Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

I first met Jeannie years ago at a SNAP conference.  I continue to appreciate her wisdom, honesty, transformation and joy.

JR: Thank you for participating in this interview. I experience you as a nurturer or guide in various kinds of survivor healing efforts: the Farm, SNAP, and individual support. How would you describe your kind of advocacy?

 JW: Back in the early 90’s, Jaime, when everything ‘hit the fan’ for me, I was overwhelmed with memories of the abuse. They didn’t seem ‘real’ – I felt totally out of control of my life and yes, crazy, for lack of a better word. I started hearing about other people with similar experiences. I started reaching out – I jumped into the advocacy movement of exposing the crimes of the church without much focus on my personal journey towards healing. I researched priest’s assignments through the church directories for people all over the country; I worked with a reporter to expose the issues locally; supported other survivors… It took quite awhile and painful insight to realize that in my personal journey, I was using all the activity to keep one step ahead of my-self and outrun, so to speak, the work I had to do to reclaim my life and really heal my soul.

For me, now, advocacy has a much different meaning in my life journey. It’s much more ‘quiet’. I’m learning that responding, versus reacting to situations opens up opportunities to share my story and hopefully that offers support in a way that encourages people to ask more questions. Being observant and respectful of people’s ability to take in the scope of the traumatic effects of any kind of abuse is a tough challenge, when it can trigger my old pattern of outrage and the adrenaline rush of needing to challenge and change institutions and systems that enable abuse. I believe that becoming the person I was meant to be in this life – healthy physically, mentally, emotionally and especially spiritually – is an extremely powerful force that can instill hope and affect change. Encouraging other survivors to truly become them-selves is where the heart of my advocacy focus is now.

JR: You’re someone I see as deeply spiritual. What was your religious affiliation or identity growing up?

JW: I was raised Catholic; grade school education through a couple of years of college. However, I don’t equate spiritual with religious affiliation/identity anymore.

JR: We’ve talked about how, as unspeakable clergy or religious authority sexual abuse is, ritual abuse is even more difficult and upsetting for most people to even think about. What are your concerns and hopes about even discussing this topic?

JW: I have to say that even now, after so many years, my heart seems to skip a beat and I’m forgetting to breathe with this question. I wish I could say that it’s become a topic people are more willing to learn or talk about – at least think about – but in my personal experience, that’s not the case. This kind of abuse is very underground – a closed system usually involving groups of abusers. This elevates the danger involved in exposing this kind of abuse tremendously, which never should be taken lightly. And then there’s the credibility factor: exposing an individual priest as an abuser – doable; exposing ritual abuse groups within the church….?

The nature of the abuse itself – the grooming process, the ‘brainwashing’, the trauma itself, the isolation and the real, possible danger for the survivors are all things I’ve thought about through the years as I’ve processed my memories. In years past, I’ve asked questions of people much more in the know than I and I’ve always run up against doors that quickly close, but there are indications that there’s info known. Maybe someday. My concerns and hope go out to those who have experienced this kind of abuse; they are definitely not alone with their memories.

JR: Given that, can you say a little about your abuse experience?

JW: I experienced group ritual abuse involving priests and lay people. I was very young when it started and the ‘grooming’ process and abuse was extensive and traumatic. As I’ve mentioned before, my memories flooded out during a short period of time back in the early 90’s. It was years before I let myself talk about my memories outside of therapy or read about ritual abuse because I was terrified that I’d ‘imprint’ false memories into my brain. After a couple of years, through internet support groups like SNAP, I came into contact with other ritual abuse survivors. Time and time again upon hearing their experiences and me sharing mine, there were ‘rituals’ that were the same – people from all over the country. One gentleman even had known one of the priests involved in my abuse and talked about the priest’s abusive behavior towards him.

At a VOTF conference a man who was from a town where some of my abuse took place and was very familiar with a particular church building, knew exactly the room I described where I was taken to after a ceremony – down to a very unique door; I spoke with 2 women who suffered similar abuse in a parish very close to the parish I grew up in. Someday I hope that ritual abuse will be exposed – my experience certainly is not an isolated case.

JR: What have been some of your challenges in recovery/ healing?

JW: Certainly the credibility factor was a big issue for me at first. At first I kept my ‘flooded’ memories kind of off to the side. As I put pieces together, my life ‘story’ started to have a continuum that I never experienced before. I began to realize that I had always remembered so much more than I thought. A therapist I worked with would tell me over and over again that I had all the ‘answers’ inside of me…yeah, right! It’s turned out to be so true.

Another huge challenge in the beginning was the extreme changes that happened in my everyday life. I was a small business owner at the time who couldn’t run the business anymore in a town where I was pretty visible. Many catholic friends and many family members wrote me off – no questions about what happened – only condemnation. Everything in my life shifted. Nothing on my list of challenges is unique, for sure. Today, there are still challenges that pop up, but I’ve learned how to identify them, track them down, and deal with them in a healthy way. Not always easy, but certainly makes for a happier life!

JR: I think you have some valuable insights about re-programming (physically, mentally, emotionally) as part of healing from religious authority sexual abuse. Can you share some of what you’ve learned?

JW: Programming, Jaime, is SUCH a good word to use in describing the healing process! Physically…. I never knew that people “in the normal range” (I like to use that phrase versus just “normal”) felt their whole body at the same time! I grew up very disconnected from my body. I had to deal with many body memories throughout my recovery process. CraniolSacral massage therapy was extremely difficult but tremendously beneficial. (Very important to work with a therapist thoroughly trained to work with trauma victims!) I had to literally re-train my body to feel connected and remember touch and energy flow.

Mentally….. The first thing that comes to mind was my discovery that I had to go back and re-define words! What does “being safe” really mean? – much more than that I won’t be hurt today.

What does “friendship” really mean? – much deeper than someone just paying attention to me at the moment. etc. As a child being traumatized, I latched onto meanings that helped me survive. As an adult I had to re-define so many words through healthier eyes and experiences. Throughout my whole life, I’ve experienced situations where I can’t remember things no matter how hard I try. I’ve done a lot of reading about how trauma, especially early age trauma, affects the development of memory and that’s helped a lot in my understanding this difficulty. As a child it was far safer not to remember.

I’ve re-programmed my-self now to try and intercept the “you’re so stupid” etc. self-talk when my memory blanks out and slowly the “garage doors” – as I call them – don’t slam closed as often. Through CraniolSacral massage I’ve learned how to open them when they do. Present day stress at times still plays havoc on my memory and it’s a signal I have to pay attention to what’s going on.

Emotionally…. Again, from that very wise therapist who traveled with me on my healing journey… ‘my thoughts and emotions don’t define who I am – it’s what I do with them that matters’. It took me a long time to understand and realize that I did have control over what I did with my thoughts and emotions. I can go ballistic over something OR I could choose to simply look at it and respond in the best, healthiest, kindest, etc. way I could figure out. I’ll never forget a ‘homework’ assignment my therapist gave me during a time suicide seemed like a possible option to take away the emotional pain. I was to write down all the intrusive, depressive thoughts in one column – opposite I was to write down a minimum of 3 counter-active thoughts for each one. Example: I just want to go to sleep and never wake up. Choice: I could make a cup of tea and cuddle on my sofa with a blanket; go out into my garden; take a nap but set the alarm for 30 minutes. After the list was made I was to CHOOSE just one and act on it. A life changing exercise for me! I discovered I was scared to death of going outside the box of emotions and thoughts that were familiar and predictable – being happy was outside the box! In fact, I didn’t even know what being happy meant (another word I had to re-define for my-self). It took so much practice but now I know I can choose to live my life with a serene outlook even in the toughest circumstances. When it doesn’t happen easily, I can choose to do an attitude adjustment – my choice!

