West Virginia diocese welcomes LOUDfence campaign of awareness, support for abuse victims

By Colleen Rowan

WHEELING, W.Va. (OSV News) — Never underestimate what one small act of compassion can do. That was Antonia Sobocki’s message to the faithful gathered for Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling April 7.

She was there to represent LOUDfence, a campaign of awareness and support for victims of abuse which began in a small, rural English church and has now spread across the globe with its message of healing.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston became the first diocese in the U.S. to participate in LOUDfence, which began with Mass that morning celebrated by Bishop Mark E. Brennan. Sobocki and the many survivors of abuse present were welcomed by the bishop, who expressed his support of the campaign.

“We are deeply honored we are now here for the very first time in America,” Sobocki told the congregation. “No matter where we are in the world, we are one holy Catholic and apostolic church. We are the church which adores and glorifies God, who is perfect love; and he calls on us to love each other.”

Through the LOUDfence campaign, she said, the faithful show compassion by tying ribbons and messages of support on a fence so that survivors will see them and take comfort.

Many ribbons and messages already adorned the railings to the entrances of the cathedral before Mass began. Inside, shoes representing abuse victims were placed throughout the church. Children’s shoes on the altar bore tags that pleaded, “See Me.” Adult shoes were placed around the baptismal font with the message: “Abuse can happen wherever there are two people and a power differential. Adults suffer abuse too. Safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility.”

Shoes were placed for priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious who have suffered abuse. And shoes placed in front of the ambo carried a message for the majority of priests, “who are innocent and have devoted their lives to serving God by serving us. When people label you as an abuser, because of the actions of a minority, know that you are not alone. We are one church, and we support each other.”

When it comes to abuse of any kind, Sobocki stressed, silence and indifference are not loving.

“We are a church in need of healing and reconciliation. We must support and care for all who have been affected by safeguarding failures of the past,” Sobocki said to the congregation at the cathedral. “I’m here to ask you to do that today by tying a ribbon of support and compassion for all who have been harmed. Never underestimate what can happen as a result of your one small act of compassion.”

In his homily for the Mass, celebrated on Divine Mercy Sunday, Bishop Brennan told the faithful that we practice mercy when standing in solidarity with those who suffer.

“We are all aware of the scandal of sexual abuse of minors in our church and in many other sectors of society,” the bishop said, adding that the church has made great strides in more recent years in ensuring a safe environment for young people. However, he cautioned, “It’s not a time to pat ourselves on the back. We still have work to do.”

Part of that work is reaching out to those who have suffered abuse and offering help toward healing, peace, and a restoration of faith where it has been lost, he said. LOUDfence helps facilitate this through its message — “a loud declaration by church members that we care about our brothers and sisters who have suffered abuse, are praying for them, and encourage them to seek peace in God,” Bishop Brennan said.

He invited all to join him in the effort to spread mercy in a world filled with hatred and violence and said that he joins with Pope Francis in insisting that the way of mercy is the only way to reconciliation and peace.

“The LOUDfence movement has helped to bring healing to many victim-survivors of abuse and brought some of them back to the church,” the bishop said. “It’s a small step that we are taking, but that’s how you begin a journey. So, let’s take it together.”

Those present followed the bishop outside after the Mass to write their messages and tie them with ribbons of support for abuse victims on the railing to the side entrance of the cathedral. After Bishop Brennan placed his message and ribbon, Sobocki presented him with a symbolic key to the church where LOUDfence began — St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Kirkbampton, England, established in the year 1194. She also presented him with a ribbon blessed by Pope Francis.

Hanging on the railing among the ribbons was a message to Bishop Brennan from Catholic Bishop David J. Oakley of Northampton, England: “This message is sent with the hope and prayer that the LOUDfence event in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston will be a blessing for all survivor victims of abuse, and for all who are seeking to serve within safeguarding ministry. Here in the Diocese of Northampton, we have found LOUDfence to be a grace-filled vehicle of healing and reconciliation for many who have been hurt by abuse, either directly or indirectly. This message is accompanied by our prayer for a successful event.”

Sobocki, a native of Cumbria, England, has been organizing LOUDfence events since 2020. She is currently the director of LOUDfence U.K. She brought LOUDfence to West Virginia through her work with Nick Chancey, executive director of Youth and Young Adult Discipleship for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

In beginning LOUDfence four years ago in that small church, Sobocki said, the hope was to help a few people in a little village in Northern England. Following the event, she said, “I posted some pictures on social media with a question: ‘Is anybody out there?’”

Responses came from Australia, the U.S., Germany, Poland, Portugal and all over the U.K.

“The LOUDfence spread to cathedrals all over England,” Sobocki said. “The outpouring of love spread from England to the bishops’ council of France.” Last year the bishops of France held a LOUDfence in Lourdes, she said, and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors led by Cardinal Seán P.

“We are honored the LOUDfence has been recognized and welcomed by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, as a symbol of hope,” Sobocki said. “One small act of compassion in rural England had the power to spread to the other side of Europe and touched the lives of countless people on its journey.”

Colleen Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

For more information about LOUDfence, visit loudfence.com.

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