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And As I Looked and Wept

“And as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving camp a Sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as he walked into the center of his people, and there he laid down and rolled. And when he got up it was a fat bison standing there, and where the bison stood a Sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the nation’s hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem while I was looking – a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow—and the bright rays of these flashed to the heavens.”

According to Duran and Brave Heart, in The Trauma of History, when the young Black Elk saw this vision, he understood it as the restoration of the nation’s hoop—the healing of the Indian nations. Black Elk also understood that the healing would take place seven generations after Wounded Knee—our generation today.

Today is a good day for healing and to end sexual abuse everywhere.

Several survivors I’ve spoken with recently seem to have gone through a period of being in a cocoon. Some were devastated by the effects of clergy sexual abuse; some fatigued by the public, draining and sometimes re-traumatizing advocacy work to make Church documents public. They’ve been retooling, re-evaluating, and rebuilding their lives.  They’re still concerned about the Church documents that have not been released—and they’re trying to find balance, find different lives.

Eric Dyson, professor at U Penn, wrote, Come Hell or High Water: Katrina and the Color of Disaster.  He commented on the tension between generosity and justice, related to the outpouring of attention and individual resources sent to victims of Katrina.   He could have been talking about many religious authority sexual abuse survivors and supporters.  He said that people have made an initial response, a generous and right response of generosity to the victims of Katrina.  However, justice requires an ongoing disposition or habit or practices of generosity and people are ‘disaster fatigued’, which makes it difficult to sustain the attention and energy necessary to bring about the institutional changes that reflect justice.

I think I see fatigue in many survivors and supporters from working so hard to sustain the attention and energy necessary to bring about systemic change re: child abuse.  Emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical fatigue. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Interrelationship, sounds like it could be written by survivors of religious authority sexual abuse.

“You are me, and I am you.

Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.

I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.

I support you;
you support me.

I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.”

Despite the fatigue, and maybe because of it, it is time for both the bystanders and the victimized of clergy sexual abuse to work differently. The longer the mutual demonization continues, the more both parties find themselves sucked into the vortex of mutually reinforcing victimization. We must see our inter-relatedness.

What makes the experience of the survivor of sexual abuse so toxic is that when we bring a heart-felt pain, others silence us because survivors effectively ask others to question their’ profound trust and belief in religious authorities.  This calls into question, others’ self- understanding and understanding of the world.  In this way survivors have triggered a dynamic that is much larger than any of us can individually understand or dismantle.

To survivors, it may feel like those who feel protective of the church in which clergy sexually abused children and vulnerable adults hate survivors. In that sense, I believe that the message Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, is as challenging for survivors as it was for African Americans who were at their breaking point with rage and frustration with the American dream.

“Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you….But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”[i]

So on the part of survivors who have experienced some healing, we must be a force that does not bring in hostilities, but rather brings hope and reconciliation to the forefront. A force that creates a platform for reconciliation that forgives but never forgets.

I know many survivors and supporters, as with civil rights workers in the 60s, may feel discouraged after so much effort to expose crimes concealed by religious authority seems to produce little evidence of changed behaviors. To anyone who feels discouraged by the ongoing fight be church leaders to release documents promised in court settlements, don’t give up.

To those who concentrate on the trauma wreaked upon survivors by religious authority abuse and its cover up, take courage in the work that others have done before us to change society. Martin Luther King Jr. said that if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl.  But keep moving.  Keep moving.  This struggle is, in short, for civilization. This struggle is bigger than any one of us and has an impact on all of us.

Keep moving.  Hold on to the vision of healthy and happy children and a society that respects and protects the vulnerable.  Keep moving. Healing will take place in our generation today.


[i]James Melvin Washington A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr. (Harper & Row Publishers; San Francisco, no date on paper) Page 256.

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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.

39,000,000 and counting

In the wake of the massive disaster in Haiti, we have seen a worldwide supportive response to the people of Haiti. Fortunately, religious and other groups and agencies are doing all they can to save lives, rebuild the infrastructure, and even improve the quality and safety of homes in the future. What a wonderful example of public and private, inter-faith cooperation to help those impacted by this event.

At the same time, another disaster is unfolding around us. It also brings negative mental and spiritual trauma that can stay with and impact victims negatively for years if not treated. The trauma can infect the capacity to live in the present, and function well; paraphrasing the words of 2nd century Iraneus, the trauma can keep a victim from being the glory of God by being fully alive.

There are parallels between earthquakes and sexual abuse.

Many sexual abuse victims’ lives have already been lost. Many survivors’ careers demolished, and relationships buried under the rubble of the toxic impact of religious authority abuse. Daily news reports from every continent provide ample evidence of the ongoing pandemic. Bishop Accountability tracks Catholic offenders. StopBaptistPredators tracks Baptist offenders.  The Awareness Center tracks Jewish offenders. I believe these are important efforts. There’s a saying, “To name the disease is to be able to cure it.” But those are just the religious tips of a societal iceberg.