JR: Would you talk about your spiritual journey? What has been helpful? What have you gained?

JW: This is where my life now feels most fulfilled – in my spiritual journey. I feel I’ve finally made a connection to this world and universe. The most helpful breakthrough? Probably the recognition that the religious training (I prefer the word brainwashing) I took in throughout my school years had no critical thinking component – just the ‘believe us;’the church demands adherence. For me, breaking free of the tentacles of guilt, shame, fear, etc of leaving the church has been a long, hard fought journey. Watching survivors and supporters stand up to the church and expose the abuse and hypocrisy -so incredibly courageous – was an encouragement for me to grapple with the tough questions I needed to ask about the church myself. In the practice of just being quiet within my-self, I’ve come to know the God within me. I was created in God’s image – that I still fully believe and I have a purpose in this life. Learning to be in the present moment, I’ve become aware of how we’re all inter-connected in this universe.

JR: We’ve talked in the past about the addictive aspects of advocacy work or what happens for some survivors who take up public actions to expose abuse. What do you mean by that?

JW: I shared at the beginning of this interview about how I discovered I was using advocacy as a way to “out run” my dealing with the trauma of my childhood. My body learned very early in life how to kick in that adrenaline “rush” to help me survive the abuse and stay vigilant. The ‘rush’ became what I defined as feeling like I was alive. When I attended press conferences, support meetings, just getting together with survivors in my early days of advocacy, I began to notice that a collective agitation, anger often times surfaced and we ran with it…a feeling of being alive…but with an addictive quality to it.

Over the years, it saddens me to see some survivors stuck in that whirlwind… stuck in the beginning stages of healing with such raw emotions, anger, tears, clinging to the whirlwind because it is familiar and familiar often times “feels” safe. Advocacy can be empowering but it’s not a substitution for one-on-one therapy. What if we began to place the healing of survivors on the same priority level as advocacy? I think the time has come for us to take care of our own.

JR: What has worked for you to be less in a ‘Fight-Flight’ or ‘reactive’ mode, and more in an spiritually integrative mode in your day to day life?

JW: This is an easy question…….remembering to BREATHE!!  Does all kinds of good things. It gives me a pause to reflect and CHOOSE a response instead of a knee-jerk re-action; my whole-self gets a chance to participate in my-life moment; often times, with a moment of reflection, it becomes clear that whatever was rearing up to knock me off balance, really wasn’t all that important.                                     

JR: What is your sacred space now or what is sacred to you now?

JW: I think the sacred spiritual space for me now is when I feel connected to the universe; when I sense my purpose in life, guided by the creator of this world; when my inside matches my outside. What’s sacred to me now? Everything! My children, friends, my garden, waking up in the morning 🙂 I’ve learned to celebrate even the smallest pleasures. Someday, I’m going to be successful in encouraging survivors and supporters to gather together JUST to celebrate. Everyone’s invited!

JR: I know there is so much more to talk about and learn together. Thank you for your time and sharing. I hope to continue our conversation another time. Thank you!


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David Clohessy is the National Director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). I appreciate his courage and dedication to change laws, reach out to survivors and supporters, and be the face of a movement to end child sexual abuse, particularly religious authority sexual abuse.

JR: You’ve been at this work of speaking up for victims of clergy sexual abuse for many years.  What has changed for the better in this societal problem?

DC: Not nearly enough. To a small degree, I suspect kids are more apt to tell, parents are more apt to believe them, families are more apt to call police, police are more apt to investigate, prosecutors are more apt to file charges, juries are more apt to convict predators, and Catholics are more apt to believe independent sources (rather than just blindly accept whatever the bishop claims). But this is anecdotal and far from widespread.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, it still takes years – even decades – before victims can realize they’ve been hurt, the harm is severe, the effects are on-going, they can get better, they have legal options, their perpetrator is likely molesting others, and that they have the strength and a duty to act.

JR: What seems to be a new challenge as you continue to work to prevent and end religious authority sexual abuse?

DC: In the media and politics, one problem is called “issue fatigue,” which, simply put, means people getting tired of hearing about all this horror. But an even bigger challenge we face, I think, is what I call the “surely” problem. The conventional thinking goes: “Surely, after all these terrible media stories and expensive lawsuits, the church hierarchy has now reformed.” There’s plenty of basis for this assumption, because in virtually every other aspect of society (business, government, non-profit), a continuing crisis of this magnitude certainly would have brought reform.

But here’s the rub: the church is radically different than every other aspect of our society. It’s the world’s only global monarchy. In the United States, other secular – or even religious – institutions must respond to crisis or die. But not the Catholic Church. Only 5-6 bishops have ever been forced out of office because of the crisis. (And four of them stepped aside within the last few weeks in Ireland.) Otherwise, there’s not a bishop in the world who drives a smaller car, takes fewer vacations, does his own laundry, or has experienced any real consequences for covering up child sex crimes.

So the bottom line is this: those in decision-making capacities in the church hierarchy have no incentive to reform. In fact, they often see colleagues who have ignored or hidden child molestation getting promoted. And they see the extremely rare, courageous whistleblower (like Tom Doyle) getting ostracized. So the lesson priests and bishops learn is sad but clear: Do what we’ve always done, and you’re (at worse) safe or (at best) rewarded.

So not only have church officials not reformed, but they will probably never reform. Our challenge, then, is to help people understand that the alleged “reforms” adopted in 2002 in the US are largely unenforced and unenforceable window dressing, nothing more.

Finally, another challenge is to help non-Catholic spiritual figures avoid complacency and help allegedly non-hierarchical denominations (like the Baptists) realize they can and must do more to protect kids.

JR: What has been the impact on you over the years as a result of your advocacy?

DC: I’m a healthier, happier, and I think a more compassionate person. Whenever someone thanks me, I almost always respond “You’re welcome, but you should know that this helps me as much or more than it helps you.” My involvement in SNAP has been a life-saver for me and led me to a much more fulfilling, peaceful life.

I’ve become more pessimistic than ever about institutions reforming themselves, especially ancient, rigid, secretive, powerful all-male monarchies. At the same time though, I’ve become more optimistic about the willingness and ability of abuse victims to speak up, take action, heal themselves and protect others.

JR: At several events, I have seen you wear a photo of yourself at the time of your abuse around your neck. I know that many survivors do that and some prefer not to do that.  What is the value for you or for these conversations in wearing that photo?

DC: Here’s a secret. My real reason for carrying the photo is to show people that although I’m ugly now (you said it, brother), I once was cute! OK, all kidding aside, I think it’s crucial that people remember and clearly see that although some of us may present ourselves as somewhat competent adults now, when we were assaulted, we were innocent, vulnerable, confused, helpless kids. And it’s crucial that people understand that we’re not just fighting for healing and justice for ourselves, but for safer and healthier lives for children.

JR: SNAP began with a focus on Catholic priests or leaders because you, Barbara Blaine and others were abused by priests.  Is the reality that religious authority sexual abuse is pervasive in all religious groups? What have been some of your experiences and lessons learned in working with others from other faith traditions?

DC: Just to be clear, Barbara started SNAP, almost single-handedly. I’m grateful I’ve been with the group for 20+ years, but she deserves all the credit for launching this outstanding organization.

Both abuse and cover up are found in every religious group. A huge reason for that is structural. In public entities, there are at least a) some rules around disclosure and b) some “checks and balances.” With a school district, for instance, one can file “Freedom of Information Act” requests that militate against unhealthy secrecy. And one can defeat corrupt school board members in elections. But many denominations lack these simple, healthy, common sense safeguards.

