Lessons from a Survivor of Clergy Abuse
YArespond recently hosted a survivor of clergy sexual abuse for an evening conversation, so that we can better understand, respond to, and facilitate healing for survivors. We learned a lot from our three-hour discussion, but here are just a few of the takeaways:
“How do you heal in the Church when the abuse was from the Church?”
Because the abuse is often bound up in a manipulative spiritualizing of sexuality, couched in ecclesial language and perpetrated by Catholic leaders, survivors struggle to separate out the hatred for their abuse from their feelings towards the Church generally. Clergy abusers have used Eucharistic, biblical, and eccelesial imagery to justify and perpetrate their abuse, and so even discussions about Catholicism can be triggering for survivors. We learned that clergy abusers spiritualize everything, saying it was “God’s will.” Abusers in the Church can even use parts of the Theology of the Body or Pope John Paul II’s writings in manipulative ways to perpetuate and justify abuse. This abuse goes to the core of a person. “He didn’t just rape my body. He raped my soul.”
Thus, healing in specifically Catholic spaces or with Catholic figures (clergy, religious, etc.) can be extremely difficult. Access to non-Catholic resources and spaces that are not explicitly Catholic is key. We heard, “Going to therapy with Catholic therapists was terrible, because I struggled so much to trust Catholics.” While hearing that there are many good Catholic therapists, we also learned that survivors may need the additional space from the Church, rebuilding themselves with non-Catholics before they can consider going to Catholic professionals for help. We heard that with a non-Catholic therapist, “I had a safe spot to be able to say I hate the Catholic Church. And [at the time] I needed that.”
“There’s a big difference between children who have their first experience of abuse as a child and those who do as an adult.”
We learned that experiences of clergy sexual abuse are very diverse, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for healing. Someone who experiences abuse as a child has abuse associated with the Church from their most formative years. They may never know the Church as a place of beauty, while someone who has positive childhood experiences of the Church and then suffers abuse later in life has a different foundation for returning. The age of abuse also affects the way in which trauma is experienced at the time and then processed later in life. We learned that, when hearing a survivor’s story, we need to keep in mind that there are a host of very different stories out there as well.
“Because I thought it was impossible, I was an easy target.”
We learned that those in the greatest denial about the possibility of clergy abuse can be the easiest targets for abuse. Abusers can identify naiveté about how and when abuse occurs, and use this naiveté to build a long-term relationship, where the abuse happens very gradually over a long period of time. It’s like the frog in the boiling pot of water. Because the frog doesn’t think he will be boiled, he’s in the greatest danger.
“A spiritual director has to have good boundaries, especially if helping those with co-dependency issues. Good ones know when to tell you that they can’t be your friend or that you need other help.”
We learned that, when responding to clergy abuse, “You can wound with just incompetence. There doesn’t have to be malice.” Proper healing from abuse, particularly sexual and clergy abuse, can be complex and counter-intuitive. Catholics who try to be heroes or saviors in this process can hinder or work against healing. Young zealous priests are particularly prone to create further harm when responding to survivors by assuming they have all of the tools needed to respond, by trying to be a therapist, and by not understanding their limits. Priests should educate themselves on these issues using the best professional resources available, consulting with professionals, and referring to professionals when appropriate.
The greatest asset for priests can often be to know that they do not know, that they are not equipped to simply fix this problem. They need to make sure that both they and the survivors attend to their emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. Priests are trained to be priests, not psychologists. But priests should still do their best to learn about these issues, especially so that they can recognize when to refer to professionals. We heard, “I just thought at times, ‘It is not easy to stay Catholic when I want to stay Catholic’ because of Catholics’ responses.” We even heard a story about a Catholic man who, commenting on the abuse crisis, told her that victims were only coming forward for money.
“The best thing you can say to a victim is, ‘I believe you.’ If you’re not sure, law enforcement can work through the details.”
Opening up about your sexual abuse can be humiliating, demoralizing, and traumatic. No one wants to be abused, or to have been abused. It can take years—even decades—for some survivors to tell anyone what happened to them. Many survivors struggle to provide evidence by the time they have processed enough to speak with law enforcement. It’s common for survivors to burn the letters and gifts their abusers had given them. So we shouldn’t be surprised when they can’t bring forth hard evidence.
For these and other reasons, many survivors fear that they will not be believed. Their abusers were often charming and manipulative men, capable of gaining the trust of others, while survivors are often psychologically and spiritually broken because of what has happened to them. The abusers can have compelling stories and personalities, and they have worked to break down their victims. When someone comes to you and shares a story of abuse, the first words out of your mouth should be, “I believe you.” This provides a space of safety, healing, and reassurance as survivors process and move forward. If you are unsure about all of the facts and details, leave that up to law enforcement. Your role in that moment is to help facilitate healing, not to be their judge and jury.
“It’s important to know that God breaks through. We can still be healed in the heart of the Church.”
While there are many ill-equipped priests and other Catholics when it comes to responses to abuse, there are also many who have helped facilitate healing and justice. We heard stories about priests who went out of their way to make time to listen, who pushed for justice, and who have provided support over the span of years. We heard, “My greatest sorrow is I have lost my innocent love for the Church. I regained my love for the Church, praise God, but it’s a different kind of love.” As Catholics, today we are all called to let go of the innocence of the things we thought could never happen. We must receive with belief, and in solidarity we must all learn to enter into that different kind of love.
YArespond is a group of Catholic young adults based in the Twin Cities seeking informed and holistic ways to respond to the abuse crises in our Church. We focus on a fourfold response consisting of prayer, education, dialogue, and action. Currently, we are working on developing resources for parishes and ministries to host events and dialogues. Learn more: