Why Get Over It Isn't Enough for Victims of Clerical Sexual Abuse

But if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.
—Nehemiah 1:9

The Book of Nehemiah has haunted me for the last twelve years, which is a long time to be haunted by a book of the Bible with only twelve short chapters, and which did not even exist until the Protestant Reformation. My relationship with it has grown to the point where I believe that we have to absorb the lessons of this book into our spiritual DNA if we are ever to rebuild the Church—especially in the West, where it faces not only spiritual enervation but demographic winter.

This prayer for forgiveness and healing is what lays the foundation for his later success, even though the rebuilding was long and difficult, humiliating, and occasionally very dangerous. So in terms of where we are today in the Church in the West, the activity of rebuilding—policies, guidelines, revitalising Catholic education, and pursuing Benedict and other Options—is not enough. It never is. It must be accompanied by spiritual and psychological healing of the damaged but living stones that make up the Body of Christ. But where do we even begin?

I think all of us have been damaged by the storms in the Church. I cannot think of a single person who has been engaged with the Catholic Church in the West in the last 50 years who has not suffered from the turmoil, priests and lay people alike. But I believe the most grievously wounded are those who have been directly harmed by the Church’s ministers through sexual and spiritual abuse.

I recently read an article in The Spectator by Australian commentator Christopher Akehurst, asking—not rhetorically—why clergy abuse victims needed compensation, and why they could not simply get over their problems and move on. I was ashamed to read it, because it encapsulated just why people hate the institutional Church. The answer to Akehurst’s first non-rhetorical question seemed to me glaringly self-evident: people who have been sexually abused as minors are victims of crime. They are perfectly entitled to ask for compensation. The Church failed in its duty of care; the Church can pay. There is a legal process in place for this now in many dioceses and jurisdictions, but unfortunately the Church has also shown itself very willing to pay people to “go away and speak no more.”

I still encounter Catholics who believe that accusations of clergy abuse are either made up by mentally unwell people; or form part of a complex persecution by mysterious enemies of the Church; or are cases of unscrupulous people trying to get money out of the Church; or all three. I always refer these people to the website bishop-accountability.org, which provides detailed accounts of thousands of individual cases of clergy abuse that have been legally proven. It makes for sickening reading, but sometimes that is the only way I can convince these people that this problem is both real and widespread.

I understand that some of this comes from a generational attitude where sexual abuse was not talked about. I also find that the person who is most emphatic about other people’s need to toughen up is usually profoundly damaged themselves. I would argue that overall, these people are a lousy advertisement for their own medicine. Toughening up has rarely made them better people, or kinder, or more tolerant, or more compassionate. I am sure we have all met—or even been—these people, and we would probably not instinctively turn to them in a personal crisis.

The second non-rhetorical question—why noisy and troublesome historical abuse victims cannot simply move on with their lives—is harder to answer. There is often a sense of false equivalence with abuse that took place in secular settings: as if the Church were just another institution, and as if being a priest or religious were just another trusted profession. Romano Guardini’s confronting essay on how the Church’s supernaturality immensely magnifies what goes on inside it, for good and for evil, puts paid to this argument. I was struck by how much, in my own case, prolonged spiritual abuse by a religious superior and later by a priest aggravated and complicated a pre-existing abuse history. The effect seemed almost disproportionate until I read Guardini’s explanation of this ecclesial magnifying effect.

The worst wounds left by abuse are not always in bodies, but in relationships. This includes a person’s relationship with God, their relationship with their true self as a child of God, and their relationships with other people. Abuse brings shame, which is powerful and very self-destructive—the act of being violated by another person produces shame in the victim. The wound of shame draws the violated person towards God, but at the same time pushes them away, because they feel as if they have offended him because their soul is so marked.

This tension can completely distort a person’s spiritual life, as true relationships with God and with others become almost impossible: keeping the lid on shame and secrecy absorbs all the energy that a person could be giving to developing intimacy with others. Given that we are relational beings, and that our mental health rises and falls on the strength and intimacy of our bonds with other people, the person who struggles to connect with others because of feelings of shame and pain will experience poorer mental and physical health. Abuse is profoundly isolating; the sense of being cut off from other people is powerful and debilitating.

The toughen-up school is also short on practical solutions. We have had two millennia of magisterial teaching, spirituality, theological and doctrinal developments, profound mysticism, and scriptural exegesis. More to the point, we have had two millennia of God coming down to earth at every Holy Mass ever celebrated. Is this really the best we can do—to say “Get over it” to people who now hate the Catholic Church so much that they cannot walk past any church without feeling nauseous? To say “Move on with your life” to people who are still practicing their faith, but who are sometimes hanging on by a thread?

In one sense, Akehurst is right. Compensation and legal redress do not heal spiritual wounds. These wounds are internal, and they hemorrhage, even though they may be bandaged. So how do we bring spiritual and clergy abuse survivors—those at the farthest horizon—back into contact with God through his Church? Do we abandon them to agnosticism, or cynicism, or let them join an evangelical Protestant community and hope they find comfort through that?

The Church has the medicine, but it seems afraid to use it. What we might call “sacramental confidence”—the confidence that the sacraments really are what they say they are, and do what they say they do—has been depleted at the diocesan and priestly level, but it had already been weakened by decades of indifferentism and poor priestly formation. Is it any wonder our priests do not believe they have what it takes to heal people and bring them back to God? They can barely keep ordinary Catholics in the pews as it is—what can they do with grievously wounded people who are angry at the Church?

Again, the toughen-up people are half-right. The brazen serpent—the Cross—is the real source of healing. But how do we bring people back to it? And how do we use that Cross—do we thrust it at people and insist they be healed quickly so that they will stop making us feel uncomfortable? Do we hit people over the head with the Cross and tell them to move on with their lives? Do we drop the Cross on them from a great height, and then tell them to offer it up?

I would suggest that the purpose of the Cross was not to make us better sadists or even masochists, but the reverse: to help end our suffering; to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. To bring that about we need a safe place, set apart from the institutional Church, where people can begin to acknowledge the disorder and havoc and spiritual wounds that sin—their own and other people’s—has wrought in them.

The Grief to Grace program was first launched in 2005 by American psychologist Dr. Theresa Burke, who created the enormously successful Rachel’s Vineyard program for people with post-abortion trauma and grief. Grief to Grace is a retreat program for people who have experienced abuse and trauma—spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual, clergy or intimate partner abuse. The program relies on the Church’s fullest understanding of the human person, what abuse is, and what healing is. This in turn is based on Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, and what he teaches us about the purpose, order, and dignity of human life and sexuality. This is how we can truly understand the nature and effects of these crimes of abuse against the person.

Grief to Grace is not political. It recognizes that many abuse victims are vocal and angry—but part of what they are angry about is that they have lost something that was valuable to them. They belonged to a Church which, instead of nurturing and protecting them, exposed them to unspeakable danger, or failed to help them when they really needed it. These people need and want to be reconciled with the Church and with God. Their anger is masking an immense amount of grief.

How does the program work? Grief to Grace helps a wounded person to reconnect with God and with other people, using Catholic anthropology, spirituality, and psychology. It is not a psychological program that helps people to heal first, before they return to God. It is the other way around: the participant has a personal experience with the living God which begins their inner healing. This is a dialogue in which Jesus speaks directly to the soul and finds out what they are really looking for. Most modern psychological treatment uses something called the therapeutic relationship—the rapport that builds up between the client and the trusted therapist—to produce many of its benefits, and this accounts for a significant percentage of clinical improvement. In the Grief to Grace retreat setting, the therapeutic relationship is created between the individual soul and Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician to whom the participant really can unite their own wounds.

The program is up to five days long, and is based on a sequence of large group, small group, and individual spiritual and physical exercises and activities. Broadly, it starts with exercises to help the person identify trauma and wounds that they want to bring for healing. People who experience abuse can become trapped in cycles of addiction or acting out as ways of trying to understand or soothe their pain. These retreat exercises help participants to identify and examine behaviors or attitudes which need to change.

The next stage is for participants to express and be validated in their suffering, and then to unite their individual wounds to Jesus’s Passion, death, and Resurrection. The focus on the Resurrection is tremendously important: the whole purpose of the Cross was to lead to it. Trauma survivors can become stuck at the Cross, in that they feel the pain but are unable to move past it. Helping them through this brings them to where everything is made new by an all-powerful and loving God, and where there can be hope for real change and greater peace in their lives.

The retreat program may admit up to 20 people, with a team of at least five trained staff. The team is made up of trained therapists who are experienced in the program, plus trainees and volunteers. Grief to Grace retreat programs usually mix men and women, and clergy and religious and laity, and clergy abuse survivors with other abuse survivors. When people begin sharing their wounds, it makes them more willing to see what happened to them as the effect of fallen human nature, rather than specifically a crime associated with priests, or men, or the institutional Church. When a woman hears a man describe his loss of dignity after being raped, or when a clergy abuse victim hears an abused priest’s grief, this can help to redraw their interior landscape and reconnect them with the rest of suffering humanity.

The program uses the Living Scripture model: the reading of a passage of Scripture, followed by a read-aloud meditation on that passage which invites the participants into the story as a character. These guided meditations can have powerful spiritual and emotional effects, bringing the person into contact with Jesus in experiences that can be similar to visions of the imagination. This practice has a long tradition in the Church, at least as far back as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.

The program also uses contemporary and evidence-based psychological approaches that treat trauma using somatic techniques. Trauma wounds the spirit, but trauma is also remembered in the body, and current post-traumatic stress treatment is just beginning to explore somatic healing processes. Grief to Grace uses simple rituals and physical movement in some exercises that allow release to take place. These include structured writing, drawing, touch (with defined limits), speaking, and movement.

Grief to Grace is open to Catholics and non-Catholics, and is best suited to people who are able to work in a group therapy setting. All participants are expected to share in each exercise as best they can, but no one is required to disclose anything too detailed unless they feel comfortable doing so, and with due regard for the trauma wounds of other people present in the group. The format of both one large group and several smaller groups helps people to build up bonds and to feel sufficiently safe to share more detail if that is helpful to everyone present.