Working with activists in other faiths has been tremendously rewarding and enlightening for me, whether it’s Rev. Marie Fortune or Christa Brown (StopBaptistPredators.org) or Julie Hokinson (SNAPPresbyterian). Christa has been particularly heroic and helps me remember that in many respects, those abused by Baptists face an even tougher road than those of who have been molested by Catholics.

Finally, some non-Catholic religious leaders, when confronted about recklessness, deceit or callousness in child sex cases, eventually defend themselves by claiming “Well, at least we’re not as terrible as the bishops.” That’s ridiculous, of course. The standard for spiritual figures must at least be “What would any decent person do in this situation,” not “Let’s look at what Catholic bishops do and do just a tad more or better.”

JR: What do you think have been some of the most significant developments in preventing and ending religious authority sexual abuse in the U.S. in the past 10 years?

DC: Tough question! Certainly SNAP’s growth and maturation has been significant because thousands have been empowered to start healing, expose pedophiles, change laws, educate others, and safeguard kids. The painstaking work of investigative journalists, starting with the Boston newspapers of course, has been very significant, because it has finally helped millions shed their illusions about church hierarchies. The belated and largely still timid response of police and prosecutors has been significant, because in a very real sense, it has taken some predator priests away from kids and put them in jail. The involvement of more lay people in exposing cover-ups and protecting kids is significant, especially through groups like Voice of the Faithful, Call To Action and others, because it shows lay people that they aren’t powerless.

It should be noted that much took place in the 1980s and 1990s that was significant and deserves honor. Few of us ever acknowledge the pioneering reporting done long before 2002 by journalists like Jason Berry, Gerry Renner, Tom Fox, Marie Rohde and Tom Roberts and others. Their ground-breaking work has enabled millions to better understand, and further expose, the hierarchy’s complicity.

Likewise, few of us even know about, much less appreciate, the many brave survivors who “went public” before 2002, notably Ryan DiMaria, the Gauthe victims, the Porter victims, the Kos victims, and others. They were, and are, significant because they paved the way for so many of us who came later, and helped make citizens and Catholics start looking beyond Boston and start realizing this is a truly global crisis.

JR: Can you comment on progress at the international level?

DC: It’s extraordinarily and painstakingly slow and requires even more courage and persistence than we in the US have shown and are showing. In most countries, religious figures enjoy a much more exalted status than here in the US. So abuse and cover-up are much more likely. And many nations have less aggressive journalism, a less independent judiciary, less well-funded law enforcement and fewer legal options for victims. That makes combating abuse, exposing predators, protecting kids and personal recovery much, much more difficult.

In the US, for decades, we somehow looked at each case that did publicly surface as an aberration. “Gosh, look, there’s a bad priest in Peoria. A couple of weeks ago, there was one in Idaho,” we’d think. Finally, in the early 1990s, we started to realize “Hey, there are a lot of these guys. And their bosses, the bishops, don’t seem to care or do much.” (Then, the Fr. James Porter case made national headlines, bishops pledged reform, and sadly, we slipped back into the naïve, comfortable but reckless assumption that things were pretty much getting better.)

Finally, in 2002, many understood that this is a systemic, on-going crisis or scandal that’s truly widespread.

I bring this up because we’re making the same mistake now on a global level. “Boy, did you hear about the problems they’re having with clergy sex abuse and cover up in Ireland?” one person might say. And the other person responds “Wasn’t there some of that in Austria or Italy a while back too?”

But we just have to “bite the bullet” and accept this sad, simple fact – abuse and cover up are in every diocese in every corner of the world, and more extensive than we’ll ever come close to knowing. Not were, but are. In any organization that excessively values loyalty and promotes clericalism and hoards power and lacks oversight, predators will hurt kids and supervisors will respond callously. We’ve got to stop asking ourselves “Gee, I wonder why the church hierarchy in this country or that country is so corrupt” and accept the fact that it’s corrupt across the board. That realization is the first real step toward progress.

JR: I’m particularly interested in how you describe your spiritual life at this point.  Can you say a little about what your spiritual life means to you now?

DC: I have no spiritual life and haven’t for years. I’m an agnostic, some days regrettably so, other days less so. To put it bluntly, I have no idea what, if anything, happens after death or what a ‘creator’ may want of us. But it’s crystal clear to me that right here and now, people are in pain and need consolation and kids are at risk and need protection.

The Anniversary of My Death,” a poem by W.S Merwin, probably best sums up my spiritual leanings or belief.

JR: Was there a significant time or event or decision that helped you to shift from being a survivor to what I call a thriver, a co-creator of her life, environment and by extension, the world?

DC: You flatter me. But in a nutshell, I attribute whatever growth or shift I’ve experienced to my incredible wife, tons of therapy, joining SNAP and filing litigation. It feels like every forward step I’ve ever taken has been because some loving person was behind me nudging me and another loving person was ahead of me and guiding me.

Filing my lawsuit helped show me that I’m not a powerless kid any more. Talking about the abuse helped me feel less dirty. (I talk about it openly now, because I’ve found that the less I act ashamed, the less I feel ashamed.) My first support group meeting was a huge breakthrough, because I finally couldn’t deny the simple fact that if the folks in this room weren’t to blame for their victimization, I’m not to blame for mine.

And hearing from Janet and Horace Patterson was a turning point for me. At that juncture, I really was ready to give up. But hearing and feeling their pain (and later, seeing their courage) really enabled me to commit to this struggle for the long haul.

JR: What do you imagine could be the best thing that could happen related to preventing and ending Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)? That’s a broad question, so how about for survivors to do and for non-abused people in society to do.

DC: Let’s start with the easy, common sense steps. We can all stop rewarding criminal and near-criminal behavior.

Let’s rescind honors to predators and enablers. In St. Louis, we have a public park named after a priest ousted because he sexually harassed underlings. In Toledo, there’s a street named after a monsignor who blocked a murder probe. In Wyoming, a wing of a children’s home is named after a bishop against whom five child sex abuse lawsuits have been settled. This callousness deters victims, witnesses, whistleblowers – young and old – from speaking up, exposing predators and protecting kids. (“Why bother saying anything. No one will believe me or do anything.”) And it rubs more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of suffering victims and betrayed church-goers.

Let’s also stop promoting the corrupt. In Rome, the ‘poster child’ for self-serving, arrogant and deceitful bishops – Cardinal Law – enjoys a position of vast power and prestige. An auxiliary bishop harshly criticized in the Philadelphia grand jury report, Joseph Cistone, was recently promoted to run his own diocese. A complicit Louisville auxiliary bishop has just been elevated to run the Owensboro diocese.

If the callous or corrupt are promoted and praised, they will be emulated.

Next, let’s put our money where our mouths are and stop supporting corruption. We have so little power, it seems to me. So why give money to institutions that endanger kids when you can give to ones that protect kids? Why squander what little you have? Why, if you’re upset at what’s happening, do you keep supporting what’s happening with your money?

Next, let’s get brutal with those who suspect or see or know of child sex crimes but stay silent. That’s how to show we’re serious about kids’ safety and how we deter callousness and complicity.

I’m morally opposed to the death penalty. But even if we executed child molesters, we’d still have child molesters. The threat of execution, I believe, doesn’t and won’t ever deter compulsive, driven predators.

On the other hand, though, the threat of a mandatory five years behind bars (or similar penalties) may well make a timid teacher call the child abuse hotline about a colleague. To me, this is just common sense.

