Survivors' Voices: Grooming, Part 2
This is a difficult post, and a difficult topic, but I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of what grooming can look like - for children and for adults.
You can find Part 1 here if you missed it last week.
Grooming is maybe one of the most difficult things for me to talk about. It’s so hard to untangle the conflicting emotions, to look with adult eyes at actions and dynamics that I couldn’t understand correctly as a child. It’s painful to realize that what I had experienced as care and love, at a time when I most needed it, was not love or care at all, but only manipulation. I’ve learned that abusers can be experts at seeking out wounded children, and providing the illusion of what they need to lure them in. As I’ve connected with other survivors, I think the thing that makes me the most angry about abuse in the Church, is how often the perpetrators prey on the existing wounds of their victims.
My grooming took this form: My rapist would hear my confessions and got to know my soul. He gave sermons that were wise and holy. The parish looked up to him with great reverence. With time he would ask me for favors (running errands, etc.) because he was “so busy.” With more time he confided his struggles with me, as a friend. I was uncomfortable. My gut said to pull away, but I was a teacher in his parish. I could not pull away. Three years later I was raped multiple times and conceived a child. Grooming for children and adults begins in the confessional and reaches to spiritual direction. The faithful must be on their guard for the over-familiar priest; the priest who does not have boundaries for himself. Teach yourselves and your children what is proper in the confessional and in spiritual direction.
The greatest harm I experienced was spiritual harm. Sexual violence violates our innate spiritual knowing and grounding. When sexual violence is linked to religion, or a priest, religious, or god figure, spiritual violence can be magnified. It was for me. Grooming, for me, was the slow, gradual, ongoing religious practices, symbols, and teaching that shifted my innate spiritual authority and knowing of God away from me and toward the church and religious figures, especially the priest. The teaching and catholic practices left me powerless (for decades) to the sexual violence and to the resulting diminishment of my soul, spirit, dignity, agency, trust, self worth, and spiritual gifts. Clearly recognizing the spiritual/religious grooming (whether this grooming was/is intentional or unintentional) has aided my journey toward healing and empowerment.
My abuser sought me out when I was new at the parish, a foreigner with no community tie. Rather than bringing me into the community, he kept me isolated and demanded secrecy from others about our relationship. I naively took his interest in me as a welcoming hospitality, but hospitality never isolates, it should welcome you into a community. Beware of those who want you all to themselves.
Grooming is like that adage that says if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will instantly leap out; but if you put it in a pot filled with pleasantly tepid water and gradually heat it, the frog will remain in the water until it boils to death. Grooming happens without you even realizing that it's happening. With clergy abuse, grooming goes beyond that of the lay predator, in that faithful Catholics have been groomed to view the priest as acting "in the person of Christ." This belief lays the groundwork for a profound spiritual trauma that occurs alongside the physical and psychological trauma of clergy sexual abuse.
Grooming is subtle and it can happen to anyone. It is important to become educated about grooming behaviors so that you can identify them and speak up on behalf of children and vulnerable people in your life or larger orbit.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and would like to contribute to this blog series, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
There were many contributions to this important topic, so I will have a few more to share with you next week.