By Teresa Pitt Green, Founder
Survivors of abuse by clergy reflect the face of Christ as Victor over all evil, even evil rooted however transitorily in sacred space and dressed like a priest.
Our stories are about resilience sustained by a Savior searching tirelessly for each of us in every destitute and wounded state—even where a child was abandoned by the Church herself. Saving grace may arrive in the mix of professional and personal support, but like all grace it requires our consent and cooperation.
What survivors reveal about the work of grace is a witness that serves nothing less than the Lord. Our witness is uniquely able to heal the divide, the wound, the gash where evil struck, simultaneously, the innocence of children and the holiness of priests. Integrating survivors and our witness into the Church helps survivors and victimized families heal but also helps heal and energize Catholics.
There is so much to heal, including naïvté in our encounters with evil. Yes, our identity in Christ is forged by showing His mercy to the world, yet at the core of the Catholic abuse scandal we find forgiveness was manipulated by predators, making complicit a circle of Catholics who were led terribly astray. Survivors’ witness is a reminder, albeit a discomforting one, to forgive without enabling.
There is so much to heal, particularly a persistent ignorance about child abuse. Consider the false notion that a priest is uniquely at risk to molest children. To hold that suspicion, Catholics must choose to ignore decades of research about child abuse and child predators. This is not a victimless ignorance. Ignorance about real child predators makes children and others more vulnerable in a world with abuse still occurring, now facilitated by social media and expanding in human trafficking.
There is so much to heal, like ministry for faith needs of mentally ill people—survivors among them. At best, people delegate care for the mentally ill to medical professionals, not all of whom believe faith is a sign of mental health. Or, fellow Catholics add to social shaming by pegging, even dismissing, persons as a diagnosis—bipolar, anxiety disorder or borderline. Christians were never meant to substitute a medical term for the fundamental identity as a child of God. Only the latter comes with a promise for a full and eternal life of abundance, and the former is limited without the grace from the Father.
Survivors unfortunately know quite a bit about finding identity in rubble, about asserting identity over diagnosis. We know well how to encourage others, regardless of diagnosis or grief from trauma, to boldly claim their identity as children of God. Consider the friend whose psyche splintered under the pressure of abuse into a mood disorder. A therapist will adeptly guide her toward awareness of all the pieces and then masterfully suggest ways to make connections among fragments. Only a Christian can suggest the divine invitation this same woman has to life reflected in the three Persons of the Trinity.
While we survivors are responsible for resolving past harm to be able to serve without harming, we have faith stories, and our faith stories have an important role in whatever corner of the world we find ourselves. These stories speak to the alienated, if only to help them depart from a Church where a part of them was destroyed, but perhaps, instead, to explore homecoming on terms they can endure.
These children of God lingering on the periphery of the Church are those who, not matching Catholics seen in church and media, doubt this is their home. They underestimate the love and mercy of God that graces their brief visit to a chapel or their heavy-hearted visit to a grotto where they despair of being heard—and loved. Our hard-won wisdom is a unique offering in our day-to-day lives, where many survivors are already instruments the Lord is using to free others like He has freed us, despite all the shunning and stigma, to speak of His might and victory. As Sooz highlights when she opens this Special Issue she designed, we move from victimhood not only into survivorship but also into service: Lord, make me a channel of Your peace.
I have been exceedingly fortunate, because through random chance (as I believe my abuse was) or blessing (as I believe my faith is) I landed in a diocese with a vibrant and fairly large community of abuse survivors (many but not all victimized by clergy). We gather for prayer services, discussions and retreats with the support and kind concern of our Bishop Paul Loverde, who has grown with us and so is fluent in survivor faith struggles. Our Victim Assistance Coordinators are very committed to their work as a ministry. Our Child Protection team is tireless in its work. What is particularly healing is the dialogue among us, together with loved ones, along with priests, sisters and deacons who are willing to be sensitized to survivor issues. My observation is that all sides help each other heal from a wound shared. It is a grace. It is faith in action on all accounts. I believe this is precisely the nexus at which the abusers struck, and precisely where healing efforts must return.
My sincere hope is that the Church finds more places where the salubrious role of survivors in the world may be integrated into the Church to serve, to inspire and to encourage through dialogue and reconciliation.