(These ‘mandated reporter’ laws are commonplace but rarely enforced and carry very lenient sentences.)

Finally, and perhaps most important, let’s reform or eliminate the archaic, arbitrary, predator-friendly statues of limitations that give criminals and their accomplices incentives to intimidate victims, threaten witnesses, destroy evidence, fabricate alibis, hide wrongdoing and ‘run out the clock,’ then keep hurting others. Keep in mind the root cause of the crisis – the virtually limitless power of bishops and the structural inability of institutions to reform themselves. Given these two facts, it’s crucial that we increase the role of the time-tested, open, impartial justice system – both criminal and civil – to catch wrongdoers more quickly and to deter wrongdoing more effectively.

On our website there’s a very specific list of about 20 others ways people can help:  http://www.snapnetwork.org/links_homepage/wanna_make_difference.htm

JR: What or who inspires you as you continue to work to end CSA?

DC: Since “day one,” I literally felt thrilled every time a survivor gave a media interview, pursued criminal charges, filed a civil lawsuit, starting going to therapy, or disclosed to his or her family. Honestly, that thrill has barely diminished over the years. I still often get Goosebumps when a survivor tells me “I bought The Courage to Heal today,” or “I called and made an appointment with the sex crimes detective” or “I told my husband last night.”

Specifically, Christa Brown inspires me. I just can’t imagine a more recalcitrant church hierarchy than the Southern Baptists. I’ve seen Baptist officials be stunningly cruel to her – in person and in print. Yet she soldiers on, with class and compassion, against phenomenal odds and relentless opposition. Somehow, there’s virtually no bitterness in her, which astounds me. (If you aren’t familiar with her blog, you should check it out: StopBaptistPredators.org)

Barbara Blaine inspires me. No matter how tired or busy or dispirited we are, her ‘default’ setting is permanently on “Let’s do it!” And so often, we push beyond what we ever thought we could do, and the results are terrific. There’s a reason SNAP exists. And there’s a reason we’ve been around 21 years. It’s her indomitable spirit and drive and energy, plain and simple.

Barbara Dorris inspires me. She works incredibly hard while being calm, caring, and competent. Without a doubt, she has the best sense of humor in our movement (though Peter Isely right up there too).

Judy Jones, Dan Frondorf, Joelle Casteix, Bob Schwiderski, Joey Piscatelli, Mary Grant, David Brown, Ann Webb, Peter Pollard, Beth McCabe all step up to the plate often (despite jobs and families and other obligations), seeing and seizing opportunities to reach out and help to survivors. . .I could go on and on and on. . .

The younger survivors who’ve come forward in their teens and 20s amaze and inspire me – Megan, Sean, Brandon and others. My younger brother Patrick, who has overcome so much pain in his life, inspires me.

And I’m inspired by, and extraordinarily grateful to, lay Catholics who could easily have turned away from our struggle but instead embrace it: Anne Barrett Doyle, Terry McKiernan, Carolyn Disco, Kris Ward, Paul Kendrick, Frank Douglas, John Shuster and so many others.

I’m also inspired by social movements like the struggle for civil rights in the US. I’m grateful that our efforts, while often met with hostility; don’t provoke beatings, lynchings and jail. I’m in awe of the fearlessness and sacrifice and determination and grace of those who fought and fight for all oppressed people all across the US and the world.

About every three months, I re-read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which might be the most inspiring piece of writing I’ve ever found.

Poetry inspires me. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Hunchback Girl,” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” ee cummings “Conscientious Objector” all speak very powerfully to me and energize me.  I read them over and over, and have these and other poems taped to my medicine cabinet and my laptop.

Finally, I have to mention several quotes which I use in speeches often. Martin Luther King said “No lie lives forever.” Gandhi said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eugene Debs said “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” And Calvin Coolidge said “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

JR: Thank you for your time, honesty and dedication to promote healing and end child sexual abuse everywhere.

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I am pleased to share an interview with Marianne Benkert, M.D. in today’s Healing and Spirituality.  Dr. Benkert has served as past president of the Baltimore County Medical Association, and chair of the Ethical and Judicial Affairs Council of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland and in the UCSD psychiatry residency training program. She co-authored “Religious Duress and its Impact of Clergy Abuse Victims” with Tom Doyle.

J.R.   As a psychiatrist, you have worked with thousands of people directly and indirectly impacted by clerical sexual abuse.  What are some of the psychological imprints or traumas related to children who are abused?

M.B.   Childhood sexual abuse always interferes with the normal tasks of child development.  The age of the child at the time of the abuse, the natural resiliency of an individual child, as well as the severity and length of time of the abuse will be important factors determining the damage to the child. The sexual abuse of a child shakes and shatters their sense of safety and trust.  The child’s natural sense of playfulness and freedom is replaced with the burden of fear, shame and guilt.  The development of a healthy self-esteem is impaired. The child is confused about what the abuse means. When the abuser is a cleric the confusion is intensified. It is important to understand that for most victims the psychological trauma is not truly appreciated until adulthood.

J.R. What are some of the big challenges you see with adults and their healing when they begin to deal with their childhood sexual abuse?

M.B.  In adulthood, reasoning, judgment, abstract thinking and ability to integrate past experiences reaches its full development.  Only in adulthood can victims of sexual abuse understand how the damage of the abuse has touched them, and impacted on all aspects of their life. Adults may have to deal with one or many of the problems associated with their sexual abuse.  Problems often encountered are sexual disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety reactions, isolation, violence, troubled marital and familial relationships, multiple physical ailments, employment problems, depression, sexual ideation, and even suicide.  One of the biggest challenges for the adult victim to deal with is the sense of shame.  They feel they should have done something to stop the abuse and blame themselves for not doing so, feeling they were in collusion with the abuser.  They need to understand that this is a common feeling and that they indeed were used and abused for the gratification of the abuser.

J.R.  I think the article you co-authored with Tom Doyle, “Religious Duress” is profound. What prompted you to write it?

M.B.   Some of us who have been involved with the sexual abuse issue have talked of the added layer of trauma placed on the victim when the abuser is a cleric. We wanted a phrase that would help explain this special layer of trauma.  We spoke of the pressure that Catholics experience in the church where the levels of authority are so stratified.  We described this pressure as religious duress.  Tom Doyle and I collaborated on an article published in Pastoral Psychology (June 2009).  We felt this concept was not fully appreciated and wanted it to become more widely understood.

J.R.  Some people might say that a religious practice that does not question is a kind of mind control.  That’s blunt.  I have seen bumper stickers and t-shirts that say “Recovering Catholic”.  Can you talk about stages of learning or psychological issues for parishioners related to Religious Duress?

M.B.  Religious duress is psychologically a specific kind of constraint and threat that affects members of the Catholic Church because of its clerical power structure.  This is a structure that fosters awe of the priest.  The priest is like no other.  He represents Christ on earth.  To a devout Catholic, the priest is conferred with a trust that he did not earn as a person but because of his special calling as a sexually celibate ordained priest, representing Christ on earth.  He is the mediator between God and man.

Although this unhealthy deference began to diminish after the 2nd Vatican Council it remained strong enough for the Church to effectively muzzle the sex abuse cases which began to surface in the mid-80’s.  By the 90’s many people began to question the Church and its priests as suspect.  It was the Boston cases in 2002 which caused the American Church to explode and shocked the faithful.  Worse than the damage inflicted by individual priests was the negligence and incompetence of their leaders.  Now it was exposed for all to see.  I believe that parishioners are now more knowledgeable about how the Church operates and are becoming more mature in the decisions they make for themselves.

