“Don’t let Satan get between you and the Church.”
Quite often, when a Catholic expresses anguish, disappointment, or spiritual disillusionment over revelations of sexual abuse by clergy—especially on social media—someone will attempt to reassure them with answers such as these. This is just one more sign that the Church—all of us—has not truly grappled with the sexual abuse crisis that was reignited in 2018 by the McCarrick saga. Platitudes and easy answers won’t get us through this. We must choose to allow ourselves and those around us to confront the gravity of every new revelation if we ever hope to move forward together.
Unfortunately, responses like these have become common within the Church and across social media. Regardless of anyone’s intentions, this approach can hinder the necessary process of healing. Yes, those who try to reassure genuinely want to encourage people to stay in the Church. After all, we believe the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation and possesses the fullness of Truth. But when someone is angry about evil or corruption in the Church, we can’t simply brush away or dismiss their concerns and recite passages from the Catechism.
We don’t always know the context of someone’s anger. Perhaps the person or someone close to them has been abused. Perhaps they once knew and trusted a priest who was later revealed to be a sexual predator. When the horrors of the crisis continue to add up, it sometimes only takes another local news story or one more in-depth report to shake someone deeply. Yet so often, some of us think trite and boilerplate responses are appropriate, when in reality they are unhelpful.
Such replies are problematic because they place the burden and responsibility for action on the person who has been wounded by the Church: do this, don’t do that, don’t think about it like this, you shouldn’t say that. It is a reasonable and human response to want to flee the Church when the Church is where you have been traumatized. For survivors, their loved ones, and others whose trust has been betrayed, the Church has failed to be a safe place to encounter God and neighbor. It is wrong to turn their response against them. And yet so many expect our fellow Catholics to make a Pelagian effort to sharpen their swords, remain on God’s side and not let the “bad guys” (Satan, Judas, anti-Catholics) win.
Another problem is the dismissive subtext: “don’t let this affect you too much.” This minimization can in some cases appear complicit in the abuse. It dismisses the expression of deep pain and disillusionment; it minimizes a normal, human response of confusion and disorientation that arises when a spiritual leader commits evil acts; it sometimes fails to acknowledge the gravity of the event itself (because sordid abuse stories ought to affect us). If we are honest, we should all be able to identify the moment when some particular revelation or story deeply affected us, shook our faith, or led us to cry out to God in lamentation.
Finally, ignoring the way in which clerical abuse undermines trust in the authority we believe Christ himself instituted leads us to ignore the impact that loss of trust has on the credibility of our pastors to teach, particularly on moral matters. Why should anyone listen to a liar, or trust someone who might have covered for another’s abuse? This is the crisis of authority in a nutshell. While we may be able to explain on an intellectual level how sinful and fallible men and women make up this divinely instituted Church, and that the Gates of Hell will not prevail—that doesn’t mean that we have resolved the matter. What does it mean to have faith in an authority that has been grossly misused? This is not an easy question to answer and it is dangerous to pretend that it is. We have witnessed conflict and schism in the wake of the most recent scandals precisely because this is such a difficult question to satisfyingly answer.
A dismissive approach upholds moving on, rather than moving forward. It sweeps aside the earth-shattering revelations we have all encountered in recent years instead of acknowledging the pain and confusion that have arisen because of them. But moving forward requires grappling with the difficulty. It is hard to sit with one another’s pain. It’s hard to say, “Yeah, me too, I have experienced disorientation and doubt.” But we have to try. We don’t breeze forward with easy, well-rehearsed answers to our deepest questions, but only by asking for and receiving the gift of faith from God. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
Recently, several Catholic licensed psychologists wrote that “Only true love and a clear-eyed, rational understanding will help heal the wounded and prevent more destruction to children, adults, families, and indeed, the whole Body of Christ” in “Clergy Sex Abuse: Why Do We Still Need to Talk About This?”. Theirs is what is known in psychology as a “trauma-informed” response, and while the focus of the article is how clergy can better respond to victims, the perspective they offer can also inform our lay responses to fellow Catholics who have experienced the real trauma of being part of a Church in which abuse and cover-up are regular and continuing occurrences and not only in the past. One of the reasons why we may not be able to acknowledge others’ experiences of disillusionment or pain in the wake of clerical abuse is that “cognitive dissonance won’t allow some to both love our Church and acknowledge her failures.”
