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Survivors' Voices: Spiritual Trauma, Part 2
Spiritual trauma is real and can be devastating to those who experience abuse by religious leaders; the first part of this post included some of the most heart-wrenching words I’ve ever shared on this blog. I know this pain can be hard to take in, but I also believe that listening to those who have been harmed is the first step in deep transformation in our Church.
Thank you for caring.
If you would like to hear more about this issue, please consider listening to Awake’s upcoming Courageous Conversation with four wise panelists speaking on this topic - “Spiritual Trauma: Victim-Survivors on the Hidden Impact of Sexual Abuse.” We’ll gather on Zoom at 12:00pm CDT this Thursday, September 21; you can register here to join us live or receive the recording via email.
One thing the trauma did to me was to break, utterly and irrevocably, any sense that priests were a necessary intermediary between me and God, or that I owed some kind of deference to a person if I found out they were a priest. These priests at the heart of my trauma had left me totally unprotected from evil. At the same time, I knew that God had not abandoned me, even if the priests had. They had failed, God had not. From that moment I learned in a new way that God could be directly present to me in a way that nothing and no one could interrupt. The God who died on a cross, who carried his wounds even after the resurrection, would walk with me in my agony and in my healing, in those longest early days when the pain was too great to articulate, and in all the more recent days where the pain comes roaring back.
The spiritual trauma that resulted from my abuse is the deepest, most insidious and most damaging of all I’ve had to face. The abuse resulted in me being effectively shut down from any authentic connection to God, and I didn’t even know it. Part of the grooming process included the Monsignor telling me how disappointed Jesus would be in me should I resist the special “privileges” that I was being showered with (like being progressively molested, then raped repeatedly in grade school). As a teenager, I was told that nothing I did was good enough to please Jesus, so it (the abuse) had to be repeated over and over. There were times when I was told that God would punish me with hell if I didn’t cooperate or comply – and I did not want to spend eternity in hell. By the time I escaped the abuse, I had rejected all forms of religion and had zero connection to God or any spiritual being. That left a gaping hole in the deepest part of me – for many years, I was robbed of any solace that there was someone or something in the Universe who could console or protect me. Thankfully, I was able to eventually find a spiritual path, but not till decades later.
I endured spirit-crushing trauma at the hands of my priest abuser when I was a little boy. Yet due to my own strength of character, resilience, and God's grace, my spirit is not crushed. I live on. Overcoming, coping with, and finally healing from the spirit-crushing trauma has taken many years. I am comforted by the profound resilience of other survivors of clerical abuse, whether abused as children or as adults.
When I began to work through the moral injury of my abuse, I found myself going back to fundamental questions, ones that I had never really felt the need to answer before: Do I believe God is real? Do I believe God is active? Do I believe God has worked in my life previously... currently? Eventually, once those felt settled, the next set were much more difficult: Was God present in these moments of abuse? Did God see the course of action and choose not to intervene? How could a God who is Love allow this act that is so fundamentally devoid of love? I'm still working through these second set. I so desperately want to believe that God is not simply an uncaring bystander, and after years of hard work I mostly do. There are moments where I'm still learning how to make sense of it all, but I feel committed to doing so. When I answer those questions for myself, no human gets to have that power over my spiritual life ever again - not my abuser, not anyone but me.
I was in my teens the first time I was abused by a priest. I felt shame and lost trust in the Church. Eventually I left and became a Communist and an atheist. But, 10 years later, when I became a single mother, I thought I would give the church another chance. I went to the priest who baptized my baby to talk about returning, but he had another idea. I was sexually abused and again devastated. I reacted by sticking with atheism but was miserable in my heart and soul. Ten years later I approached the Catholic Church again to talk about all the abuse and try to develop a spiritual life for myself and my children. I made some very close and wonderful women friends but could not stop crying at Mass. Again, I left and changed religions. Twenty-eight years later I consider myself religious and have been involved with my chosen religious community for about the same number of years that I was Catholic. It has been a spiritual roller coaster, but I have grown and feel that God has been with me through it all.
I had what felt like a vibrant faith, grown out of some pretty painful trials and nurtured by what I found in common with a handful of like-minded friends and faith communities. Somewhere in the midst of untangling and recovering from abusive birth-family and romantic relationships I woke up to the fact that it wasn’t ok to call ANY kind of abuse ok, and that the “oh just put up with it” mentality was more than harmful, it was actually contrary to the Gospel. I now see that the majority of churchy people I know would not agree: they just want wounded people to sit down and shut up. And this is not love. This is not authentic accompaniment. This is not the good news of Jesus Christ. This is not watching and praying with Christ in his agony in the garden or waiting in sorrow with his mother at the foot of the cross. This is the abuses of my priests and bishops multiplied exponentially by the consent of their co-dependent followers. The Gospel has been so twisted by people I used to trust that, in self-defense, I sit through each Mass on high-alert, I spend most homilies angrily pacing the restroom, and I ditched my parish and my spiritual director and all church-based ministries.
The beauty of the sacraments is that they make grace real, tangible, human, communal. So when abuse turns them into triggers, you lose so much more than just rituals or whatever. I lost community, I lost my way of making sense of the world. Time has passed, so much has healed, and I frequent the sacraments again. God brought good out of this evil by teaching me to distinguish between God, his Church, and individual people who had hurt me. He brings life out of death. It’s kind of his thing.
I have to admit, spending so much time wading into suffering and sorrow can take a toll on my spirit and my sense of hope. Today, I am grateful to the wise woman who offered these profound words about God’s work in the midst of trauma: “He brings life out of death. It’s kind of his thing.”
Let’s all hold on to that.