J.R.  If the Catholic Church leadership/hierarchy was a patient, how would you diagnose its major issues?  What kind of treatment might be helpful for it to realize healthy relationships?

M.B.  I would classify the Catholic Church leadership/hierarchy as a dysfunctional system.  It has shown this most clearly in the reaction to the sexual abuse cases.  It is a clerical power structure and has used all its resources in protecting its clerical members rather than reaching out to its most vulnerable members. The laity are the Church also, yet when sexual abuse happens, the victims are seen as a threat against the Church.  I would ask the hierarchy to stop worrying about their image and try to emulate the humility and simplicity of Christ in order to be more like Him, rather then focusing on maintaining their power. It might then be possible for the Church to reclaim some of the credibility and moral authority it has lost.

J.R.  Do you experience spiritual depression as well as psychological depression on the part of those who come to you?  How do you understand and respond to that?

M.B.  As a psychiatrist I have treated many people with depression.  I do not distinguish between psychological and spiritual depression.  People with severe depression feel cut off from everything that had meaning to them. They are unable to feel spiritual comfort.  Loved ones who reach out to try to comfort them are dismayed when they are rebuffed. The depressed person feels totally alone, joyless, helpless and hopeless. That is the pain of depression.  Each person has their own story but with the proper treatment, the pain of depression can be alleviated.

J.R.  Regarding soul death?

M.B.   There have been articles written about soul death and soul murder.  I see both these phrases as descriptive of the terrible consequences of sexual abuse by someone who is trusted and esteemed.  In the past, there was no one held in more esteem and respect than the Catholic priest because of his role as mediator between God and man, essentially a Christ figure.  The more trusted the abuser, the greater the trauma.  The priest held power over all aspects of a person’s life, and held the power of eternal salvation or damnation in his hands. The power entrusted to the priest was all encompassing. The trauma of the abuse feels as if life has been taken away.  What more is left?  How do you describe this feeling?  The perpetrator has committed soul murder; the victim experiences this loss as soul death. But healing can take place. Victims can be empowered in many ways and for each person they must find what gives them strength.

J.R. How has your religious or spiritual identity changed over the years you have worked with victims of sexual abuse?

M.B.  As a psychiatrist I have had the privilege of sharing in the life struggles of many thousands of people.  Their struggles and suffering have deeply moved me, and I have been inspired by the courage they have shown.  In more recent years, I have been dismayed by the clerical sexual abuse crises and the way the Church has responded, causing additional trauma to the victims.

J.R.  What do you see in society that encourages you about healing related to religious authority sexual abuse?

M.B.  The most encouraging change is that the legal system has been able to penetrate the secrecy of the Church.  The Church is now forced to be accountable for the actions of its clerics.  It is the legal system that has forced the Church to hand over its documents and secret archives.  The workings of the Church are becoming part of the public record, and more will be revealed.  The Church can no longer control the media and influence the legal system as it once did.  Victims are becoming empowered and are able to tell their stories.  Society is listening and learning.

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In the context of either-or thinking and behavior, I believe that today’s interview illustrates both-and experience: both survivor and spiritual mentor; both religious and critical of institutional callousness.  Lindy Morelli is a Carmelite nun, counselor, and spiritual director. Her organization, Solace of Souls, believes “that persons who have had the experience of being rejected or wounded by their faith communities (for whatever reason) find it almost impossible to have a meaningful faith journey without experiencing healing and spiritual support/guidance, and that they fit into the “poor” to whom Jesus instructs us to give a preferential option, and we believe that this work constitutes loving our neighbor.”

Find out more at www.solaceofsouls.org and www.alabasterheart.org

JR: Survivors have a wide variety of responses to the church.  Some join other churches and some stay away from religion entirely.  I think it’s extraordinary that you’re a survivor and also a Carmelite nun. Can you give a little background about yourself and how you reconcile those aspects of your identity?

Even before the sexual assault by a clergy person happened, I had a deep personal faith in a personal God who was living, real, vital and I had built my life on making my relationship with this God the center of my life and the purpose for my life.

My faith was rooted in this deep personal relationship with God, and although I encountered a great crisis when the institutional church responded to the abuse I suffered in a way which I perceived as calloused and re-victimizing, I believe that it was through the grace of God alone that I was able to separate the institutional church from the living God.  The institution was not God for me, and although I was profoundly traumatized by their lack of attentive caring regarding my sufferings, my faith in the God I knew and loved and who I also experienced as loving me, went on and grew in spite of the institution’s great failings.

My call to give my life to God as a Carmelite, and the call I have responded to live as a person in consecrated life in vows (as a nun) is also rooted in the fact that giving one’s life to God and feeling the desire to respond to God who has loved one, is indeed that, a response of love for love; it is giving my response of yes, to the God who has shown Him/herself as the God who has loved me and who has invited me to be in deep union with Him/herself.

Carmelite spirituality is a call to prayer; it is a call to pray for others, and it is a profoundly joyful life of love; love for others, service and love for other who are in need, and a life of deep love shared with God, myself and the whole world. No crisis, no tragedy, no abuse, no matter how shattering, can affect this type of spiritual groundedness in knowing one is loved, because this love I have experienced is supernatural and eternal.

I hope this answer is not too abstract, but the point is that, when one has been touched by God, crises, traumas and tragedies e.g. abuse can be healed and overcome.  The pain of such abuse no matter how all -encompassing can be transformed and used for good and that is what I have tried to do with my experiences of pain.

JR: You are a counselor. How has your work as a counselor related to your personal experiences?

I was studying to be a counselor before the abuse occurred.  It occurred while I was in graduate school.  I found my study then, as well as ongoing study, in psychology to be helpful in my own healing journey.  My own study has given me insight into myself and into what may be healing for others.

JR: We’ve talked about the need for survivors to really engage in therapy or whatever helps them to process and/ or let go of their toxic feelings or ideas related to their abuse, as a way for survivors to reconnect with their spirits or spirituality.  What has helped you to do this inner work?

I initially went to therapy after the abuse occurred and while I have found certain types of therapy helpful, for the abuse itself, and for the re-victimization which happened because of the actions of some church officials, I did not find therapy helpful.  I attended twelve step groups and found that environment to be a non-threatening safe place for me in which to work through serious emotional issues.  I feel that God, once again, sent the right people at the right time into my life to help me and I strongly believe that the healing I have received has come through the grace of God.  I personally do not believe that therapy alone can affect such deep and profound thorough healing and I experienced healing and release from painful recurring memories at a deep level through my relationship with God and through contemplative prayer.

As a Carmelite, I feel called to engage in deep communion with God, and in my experience, the healing that has taken place in my soul at a very deep level has been a gift from God as I opened myself to God in silence, in transparency and in prayer, setting before God all the misery of my heart and asking for help.  Healing also occurred for me as I was able to tell my stories over and over to a very select couple of persons who I believe were sent to me by God.  Because these persons were gentle, nurturing and nonjudgmental, affirming, compassionate and very, very tenderly discrete in their responses to my pain, I was able to regain integration of myself body, soul and spirit. I, too, believe this was a gift from God.

At that time, I had a very special friendship with a caring person whom God put into my life, and we spent a lot of time in nature, hiking and be out of doors in very quiet peaceful places, near running water, out in the spring time sun, listening to the birds etc.  I believe strongly that healing happened in me by being in God’s creation and that nature has the power to restore.

JR: What has helped you in your spiritual journey?

