sexual-abuse victims in September 2007 for more than $51 million. The archdiocese had declared bankruptcy in July 2004, the first archdiocese in the country to do so.
LEARN MORE: visit bishop-accountability.org, archpdx.org orcompassionategathering.org.