The Archdiocese of Chicago recently released documents related to 30 Archdiocesan priests who have been accused of abusing minors at various times during the last half century. The topic is stirring for Catholics who continue to attend Mass every Sunday, and for those who long for a narrative that can justify their return. The news media has covered the story with much interest, sparking much debate about how the Catholic Church has responded to the abuse. However, a voice that is rarely heard is that of the actual victims/survivors. How has the recent release of documents affected victim/survivors? And how can we be of help to them?
It is complicated because many victims continue to live in silence, carrying a secret they never asked to hold. They work with us. They are good family members. They sit next to us in Church. They volunteer in the parish. They exert a lot of mental energy to fit in and hope that the burden they carry will go away. This past week, I have spoken with victims/survivors, and these are some of the reactions they shared with me about the news.
“The news in the Tribune today caused me much anxiety…..I’m wondering if the priest that abused me will be in the report.”
“Will my name be in the report?”
“I don’t need to read the documents. I understand the process of transparency, but I will probably take a pass.”
“Even just hearing about it has opened a crack in the dam.”
“Why do I have to deal with this on someone else’s time table?”
“ I had a dream last night that I was sitting in the back row of church, when I looked to see who the priest was, it was the offender looking exactly as he looked when I was a kid.”
“I have a different life now. I don’t want to disrupt it with painful memories of the past.”
I wish I had a magic wand that could wave away the anxiety and painful memories being stirred up. But the best I can do is to listen and be there for them. I tell them I’m sorry for what they have experienced. I strive to empathize with how frightening and courageous it would be to make a call to the Archdiocese and say, “I was abused as a child by a priest 30 years ago.” For many victims/survivors, just being able to say those words out loud and let go of their secret can provide tremendous relief. However, this is often just the beginning of a long and complicated journey towards healing and peace.
The Office of Assistance Ministry (OAM) has been responding to the needs of victims/survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy since 1992. Along with the rest of society, Assistance Ministry has continually had to develop and review best practices for outreach to victims/survivors. For example, this office has always made therapy available to victims and their families. However, today we know that some evidenced-based treatments are better than others for victims/survivors. Also, we have learned that it is common for victims/survivors to turn to alcohol or drugs to try and numb the memories and feelings related to the abuse. As a result, the Office of Assistance Ministry has provided appropriate substance abuse help to those in need, so that they can proceed to addressing the abuse.
The Office has provided eight-week support groups for victims/survivors with independent mental health professionals for those who feel they are ready to connect with other survivors. Additionally, Assistance Ministry has sponsored Peace Circles, which are built around the belief that wisdom is accessed through listening to personal stories. Rather than commenting on other people’s experiences, a victim/survivor can use their own emotional, spiritual, and physical response to generate a new understanding of their experience, and new possibilities for meaningful next steps in their lives.
The Office of Assistance Ministry recognizes that the Catholic Church has permanently lost many victims/survivors as a result of the sexual abuse of children. However, for some of these individuals, their relationship to the Church is an important part of their healing. Victim/survivors need room to feel angry about what happened to them. However, many have found that leaving the Church entirely creates the dilemma of their not being able to participate with their families in baptisms, Holy Communions, weddings, or funeral services in the Catholic Church.
One place that has become a transitional safe space for victims/survivors is the Healing Garden. Cardinal George dedicated the Healing Garden in 2009. The garden stands as a visible testimony to the suffering and pain endured by all victims. A Mass of Hope and Healing is held annually at the garden for these victims. Additionally, a Child Abuse Prevention service is held in the garden as a reminder to all, that we must continue to be vigilant today about ensuring the safety and protection of all children left in the care of the Catholic Church.
When they are ready to speak, the Office of Assistance Ministry will be there.
For more information on how the Office of Assistance Ministry helps victims of sexual abuse heal, please visit protectandhealchicago.org and www.archchicago.org/departments/assistance_ministry/assistance_ministry.shtm.