As a Carmelite, certain autobiographies of people who have discovered the true meaning of life have given me purpose and fulfillment.  As a very young child, I realized, perhaps because of my total lack of sight, or because God gave me  special blessings, that life was very short and that nothing was lasting except love and how one loved others.  Nothing for me was lasting except God.  I knew this from an early age, so when I read of other people who had also suffered in very deep and profoundly painful ways, and when I read about how they made sense of their suffering, by realizing that this life is not really what we are truly living for, I was able to find great joy and new meaning.  Such persons as Theresa of Lisieux, and reading her autobiography Story of a Soul helped me unspeakably and immeasurably.

JR: What would you hope for survivors or others with respect to healing?

I think church officials need to be held accountable for the negligence in the ways they have not handled enumerable cases of abuse.  I feel that this also is a deep spiritual problem.  No amount of money paid out in law suits can truly heal survivors and their families in my opinion, because unless the church and its leaders (and those responsible) change from the inside and truly show that they are completely regretful and changing in the ways they have neglected poor helpless shattered victims, nothing will help survivors.

What do you hope for survivors and their spiritual development?

I would like to offer days of retreat, individual spiritual/companioning or guidance to survivors and their families who are ready to grow in that facet of their lives.  I do believe that without the spiritual component of one’s life being addressed nourished and healed, true integration and a complete possibility for an abundant life is not possible.

JR: You’re beginning to work with survivors and supporters to offer spiritual development support to survivors and supporters.  How is that going?

For a long time, I felt like I encountered inconsistency etc, but I have great respect for people’s limitations, and trust that when and if something is to materialize it will. I have a heart and gifts for it, but I didn’t have any real connections with groups of “survivors”. I do not want to agonize or force anything to happen even though it is in my heart and mind, because I want it to be done in peace and to be what God desires.

I still want to help people who have been hurt along these lines, but the timing has to be right. Recently, I got one call from someone who said she needed help. It is good to know that some people are indeed ready for inner and spiritual work!

JR: What inspires you?  Who are some of your heroes?

Saint Therese of Lisieux would be one of them, because she was able to transform her deep sufferings into something which was beneficial for her development as a person and into something that benefited others.  There are lots of other reasons why she would be an example I would like to follow, but those reasons are too hard to explain in this post.

JR: Thanks so much.

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Virginia Jones co-founded a group, Compassionate Gathering (www.compassionategathering.com) with clergy abuse survivor, Elizabeth Goeke, to bring survivors together with other Catholics for mutual healing and understanding.  Other survivors and supporters came to the group for healing.  One supporter decided to walk across Oregon in 2008 to stop child sex abuse. She asked Virginia for her help with the media.  Virginia saw the potential for healing and outreach as well as consciousness raising and walked across Oregon again in 2009.  She plans to keep walking across Oregon every summer to end child abuse.

JR: How did you get involved with the work to promote healing from clergy abuse?

VJ: I think this work found me rather me finding it.  I was baptized Catholic in June 2001.  Eleven months later the dynamic Franciscan priest who baptized me was removed because he abused boys.  My first response was to believe everything the Catholic Church said, but from the very beginning something bothered me.  Church leadership seemed insensitive to the needs of ordinary parishioners for healing.  Our church had a wonderful Parochial Vicar, Fr. Chuck Talley.  Fr. Church presided over several forums in the weeks that followed the removal of the abusive priest.  People were very angry, very hurt, and very divided.  Fr. Chuck managed to reach out to everyone on all sides and make them feel cared about and welcomed.  But instead of making Fr. Chuck pastor, the Franciscans brought in a priest who I would describe as emotionally clunky.

The result was parishioners began to drift away from the parish.  I began my own slow, anguished search for the questions the Franciscans left unanswered.  In the process I discovered that the abusive priest’s proclivities had been know for more than twenty years and that the survivor who had come forward more than twenty years before, had never been properly cared for.  I shared my newfound knowledge with other parishioners and got myself kicked out of my parish.  Several months later, a new Franciscan pastor of the parish, Fr. Armando Lopez, apologized to me for how I was treated by previous church leadership and eventually supported forums being held in the parish on the issue of clergy abuse.

JR: What has been difficult in these efforts?

VJ: Remaining in the Catholic Church after being thrown out of a parish was incredibly difficult.  The disbelief and lack of support from other parishioners has been incredibly difficult and disheartening to cope with.  This work has also taken an enormous toll on my private life.

JR: What has been surprising or positive?

When we listen compassionately to someone who is deeply wounded, we become a part of his or her healing process.  Helping someone heal is incredibly uplifting.  The Compassionate Listening also helps survivors of clergy abuse forgive and reconcile.  Reconciliation feels wonderful for everyone in the room not just the people reconciling.  I think if more survivors and other Catholics understood how healing and uplifting the reconciliation produced by Compassionate Listening is, they would be rushing to participate.

JR: When I heard about your walk across Oregon, I was reminded of Peace Pilgrim, a woman who walked across the U.S. several times in the 70s/80s for peace.  How did you come up with the idea of Walk for Oregon??

In September 2007, a woman whose children had been abused by a family member heard about us on local NPR affiliate in Oregon.  Not only were her children not abused by a Catholic priest, but her family wasn’t Catholic.  This mother wanted justice for her children but found many closed doors.  She wanted to connect with people working on sex abuse.  She kept to our Compassionate Gatherings for emotional support.

The first Walk Across Oregon was her idea.  She saw a documentary about Granny D running for senate in New Hampshire and walking around New Hampshire to publicize her ideas and decided to Walk Across Oregon to rally people to put an end to the statue of limitations on the criminal prosecution of abuse.  However, her children were so afraid of the man who abused them; they forbad their mother from revealing her name in public.  The mother asked for my help with both walking and speaking to the media.  I also helped with writing an itinerary, press releases and contacting the media.  Although I agree with ending the statue of limitations on abuse cases because the lack of access to justice is really wounding to many survivors, outreach and support for healing were always my focus.  The law the Mother wanted passed the Oregon legislature in the first half of 2009, so she went her way, but I decided to keep walking Across Oregon because the opportunities for outreach and healing were so enormous.

Because my children are still relatively young I adapted the Walk to their need to have fun.  It turns out that we make more contacts with other people when we have fun.  Fun, particularly fun in nature, is also healing.  A domestic violence survivor and a child abuse survivor accompanied us on the 2009 Walk along waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.  Both found walking by waterfalls very uplifting and healing.  We plan more time spent both walking through towns and relaxing in nature on the 2010 Walk Across Oregon.

JR: You also host Compassionate Listening sessions.  How did these begin?  How are those going?

VJ: Our Compassionate Gatherings during which we listen to people wounded by abuse on all sides of the issue grew out of forums on clergy abuse I helped to inspire in my parish.  Unfortunately these forums were run by lay people employed or under contract with the Catholic Church.  When one couple talked for fifteen minutes about their pain over finding out that an abusive priest served in our parish, she allowed them to speak uninterrupted, but when I brought up the painful truth about leadership knowing about the abusive priests’ abuse, failure to care for the survivor, failure to remove the priest from ministry, and failure to tell parishioners about it, she attempted to stop me from speaking and allowed other parishioners to interrupt me, criticize me and put me down.  I found the forum incredibly painful. The lesson I learned is that not many Catholics, either leadership or parishioners, are able to embrace compassionately the stories clergy abuse survivors tell.  Following one forum, while doing research on the Internet, I found a reference to The Compassionate Listening Project.  I knew instinctively that Compassionate Listening was what is needed to bring all sides together.  I started studying Compassionate Listening with The Compassionate Listening Project

We humans think we are compassionate.  The problem is we are often triggered to anger or pain by words that challenge our beliefs.  Catholics want to believe in the goodness of their Church.  The stories survivors tell are painful for them hear.  It is not that the people of the Catholic Church are evil or uncaring, they are just wounded and scared themselves, and they don’t know what to do.  They are wounded that so much abuse happened in their church.  They are wounded by scandalous media stories and expensive lawsuits.  They want to believe that everything has been taken care of.  Finding out that there are still many wounded people who don’t feel cared for and supported and that abuse still takes places, is incredibly painful.  Healing the wounds of clergy abuse is a spiritual journey for survivors.  It is also a spiritual journey for the people of the Church.  Just as we can’t expect survivors to forgive and forget and move on quickly, we can’t expect the ordinary Catholic to “get it” and heal their own wounds and do the right thing by clergy abuse survivors quickly.  Many Catholics don’t have the emotional tools to listen, process and respond compassionately to the stories clergy abuse survivors tell.  But these skills can be taught and that is what Compassionate Gathering does.  We train our members to listen compassionately.

