The Archdiocese of Los Angeles last month dedicated a new “Garden of Healing” at LA’s St. Bernadette Catholic Church.
The garden is dedicated to victim-survivors of sexual abuse. It aims to be a safe space to offer some measure of peace and healing, as well as acknowledge the failures of the Church to prevent and adequately respond to abuse perpetrated by its priests, staff and volunteers.
St. Bernadette’s garden is the fourth of five planned gardens to open across the archdiocese; auxiliary Bishop Matthew Elshoff presided over an opening ceremony Jan. 17.
The idea for the healing garden came from Joe Montanez, a lifelong California resident.
Montanez is a retired teacher of landscape design and horticulture, a husband and a father.
He is also a victim-survivor, who was sexually abused by a priest as an 11-year-old altar boy in Santa Barbara.
Montanez carried his pain alone for many years, even after the perpetrator of his abuse made the news, was laicized, and then incarcerated.
Before he reached out to share his story with Dr. Heather Banis, victims’ assistance coordinator for the archdiocese, Montanez found comfort in gardening.
After he was abused, Montanez never left the Church or his faith. But many survivors, explained Banis, are “literally physically terrified to walk back inside of a church.”
Knowing that, Montanez came up with an idea a few years back, which he hoped would make the Church more accessible to those desiring reconnection.
“It just dawned on me: Create gardens,” Montanez told The Pillar. “I thought, ‘Well, here’s a way for them, on the outside of the church, to go and to pray.’”
With the support of Archbishop Jose Gomez, Banis and Montanez began planning the Gardens of Healing.
Because their archdiocese is so geographically large, the pair decided to open five gardens, one in each pastoral region. The first one, at the St. Camillus Center for Pastoral Care in Los Angeles, opened in October 2022. Since then, they have also opened gardens at Our Lady of the Assumption in Ventura and St. Francis de Sales in Sherman Oaks.
Montanez designed the gardens, which are simple: benches, stepping stones, flowers. Two plaques, one in English and one in Spanish, offer acknowledgement and apology to survivors on behalf of the archdiocese.
The centerpiece of each garden is a “weeping wall” fountain. The water symbolizes “both the tears and the pain and the sorrow, but also the cleansing,” Banis told The Pillar.
Debi McAlpine, another survivor, attended the opening ceremony for the garden at St. Bernadette’s. Sharing her story publicly for the first time, McAlpine told The Pillar that she was abused by a priest when she was in high school.
“I went from Honor Roll to pretty much cutting school every day and getting loaded,” said McAlpine. “Just checking out.”
The years that followed were tumultuous. It wasn’t until her elderly aunt asked for help getting to Mass, decades later, that McAlpine once more set foot inside a Catholic church — a deeply emotional experience that led to her finding connection and safety within the parish. Last year, she reached out to Banis, who has accompanied her in her continued healing.
At the event, McAlpine was especially moved when Bishop Elshoff approached her, looked her in the eye and apologized.
“I felt so validated,” she said through tears.
Banis expects that the fifth garden, which will be in the San Pedro region, will be completed by November.
She also hopes that the effort will draw more people to seek help from the Victims Assistance Ministry, which responds to allegations and helps survivors get the healing resources (or, in some cases, emergency assistance) they need.
Her office and its counterparts in dioceses across the U.S. were established in 2002 with the Dallas Charter. But because of the sensitive nature of the ministry, it does not have the visibility she would like it to have.
“To have our leaders, our bishops, speaking about this, being present in moments like [the opening ceremonies], giving voice to the ministry’s efforts and, most importantly, the needs and the healing that is being experienced by those who’ve been impacted — that’s huge,” she said.
Montanez said that he has received affirming feedback from Catholics in the pews who feel that the gardens help bring the abuse crisis out into the open.
But not everyone within the Church has been supportive.
One priest, remembered Montanez, “said that I was hurting the Church more by creating these gardens. And he thought it was wrong.”
McAlpine said she initially felt angry when she heard about the project.
“I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. Beautify your premises at our expense,’” she said.
One day, in spite of her misgivings, she visited the garden at Our Lady of the Assumption and prayed a rosary.
“It was just an amazing spiritual experience,” she recounted. “It was like everything that I felt before, about the uselessness of this [effort], it fell away. And I saw how beautiful it was, and I really felt the sincerity of the Church — that they really want to make this right.”
While Montanez has received a lot of positive responses to the effort from other survivors, he emphasizes that the gardens will not — and need not — appeal to everyone.
“Every survivor handles their grief in a different way,” he said. “I’m not out there to tell someone who was molested, ‘Oh, come to the garden and heal.’ … I am not here to judge. I’m not here to tell survivors what to do.”
Dr. Banis likewise encountered concern, like the possibility of attracting vandalism or making people angry at the Church again.
“I guess I take the approach: There are people who are angry at us already — and, in regards to the sexual abuse phenomenon, with good reason,” she said.
“But if this helps to convey and move the conversation forward, and give voice to the ministry that’s been in place since 2002 that a lot of people don’t really know even exists, let alone how much impact it’s having — then maybe that moment of pain and disruption serves a far greater good.”
Advocating for a more trauma-sensitive Church
To Catholics without personal experience of abuse, Banis emphasizes that sexual abuse “is not something you just get over,” even if it happened decades ago.
“The impact of that kind of betrayal trauma on a young child, who may not have felt like they could disclose; may not have been believed if they did disclose; may have disclosed, been believed and then in some way or another kept silent — that wreaks havoc on a young child’s developing sense of who God is and who they are,” she explained.
“And their relationship with God and their relationship with the other adults that they trust — that they counted on to keep them safe — are horribly damaged.”
Some survivors live outwardly ordinary lives, even within the Church, while they manage the interior pain of their experiences. Others, Banis said, call her from the streets, having been unable to maintain employment or stable relationships.
And just as the gardens may provide a safer entry point for those unable to enter a church, she hopes that by helping clergy, archdiocesan employees and parishioners better understand trauma, they may be better equipped to respond should someone share their story.
To those who have experienced abuse, Montanez encourages reaching out to the Victims Assistance Ministry in their area. Several years ago he reached out to Banis, who has been alongside him ever since as he heals. For Montanez, that healing included meeting with and forgiving his abuser before he died, and now speaking publicly about his abuse.
“I am incredibly humbled and honored when any survivor takes what I consider to be an enormous leap of faith to contact me and tell me what’s happened to them,” said Banis.
“What worries me the most is when people carry these burdens alone. So find someone — if you can’t turn to someone in your church yet, or if it’s not church-related and you turn to someone in the church and they don’t quite know what to do with it — find someone that you feel like you can share this with, so that you’re not carrying it alone.”
And if it’s happening now: “Please tell someone soon and get help and support now,” she urged. “And if it’s happening to a child, please tell someone right away. Protect the child. Please protect the child.”
Montanez believes more churches in the archdiocese will want their own gardens. And he has been working with other survivors across the country in an effort to create a national healing garden at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he said, expected in 2025.
For her part, McAlpine said, she is following the “breadcrumbs” of her own healing journey.
“I haven’t seen [the gardens] in bloom yet. So I’m looking forward to going through the seasons with it because I’ve only seen the winter,” said McAlpine.
“It’s kind of like where I am in my process,” she added. “I’m still in the winter.”