By Miguel Prats
In this article, I describe how faith is important for healing after abuse. I hope Victims Assistance Coordinators, who are trying to find ways to help survivors in their care, will find these ideas inspiring and useful.
So many survivors are alive in their bodies, but their souls are starving, withering or even dead. They’ve been destroyed mentally and emotionally by those who harmed them. Experience shows us those abused as children are much more likely to experience alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse or promiscuity. Survivors all too often try to stop pain with something that just makes matters worse. It’s hard for a victim to make good decisions when he or she has PTSD and doesn’t even know it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be effective with PTSD, and a good therapist can be beneficial. That aspect of recovery is addressed outside the lay group which I founded called the Maria Goretti Network. Most psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists are trained to focus on the mental and emotional aspects, not the spiritual, so many survivors make progress with professionally-led therapy but they won’t get over the hump because of the lack of attention to the spiritual healing that must also take place, especially where the harm is done by someone with a spiritual role in a victim’s life.
The Maria Goretti Network is a nonprofit, peer-led, self-help support network for any victim of abuse no matter who the abuser may have been or what form the abuse took. There are five chapters in Texas and one in the state of Washington. MGN loosely follows the steps and traditions of the 12-Step Program. We believe God gives us everything we need for life. As a Catholic program, we also believe the Church and its priests are underutilized when there is much healing to be found in the sacraments and other holy devotions, traditions and practices. Too often survivors don’t have anyone encouraging them to turn to Christ, Mother Mary and the saints. Now, in MGN meetings, peer-to-peer, we encourage each other to do so.
The Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, the rosary, various prayers, the saints, are all divine tools that can heal. MGN group leaders, having achieved a certain level of recovery, are able to encourage fellow survivors to use these divine instruments. While we are a Catholic lay apostolate, non-Catholics are welcome. Belief in Catholicism is not a prerequisite to attendance. Prayer, setting up boundaries and taking responsibility for our own journeys are all components of what we do.
MGN groups gather in a safe place and share our stories. It is empowering and healing for us to gather ideas from others that will benefit us by listening. We make clear that attendees are to focus only on their own issues, feelings and recovery. This is not the place for airing memories. Each attendee is expected to use MGN meetings for spiritual healing and growth, and to seek a professional counselor if needed.
Mental health professionals have much to offer, but, as with 12-Step programs we believe the real experts on surviving abuse are the ones who have suffered abuse and who are making efforts to recover. For that reason, we seek healing by listening to each other.
Some professionals worry these peer groups are not led by professionals. This sells victims short. Look at the success of 12-Step programs over the years. In MGN, members really want to learn how not to trigger each other, and they do manage their own reactions. We all have great compassion for each other’s pain. We believe recovery relies on developing skills to manage our own choices, including ways to comfort and respect each other.
To foster safe meeting spaces, MGN sets careful boundaries to keep vulnerable attendees safe. For example, people agree to listen without judgment and not to give advice or input at meetings. We are there to help each other seek the answers from within and from Christ. That’s why faith, prayer and sacraments are central to MGN. Of course, after hearing someone say something during a meeting, a member may want to understand better. They are encouraged to do so outside the meeting, in a private setting. Naturally, friendships do form along the way.
But in the open setting of a meeting, just like in the 12-Step program, “crosstalk” is discouraged. If you have a dozen survivors in a room, a meeting would never move along if people started offering unsolicited advice. We might also get enmeshed with each other’s problems. Our goal is to stay focused on our own problems and lives. We help each other be open to all the ways God can help us recover.
We operate with the understanding that none of us are experts in another person’s choices, but we are all experts in our own pain and recovery. While no one can know what is best for another, we all know God is the answer, and we help each other develop ever-closer trust in Him.
To draw closer to God, MGN uses all the divine instruments we have been given, For us, the examples of saints like Maria Goretti, Josephine Bakhita and Maximillian Kolbe are very special. They show us how to forgive the unforgivable, forgiveness being the key to healing. For MGN members, these three saints have special importance because they all suffered and experienced joy in the midst of suffering through their union with Christ, so they’re great examples for us to follow. We see their example, and it gives us hope.
In MGN we have found that by creating a sacred space where people can tell their stories, be believed and be supported, the Holy Spirit goes to work. Miracles happen!
Miguel Prats is President and co-founder of the Maria Goretti Network, which provides a Catholic-based survivor community peer support. For more info, see www.mgoretti.org. He is a survivor of clergy abuse and a guest contributor to The Healing Voices Magazine.