We haven’t helped large numbers of people.  This is a step-by-step process of helping one person, one family at a time.  We have also listened to parishioners.  From the very beginning, people other than clergy abuse survivors have been attracted to our Gatherings.  We ended up listening to anyone who came to us.  At the same time, this practice of compassion for the whole community increases our legitimacy within the Catholic Church.  We aren’t simply going after the Catholic Church; we provide a service for the whole community.  Moreover we have been enriched by people who have nothing to do with the Catholic clergy abuse issue, for example the mother who inspired the Walk Across Oregon.

JR: You strike me as a tenacious person.  What gives you strength?

VJ: Truthfully, my faith in God gives me the strength to go forward.  I feel insecure about our group being so small and then I read descriptions of Jesus that describe him as leading just a small group of followers.  Two thousand years later Christianity is a religion with hundreds of millions of followers.  I read Jesus’ words about following the narrow rocky path, and I understand that doing the right thing isn’t about doing what is easy but about overcoming great challenges.  I am also inspired by many saints and by Christian and non-Christian mystics, such as Gandhi, who persevered through incredible odds to achieve their goals.  I am also inspired by the Dalai Lama, who has yet to achieve his goal of returning to Tibet, but his loving and nonviolent resistance of the Chinese communist government has turned Tibetan Buddhism into a world religion.  No I haven’t managed to change the minds of many Catholics about the Church’s approach to the clergy abuse issue, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

JR: How has your understanding of God and church changed over the years, as a result of your work to raise awareness and promote healing from Clergy Sexual abuse?

VJ: The honest truth is that as a convert, I have always struggled with concepts such as papal infallibility and obedience.   I did not become a Catholic because I was inspired by Pope John Paul II or the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Portland, the Honorable John Vlazny, because I was not inspired by them.  I was inspired by Catholic saints and mystics including St. Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna, Elizabeth of Hungary, Anthony of Padua and Joan of Arc.  I was impressed by how the Catholic Church inspired these saints and then sometimes oppressed them, but ultimately recognized them and supported them at least did so after they died.  I wanted to be a part of a force for good in the world.  At first I tried to follow Church leadership.  I put priests on pedestals as holy men.

The clergy abuse scandal challenged everything I believed.  In my pain I clung to the church at first.  I felt media hungry people and greedy lawyers were persecuting the Church I loved.  Finding the truth was a slow, step-by-step process.  Everyone in the Catholic Church I put on a pedestal, fell off his pedestal.  At the same time every single Catholic I work with is very devout and is deeply involved in their parishes.  The challenge to faith is not to believe in infallibility of Church leadership but to believe in the Catholic Church knowing all of its flaws.  For all of its flaws, the Catholic Church has inspired thousands, if not millions of people, to do good in this world, over the last two millennia.

JR: What is giving you encouragement in your work as an advocate to end child abuse?

VJ: The work we do is incredibly uplifting.  First I get thanks from people for helping them.  Thanks feels really good.  I feel great when I help people achieve their dreams such as the mother who inspired the Walk Across Oregon achieve her dreams, but the greatest uplift I feel is when there is obvious healing such as when there is a reconciliation.  During one of our most moving Gatherings we brought a survivor who had been abused by a Santa Barbara Franciscan priest together with Fr. Armando, who is also a Santa Barbara Franciscan priest.  The survivor told his story and then Fr. Armando apologized to the survivor as a Franciscan priest in a way that the survivor felt was genuine.  The two men hugged.  My partner in this work, clergy abuse survivor Elizabeth Goeke, had tears in her eyes.

“I am so honored to be a part of this; we are on holy ground here,” she said.

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Why did we attack the pope?

“The reason people blame things on previous generations is that there’s only one other choice.” Doug Larson

The pope was attacked by a ‘crazy woman’ during midnight Mass. Actually, the reports I read described her as ‘mentally unbalanced.’ That’s a media explanation. What else might the attack mean?

When there is a shooting in a school or other public place, analysts often note that the assailant was a troubled individual. That’s a rational explanation. What irrational meaning might be even more useful?

What if this and other extraordinary events are really best explained by the irrational and unconscious? In fact, we only use a fraction of our brain—most of what goes on around us is beyond our consciousness. If 90% of conflicts are colored by our past and 10% is really about what is going on in the here and now, it makes sense that 90% of what is going on in the here and now is operated by the unconscious.

I received a note following my last blog that read, “The best results to be achieved would be for the Catholic Church to be abolished. Revenge? Hate? Absolutely not. The world would be rid of an evil cesspool from the pope on down. Priests of integrity? Name me one priest worldwide that reported sexual abuse of a child or others by a Catholic priest to their parishioners at Sunday Mass in 1950. Maybe one? And if so, what happened to him later?”

I believe that this person reflects or represents many people’s feelings and beliefs. My response was “I think I hear your sentiment about the world being better off without the Catholic Church, and I imagine any religion, as abuse has been a part of all groups. My sense is that there are more people who are letting go of the illusions of religious systems, and that there are still many who are very attached or even addicted to whatever faith tradition they have. So, I don’t see abolition as helpful as the natural death of what can’t be sustained.

I am not saying that there shouldn’t be accountability for religious authority or other sexual abusers. I think that civil and criminal proceedings against religious authorities who abuse children or vulnerable adults or who protect those who do, using their religious standing as justification, are part of the accountability and deep learning and change process, however slow.

For me, it’s a process of letting go. And it’s complex, if I’m really going to be honest. Thanks for bringing up some issues that I’m sure reflect lots of people’s experiences and feelings.”

Yes, some individuals are explicitly supported and encouraged to act in violent ways. I think that’s the case in the Christmas day terrorist attempted attack, the other Christmas event. But when we look at the unconscious, we can also see that individual actions reflect lots of people’s experiences in more hidden ways.

I don’t want to see elderly people attacked. I don’t hate religion. So, I imagine that this attack represents the madness that many people feel, and not only those who have been abused by religious authorities. Those who have been betrayed by those who are given trust and authority and then allow others to be harmed might feel mad, mentally unstable. And the pope represents God, the ultimate authority figure. And many people may feel betrayed by religious leaders.

When it comes to religious authority sexual abuse and its denial, there’s a twist on the expression that the ‘truth shall set you free.’ I think that the truth may make you mad, may even make you behave in irrational ways. And for those who have been profoundly damaged by religious people, particularly by religious authorities, this ‘crazy woman’ might represent a real exchange between many who have been terrorized by those who murdered souls and went undetected or were allowed to continue. In a sense, she may have acted as a proxy for the rest of us, like it or not.

