By Eileen Unander
When I think about Victim Assistance Coordinators and my experience in coming forward as a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, I think of fear and mistrust. These reﬂections are speciﬁc to the diocese where my abuse occurred. Not every VAC is the same, nor is the culture or climate in every diocese.
For me, the decision to ﬁle a report was triggered by the publishing of the obituary of the priest who abused me. It stated he had been moved from our diocese to another one after my mother informed our pastor and subsequently the Bishop in 1972 of the abuse that occurred. I wanted my report on the record should other survivors come forward. I wanted to corroborate their stories. I wanted others to feel heard and believed because apparently in 1972 although I might have been believed (he was moved), the risk this priest posed towards children like me seemed inconsequential to the diocese.
The day I drove a few towns over to meet with ofﬁcials from the diocese, I was feeling pulled by some who insisted I had the basis for a lawsuit, and a strong distaste for this institution that covered for their abuser in lieu of protecting a 12-year-old child. The building where I was instructed to meet the chancellor looked like an abandoned school in the inner city of a large river town. The doors were locked.
After a while a woman greeted me and took me to a room where the Chancellor waited. We sat at a large boardroom table. My heart raced. My hands were cold and clammy. There was little effort to put me at ease. It became apparent that they wanted the details. The woman who had greeted me at the door (I assume she was the VAC) looked down as I told them about that night when the priest visited our home, consumed large amounts of alcohol, cornered me in my parent’s kitchen with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his hands groping my body. The Chancellor took notes.
She asked what I wanted out of this report. I told her I wanted a formal complaint put in his personnel ﬁle. They stood, shook my hand and showed me to the door. A few weeks later I received a letter saying they would honor my request and would expect me to honor my statement that I wouldn’t sue.
Somewhere I remember being informed the Church would be willing to provide me with counseling. I thought the idea of receiving counseling from the institution that housed abusers was absurd. Physician heal thyself. I denied the offer.
Years later, with a degree in clinical social work and a private counseling practice, I encountered a group of survivors and VACs in the Chicago area doing great efforts in outreach and support. The movie Spotlight had kick-started conversations in our parish and victims had surfaced. I wanted to see what we could do to replicate some of the efforts of the Archdiocese of Chicago in our area. I called the VAC in our diocese and ran into the same interrogation.
I identiﬁed myself as a survivor and the VAC needed to know who had abused me and when it happened, when it was ﬁrst reported and on and on. He wouldn’t even dialogue with me without ﬁrst consulting the Chancellor (the same one who interviewed me over a decade before). It felt as though his ﬁrst concern was liability. I felt as though I was a non-person to him. Nothing but a potential lawsuit.
When I asked about survivor support, I was told that the diocese only took reports and determined liability. There was no database available. There were no efforts to gather survivors for supportive services. The conversation ended there.
When asked what VACs can do to help, I think it starts with not seeing me as a threat to the Church. Don’t assume that I am mentally ill or unstable. Don’t assume that I want to sue the institution. I am not the one who abused children. I am not arrested in my sexual development. I am not hiding in a system that will protect me while I run from my demons as it has been with many of the men who have preyed on our children. I am a mother, a grandmother and wife. I am a working professional. I am a practicing Catholic. I teach CCD and sing in the church choir. I want to promote change, to protect our children, to see a healthier Catholic culture and healthier priests who serve us.
At the same time, I am not naive. I have read accounts of false allegations and can accept the phenomenon of false memory syndrome. I know that some of us are nursing gaping wounds and are easily triggered. I know that many were groomed because of vulnerabilities like damaged family systems and socioeconomic, emotional or developmental challenges and these factors impact our recoveries. I know that there are attorneys and organizations who are militant in their efforts to hold the Church accountable through lawsuits that have brought some diocese to their ﬁnancial knees.
For those reasons, I believe it is not responsible for VACs to organize groups of survivors and leave them to themselves to support one another or to develop programs and outreach. Hurt people hurt people, and sometimes dynamics in such groups can go askew. Fear reigns when VACs take a hands-off approach and back off from afﬁliation with these groups because of a need to report to bishops who might not approve of outcomes.
Guidance and discernment are an essential part of promoting peer supported activities with survivors. You cannot serve two masters. Change takes courage and courage is ours through God who weeps and walks with us in this journey to recover from sexual abuse by clergy.
I believe in the end that fear is the biggest challenge for VACs and survivors if they want to work together. We are aware that VACs work for the same institution that abused us. VACs are caught in a double bind of compassion for the victims and accountability to their employers. Fear and mistrust will prevent us from moving forward unless we are willing to step forward and take such risks towards change.
Eileen Unander is a loving wife, mother, foster mother, and grandmother who is a practicing therapist. She is also the survivor of clergy abuse and guest contributor to The Healing Voices Magazine.