Does this re-traumatize people? This is a major question about current individual treatments for post-traumatic stress, where it has become apparent that talking therapies risk re-traumatization because they bring the event up, but do not offer any resolution of it. By contrast, Grief to Grace is specifically designed as a process which leads participants through each exercise. No one is left stuck, reliving their trauma. Exercises involving anger expression are carefully managed and are a process with a clear beginning, middle, and end. If a participant begins to decompensate and risks dissociating, they can leave any session, accompanied by a team member who will help to ground them gently and then re-engage them in the process.

The program is licensed and runs at specific sites in the United States and some overseas centers, and all sites work closely with the Living Scripture Institute in Pennsylvania, PA, headed by Dr. Burke. Team members who deliver the program come from a range of backgrounds, and not all are mental health professionals: they must have the right human qualities and skills, but they also must be guided by the Holy Spirit and think with the mind of the Church. This keeps the program both safe and effective, and it means using real discretion in constituting a team, and careful ongoing formation of all those involved.

I attended the Grief to Grace program with sixteen other people when it was first brought to Australia in 2017 by the Archdiocese of Hobart. I was not remotely prepared for the degree to which it was going to change my life. I went there thinking that this program might take another layer off my grief. I also went there thinking that I had specific issues that would benefit from the program.

Instead, I found myself grappling with completely different issues that I did not realize were far more important to my spiritual wellbeing and growth. This helped to convince me that the Holy Spirit was at work, because it cut to the root causes of problems in a way that I had not been able to beforehand. And I was not alone; I saw other people in the program go through the same experience. I certainly grew spiritually as a result. I went through a harrowing near-death experience a couple of months after it, and I think the program gave me the strength and confidence to handle a tornado of spiritual purgation which turned out to be very good for me. I can safely say that I have never looked back.

One of the beautiful and unexpected things I saw happen as well, with myself and with others on the program, was the gradual realization and acceptance of our part in other people’s problems. Grief to Grace gives a person space to be heard, to clear the air, and to put down the burdens they have been carrying for so long, so that it becomes possible to see the next layer underneath, which is their own personal need to forgive and to be forgiven, by God and by others.

The push to premature forgiveness is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of abuse wounds. Both survivors and those around them sometimes attempt to short-circuit the painful work that needs to be done in real forgiveness, which requires interior work with God and with grace. People who carry a lot of shame can force themselves into a sort of pseudo-forgiveness, because they think (and are often told) that this immediate response is required from them to be authentically Christian. Meanwhile the pain and anger continue, and the shamed person now has an extra burden: they are still angry and struggling and are therefore un-Christian. Real forgiveness is always possible, but reconciliation is not always possible, especially when it is unsafe, and sometimes lasting and deep forgiveness is easier if a person does not see the offender again.

Psychologically and emotionally, forgiveness requires proper identification of the things that caused the injury, naming them, and forgiving them specifically. It can be unilateral and does not require an apology. But forgiveness itself is not an emotion; it is a real change and release of an offender from the debt they owe to the injured person. A wise priest once told me in Confession that it may be that I had forgiven an offender, but that my emotions were taking a while to catch up with that: I was waiting to feel forgiving, instead of relying on the action of grace. It also reminded me of the seventy-times-seven component of forgiveness; that sometimes it is a process.

The Grief to Grace program began to teach me about real forgiveness, because it allows time and space for the specific identification and naming stages, where healing begins in earnest. We need a very great deal of forgiveness in the Church today, but we cannot begin that without this three-step process of identifying the wrongs, naming the wrongs, and then doing the hard interior work.

Grief to Grace is also a healing place for other deep wounds in the Church in the West today, of which clergy sexual abuse is probably a symptom rather than a cause. There are Catholic marriages and families under great stress, suffering from infidelity, pornography use, incest, addictions, and domestic violence, sometimes among otherwise-pillars of a local Catholic parish and employees of Catholic agencies. These conflicts devastate innocent spouses and children, and deeply wound communities. Grief to Grace can be very effective in healing some of the trauma of a damaged marriage, or after divorce and legal separation with or without annulment.

In the Church at the moment we are in the season of the furrow, rather than of the harvest. We are in the same place that Nehemiah found himself: looking at a broken wall, an exposed city, and a demoralized and greatly diminished population. Yet Nehemiah worked patiently over time with every person who was willing to rebuild, and created the safe place for God to bring back those at the farthest horizon. Doing the outside work—rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem—is part of the process, but the inner healing work is equally essential. A Church that is healed from within will be a safer and stronger Church.  

Featured Image: Tim Holmes, The Healing Touch, taken on 29 September 1987; Source: Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Philippa Martyr

Philippa Martyr PhD is a medical historian, academic, and writer. She currently teaches in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Western Australia, is completing her Honours degree in psychology, and is helping to develop the Australian Grief to Grace site.

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