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Survivors' Voices: What I Want to Say to Catholics, 2021
Friends, I am truly honored to share this post with you today, the first in what I hope will be a long-running series lifting up the voices of survivors.
Since sharing an invitation on this blog three weeks ago, I have received responses from 21 people who have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and agreed to share their voices in this way. I am grateful to be able to include a diverse collection of perspectives - from women and men, young and old, those who were abused as children and those abused as adults, those who have remained Catholic and those who have left the Church (and every gray area in between).
Full disclosure: Right now, this Survivor Voices Panel does not accurately reflect the demographics of survivors as a whole. I have more personal connections with female survivors, so the panel has a heavy bias towards women’s voices. Also, the majority of these respondents are people who have remained Catholic, which is by no means representative of all survivors. Finally, this panel only includes the voices of three people of color, which I recognize as a deficit, especially as we are coming to understand the underreporting of abuse in historically marginalized communities. I hope to continue to add voices to this panel and create more balance over time.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I would be honored to include your perspective in this “Survivors’ Voices” series. You can find more information and express your interest here.
For July, I asked the Survivor Voices Panel to share responses to this question:
What is one thing you would like to say to Catholics about the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?
This post contains responses directly from 12 survivors (some of whom shared more than one response). Each of these survivors speaks solely for themselves and their particular experiences. I have only made minor edits for spelling, grammar, and clarity. More responses to this question will be included in Part 2, which I will published next week.
Without further ado, here is what these survivors had to say:
I'd like Catholics to know that the response to survivors is NOT what it seems; I've received nothing in terms of help. And worse. This is despite Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the Pope's (supposed) bill of rights for survivors. I know for a fact that I'm not the only survivor in such a situation, and I suspect people like me are in the majority.
I believe clergy sexual abuse is greatly under-reported. Most victims I know have never reported. The climate is still not safe to disclose these secrets.
Within the sexual abuse, there is often spiritual abuse, which has been incredibly difficult for me to come to terms with. The name of God was used as a weapon, and many beautiful Bible passages were used to manipulate and control me. It has greatly affected my faith, and made me feel, in a way, that I was abused by God. My head knows that this is not true, but it wasn't just my body that was violated, it was my soul as well.
The problem is not fixed. Some strides have been made, but the default is still to protect the priest or bishop and to silence the victim.
Despite the fact that the abuse is not the fault of the victim, we still carry guilt and shame. Although many people think that clericalism is getting better, it is still alive and well, even if we choose not to see it. I have found I have received more empathy and compassion from those that have experienced deep pain or loss, or have themselves been victims. The most judgement and condemnation has come from scrupulous, conservative Catholics, many of whom were people that I was close to; that in itself was another form of betrayal.
Most abusers are charming and well liked. Do not assume your priest “could never.”
Please take safe environment stuff seriously and hold to a culture of accountability. Abuse can happen anywhere, but it's more likely to happen in places where safe environment rules aren’t in place. It's definitely the first thing I notice about a parish now - whether or not they apply this consistently, or whether certain people are the "exception."
Priests and parishioners quickly jump to "Church-haters" as the reason this issue comes up. The truth is too much to bear, so they jump to denial.
Throughout history, the Catholic Church has had soaring highs and deep lows. This crisis has truly been a new low in its broadness and scope. Pray to Jesus to heal the wounds of the victims and of the Church as we continue to move forward toward revision and accountability.
The responsibility of every Catholic is to be vigilant; if you see something, say something. Report to law enforcement.
One problem is that the sexual abuse is perpetrated by a man ordained in-the-person-of-Christ, another-Christ, a man referred to as “Father,” a person within a self-governing, powerful faith institution entrenched in history. For decades I cowered under this enormous mountain of impossible darkness. As a child the conflict, terror, and shame sent my soul hiding, my mouth silenced, my brain spinning in confusion and guilt, and my gut unable to function properly at times. To deny the negative effects of doctrine and praxis that link god too closely with select humans is a problem.
Victim isn't a bad word, and victims aren't people to be afraid of. We aren't something the Church needs defending from. As we learn in the Tenth Station [of the Cross], the Body of Christ is herself the body of a sexual abuse victim. Jesus himself suffered this abuse; He does not want you to look away from that, He needs you to love him in that.
The root of the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is abuse of power and clericalism. The power and authority a priest has over those entrusted to his spiritual care can easily become a weapon when a priest possesses evil intent. Clericalism leads to the pedestals so many Catholics blindly place priests upon, which enable sexual predator priests - both in their actions and in keeping their victims silent.
The reality of the response of the Catholic Church to survivors, is that “Your Mileage May Vary.” Things vary for survivors according to when and where you were abused and, in my case, who witnessed your abuse and their current position in the hierarchy of the church. Vos Estis was supposed to solve this problem, but it's not being enforced, despite my pleas to the Pope.
I would like Catholics to know that helping survivors should not have a “one stop shop” approach. It is not enough to have an office of protection or resolution. The laity and regular churchgoers have to be compassionate. The priests, other clergy, nuns and religious have to also welcome those in need of support. There has to be an end to slamming the door in the face of those in need, for when this is done, it is done to Our Lord, as He said in Scripture.
Part of the problem is that priests are accountable to no one but themselves. A priest has no wife or family to question him about unexplained absences, inappropriate behavior, flirtations, unhealthy relationships/boundaries, and it’s rare that a well-meaning parishioner would address it because “he’s the priest.” This gives a priest with evil designs prime opportunity to manipulate and take advantage of a vulnerable person he sets his sights on. This is not a problem of the past, this happens today.
Do not remain silent. If you see injustice towards survivors in your community or parish, say something. Silence from fellow Catholics is exquisitely painful for survivors. Educate yourselves on the effects of the trauma experienced as a result of sexual abuse by someone in the Church. Be gentle with survivors; we aren't perfect. We are striving to find our way in the midst of a great deal of pain. The place that was once safe for us turned into a place of physical, emotional and/or spiritual torture; coming back to that requires immense trust. We need gentleness, empathy, mercy, and love. Defending priests/parish staff who don't handle abuse well is not helpful. While praying for survivors is definitely a gift, we need action along with your prayers.
I am truly grateful to the generous women and men who chose to share their perspectives in this way, and I have more valuable perspectives included in Part 2 of this post here. Make sure you’re subscribed to In Spirit and Truth on Substack so you don’t miss future posts in this series.
Many of the survivors who shared their thoughts for this piece will be following along with the comment section as well. Feel free to post a comment to share your reaction or express your gratitude and solidarity with those who are speaking out in this way. (Of course, please keep in mind that this blog is designed to be a safe place for all survivors. I will delete any comments that I believe might cause harm.)
Do you know Catholics who might be open to listening to the voices of abuse survivors in this way? Please consider sharing this post with friends, family, and fellow parishioners so that we can work together to center survivors’ experiences and perspectives in our Church.
Thank you for reading. See you next week!