The authors argue that “reestablishing safety within the Church and Her relationships is also fundamental to healing as a Body of Christ.” The concept of psychological “safety” is rooted in an understanding of clerical sexual abuse as traumatic. Trauma in this case is not due to the severity or depravity of particular abusive acts but due to the context, in a relationship of expected care with a spiritual leader on the part of the victim. It is therefore the case that all sexual abuse perpetrated by a man or woman in a position of spiritual authority is by its nature also spiritual abuse, not only sexual violation. This has far-reaching consequences that we must acknowledge. They write:
For those sexually violated by men and women in the Church, so much is destroyed; even God Himself, in some cases, has been stolen. Without understanding and compassion from clergy, the Church will remain a dangerous place for many. Unless clergy demonstrate some depth of knowledge about what victims are left with, they may seem aloof and uncaring, offering only a litany of mea culpas and platitudes and tone-deaf pleas to return to Church for healing…Given the repetitive and unremitting nature of PTSD, Church responses such as deflection, minimizing, politicizing, all scream one unhappy message: the Church is not safe.
When we understand this, we can see why some survivors leave the Church or lose faith altogether following abuse. The authors recount that fight, flight and freeze are all trauma responses, and the sense of being “stuck” in and reliving past trauma is a sensation that trauma survivors often experience. Understanding this, it may be easier to see how suggesting that someone shouldn’t flee to perceived safety outside of the Church when they encounter “Judas” or “sinful men” inside of it is not only unhelpful, but can contribute to reliving trauma in an ongoing way. Instead, there is a need to create safety in the Church—and here, policies and reform are a first important step—but to help one another truly feel safe.
Because sexual abuse is traumatic for victims—who are part of the Church—it therefore is traumatic for the Church. Catholics understand that all sin has social consequences. The effects of clerical abuse radiate outwards and convulse the Body of Christ. “We all suffer when a priest abuses someone—we lose trust in our priests and our Church; we suffer when victims suffer—whole families and communities undergo trauma when one of their members is abused,” they write. We cannot dismiss nor minimize the seizure, nor its far-ranging effects. We must acknowledge the suffering all members of the body have endured—differently, based on different experiences, but really and truly suffered. “Response and action/inaction reverberates far beyond the original events, manifests slowly over time and has the potential to damage the fabric of our Catholic community, leading to subsequent ‘collective trauma’ or to ‘collective healing.'” Abuse has impacted not only survivors as they try to re-engage with God and the Church after their trauma, but also all of us.
It is no wonder there has been a profound loss of trust in authority and in community among Catholics today. We must restore a sense of safety for all of us, together, somehow, if we ever hope to move forward in unity. The path and process to get there is unclear, but it must begin with acknowledging where we are, and how difficult it is to be here. We all want and need to feel safe in our Church again. We all want to trust the authority figures we believe as Catholics that God has given us to lead us to Him. How much of our own polarization and enmity and infighting is evidence of the damage to the fabric of our Church wrought by the collective trauma of the abuse crisis?
These Catholic psychologists recommend a process of “restorative justice,” rooted in “dealing openly with this issue,” including understanding, validating, and listening to survivors. All of us as members of the Church need to learn how to “sit with” victims, survivors, and fellow Catholics, as well as with our own very personal negative emotional responses to clerical abuse. How can we begin to lament together the evil done to victims as well as the harm done to our Christian community so that we can then begin the process of collective healing? Only if we are familiar with that discomfort will we be able to move forward, not insisting we have to put up with the relentless disappointment and pain of betrayal, but reassuring one another that even in these most difficult moments, God is with us, and will not abandon us when we struggle because of the evil done by those who have acted in his name.
Image Credit: Pixabay