And the official terrorist? Perhaps he represented a breakdown in security, just as there may be parishioners who believe that the abuse crisis is over, in their minds, if it ever existed. Does the terrorist also represent that festering wound of abuse that must still be recognized; is he part of our collective residual script of an eye for an eye?

Rather than only interpreting these individual acts as reflective of unbalanced or hateful individuals, what if they represent our collective madness and inability to tolerate the status quo of religion or civic power? What if we each take back those feelings in ourselves and accept our part in promoting and/ or benefitting from corrupt institutions?

Dr. Nathaniel Branden, in Six Pillars of Self Esteem, discusses healthy self esteem for individuals. Self acceptance, he says, means looking into the mirror and accepting, embracing the whole being. In other words, I can’t reject or deny a part of self without splitting or projecting that into others.

One basic phenomena in interpersonal and group dynamics is projection, which is an individual’s or group’s unconscious desire to disown undesirable parts of themselves because the complexity of holding these parts inside is too alarming or painful. There are many socially repugnant impulses and ethically indefensible motives in all of us. When we cannot bear to know or to own these in ourselves, we must export them to another location, usually in another individual or group, in order to keep them out of conscious awareness. The counter part of projection is in the individual’s projective identification, wherein the recipient of the projection accepts the unwanted feelings of another and owns them. (Tavistock Primer, 2007)

What can these incidents help us to do to address the wrongs of the past of those agents of soul and physical death who have betrayed local, national, and international believers? Dr. Branden identifies healthy ways that individuals address past wrongs:

1) Face and accept full reality of what we have done without disowning or avoidance;

2) Seek to understand why we did what we did. We do this compassionately, but without evasive alibi;

3) If others are involved, we acknowledge explicitly to the person or persons the harm we have done, and convey our understanding of the consequences of our behavior;

4) Take any and all actions available that might make amends for or minimize the harm we have done;

5) Firmly commit ourselves to behaving differently in the future.

To date, has the Vatican (or any other religious group) faced and accepted full reality of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults done by its representatives without disowning or avoidance? Acceptance is not approval, and acceptance is a precondition for change.

Have civic or religious leaders sought to understand why this harm happened, compassionately, but without evasive alibi? It’s easier to disown behavior or issues as someone else’s rather than as our collective whole. It’s easier to pretend that it’s someone else’s responsibility or issue than to imagine that we all somehow attacked the pope.

I think that the expression, ‘the reason people blame things on previous generations is that there’s only one other choice’ is useful. We are responsible for our lives, our happiness. Being responsible means living with the ability to respond, the ability to adjust, the ability to adapt. It means that we have at least a basic understanding of the context in which we live, and that we have thought about how we would like to move forward. For religious authority sexual abuse survivor-victims, it means that we will no longer be victims and we cannot deny our past abuse. For survivor supporters, it may mean that we will no longer pretend that the healing or problems related to widespread religious authority sexual abuse is finished. For all of us, it might mean recognizing and doing something more constructive with our rage related to betrayal and abuse of power.


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Dr. Sharon Ellis Davis is the co-founder and Senior Pastor of God Can Ministries, United Church of Christ. She serves as the Director of Programs for the Education and Family Life Institute for individuals and families who are impacted by underemployment and unemployment, gang violence, domestic violence, and are living in “at-risk,” and underserved communities. She is a powerful example of a victim, turned survivor, thriver and advocate to end domestic and sexual abuse. http://www.godcanministries.org/

JR: Thank you for speaking with me. I know you as a fellow trainer with the Faith Trust Institute, which is dedicated to ending domestic abuse and clergy sexual abuse. What brought you to this work?

SED: What brought me to this work of addressing sexual and domestic violence was my experience as a childhood victim of sexual violence/abuse and domestic violence as an adult. As a Christian and Police Officer I expected these two Institutions to support and care for me as well as confront my abuser. However, this did not happen. My work has its roots in assuring that these two important Institutions of trust, honor, and justice making, are equipped and challenged to provide the service, care, support and accountability structures to individuals, families, and communities impacted by sexual and domestic violence. This includes the abuser.

JR: As a survivor of and specialist in domestic abuse, what do you see as the main things that victims must do to heal from domestic abuse?

SED: Forgive! I believe forgiveness is the first step in healing from domestic abuse. Forgiveness is one thing the survivor can do for his or her self. Forgiveness is not something you do for the abuser. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. Forgiveness promotes spiritual, mental, and physical wellness and empowers survivors to call people and systems into accountability. Forgiveness is the mechanism needed to “let go” of the need for revenge, unhealthy anger, and the need to remain a “victim”.

JR: You are a veteran police officer, as well as an ordained minister of 31 years and 22 years respectively. Both institutions exist to protect the vulnerable, yet individuals of both have abused power and abused vulnerable individuals. How do you deal with abuse by officers?

SED: Abuse is abuse regardless of what office a person holds. However, when a person has the responsibility to serve and protect and they abuse that office, they should be held accountable by that system. Individuals, families, and communities must demand and expect this type of accountability.

JR: What do you think should happen to religious authorities who abuse their power/ roles and sexually abuse others?

SED: Religious Institutions must have systems of accountability where pastors and other leaders will be challenged, censored, educated on issues of sexual and professional boundaries, and held to the standards of their profession. There are times when religious authorities should be moved from their positions and not allowed to serve as leaders again.

JR: You have established a Domestic Violence ministry, helping individuals learn new skill and promoting healthy family environments. What are some of these skills or benchmarks in healthy families that prevent or address abuse that also apply to churches?

SED: The skills and qualities needed for healthy relationships are rooted in mutual respect and accountability grounded in love and respect for people as human beings. Promoting educational opportunities so that people can obtain jobs to maintain families and their dignity. Finally, helping the church to provide quality Bible Classes and opportunities to learn and study scripture in ways that do not condemn or promote patriarchy

JR: We once discussed the film, “Doubt.” One part of the story dealt with an African American student who was suspected of being abused by a priest. The back story with the mother brings up some complexities regarding the family dynamics. What are some of the complexities regarding African Americans and clergy abuse that you have seen?

SED: I did not see the film “Doubt.” However, when addressing issues of abuse (sexual and/or domestic violence), this conversation must be in conversation, also, with understanding the impact that slavery, racism, and other oppressions had and continue to have on African American families and communities.

JR: One of your favorite scriptures is “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” I don’t imagine that you are saying to those who work to end all abuse to be passive. What would you say to victims and supporters working to expose clergy and other abuse and hold individuals and institutions accountable for abuse?

SED: They that wait on the Lord….is one of my favorite passages because it offers a word of hope and renewal that I would be restored to even better greatness after being torn down, humiliated, and degraded. That happened! The scripture is my testimony that “a change will come.” Sometimes we want things to happen right now. I learned that “time” can be my friend also. The word “wait” for me is not a passive word. Waiting requires action and determination.

JR: I think you are an extraordinary leader and advocate for victims. I imagine that the toxic aspects of trauma and abuse that you encounter in your advocacy may seem pervasive in your work. How do you take care of yourself? What would you advise of other advocates about self care in their efforts to bring healing and change to clergy abuse?

SED: Self-Care is the gasoline that fuels the advocate. Use premium, high grade, gasoline so that your engine will run well. It is impossible to care for others unless you charge to take care of yourself. Any other behavior would be classified, for me, as abuse. I don’t intend to abuse myself. I love myself and value my relationship with self and others. My actions will prove that and so will yours.

JR: What inspires you or encourages you in your ministry?

SED: The Call to Justice and the Call to Love – Both of these challenge and encourage me in ministry.

JR: Thank you for your time, example and commitment to promoting healing and ending abuse.

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