I’m not particularly interested in finding out if one religious group has a higher percentage of sexual abusers, or if sexual abuse is more prevalent in religious groups than in general. I’ve been searching for an accurate number to describe how many people in the United States have experienced sexual abuse in some form.  Not just victims of religious authority sexual abuse, but anyone in society who has experienced sexual abuse. And that has been a difficult process.

Studies from justice departments and the National Crime Victim Center, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are over descriptive and not inter-connected.  Even recent studies note that the majority of sexual abuse cases are not reported.  The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. The most conservative numbers give us a base of 39,000.000 people in the United States who have experienced sexual abuse in some way.

39,000,000, and I believe the reality is much higher.

I imagine that many readers may be approaching this topic with some distance or detachment, as neither an abuser nor as a person who has been abused. I imagine that it is difficult to see value in taking up such a tragic and toxic topic, especially when there are other disasters that call for attention. It may even be seductive to dismiss this issue as only involving a few individuals who did some very serious damage to some vulnerable children. But whether you consider yourself religious or secular, we as Americans have looked the other way while this happened and did practically nothing to prevent this ongoing abuse of power, this betrayal of confidence, and erosion in trust in our very culture.

What’s at stake in this issue? In a word: civilization.  A society where children mistrust adults because children are abused and because other adults allow this to happen, and do not believe or protect children, is no civilization, certainly no democracy. Instead of our society benefiting from the vast gifts of these persons, their gifts are often lost to us along with the abuse they endured.

So is it any wonder that church or education or other important values driven organization leaders or groups are not believed and not trusted?

What’s the solution for an organization, particularly a religious one, which is no longer credible or trusted by those we intend to serve? It’s simple, but not easy. If we want to be trusted, we have to be clear with our boundaries, our roles, and how we understand authority. And if we want to be believed? If we want people to believe in us– we have to be active and consistent in our actions to prevent abuse and live up to our visions or missions.

So, if we cannot trust churches or church leaders to protect children and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse by religious authorities, no wonder we have so much sexual abuse in society. Two years ago, California church leaders agreed, as part of legal settlements in order to avoid the public humiliation of victims reporting lurid details of their abuse and to avoid the threat of even greater civil settlements determined by juries, to release documents. And we still do not have them.

42 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the following about the Good Samaritan parable, “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him”

It seems that the documents about sexual abuse are only partially available, just like the documents about religious authority sexual abuse—even though the release of church documents has been one of the conditions of the ‘settlements’ with many churches. Survivors of religious authority sexual abuse have been fighting for these documents to be released for years. We know that to be able to name the problem is to be able to solve it.  We know that the problem is much worse than has been reported or than many imagine. And if we cannot get information about sexual abuse from organizations that have the information and have agreed to release them, how can we diagnose, let alone treat, this cancer of sexual abuse in particular organizations or in society?

Survivors’ trauma and healing will be best discovered and then affirmed in a healthy and responsible community, where people ask If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him? If you and others can face this deep, shameful, and unspeakable reality and find in yourself the outrage and compassion necessary to correct systemic perpetuation of clergy sexual abuse, then the more than 39,000,000 survivors can begin to know justice; then you will have taken up your role, as adults, to address crimes against humanity, and to do no less than save civilization.

As with the Haiti disaster, it’s not about us feeling better about ourselves because of what we believe or even because we’ve done something for someone else.  It’s not about me or you individually. It’s about ending Child Sexual Abuse; everyone working together in whatever way is most helpful to survivors.

http://www.JaimeRomo.com

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.

Today’s Blog is a wonderful reflection by Margaret Schettler. You can read her interview from December 10. Margaret writes a timely piece, as we celebrate the life and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I appreciate her insight and the thought provoking questions she leaves us with.

A dear former colleague at my parish loved to quote an author she admired. I can’t remember the author’s name, but the quote went something like this: “At every moment I am equally graced and disgraced.” When the clergy abuse crisis first burst into our consciousness, many outraged Catholics said , “That is not MY church!” My friend would say, “Oh, but it IS. It is both graced and disgraced”. When things went well at work we’d laugh together and say, “There’s the grace!” When they went they went badly, we’d joke, “There’s the disgrace!”

Owning both the grace and the disgrace is the first step toward the possibility of meaningful reform for individuals and organizations.

In his memoir, True Compass, Edward Kennedy chronicles decades of work toward achieving racial equality in the United States. Many in Congress believed that the landmark legal decisions and civil rights legislation of the 1950’s and 60’s would change the course of history. However, in the mid and late 1960’s instead of a national mood of celebration, unrest and racial violence spread across the cities of the U.S. Kennedy says that President Johnson and members of Congress were dumbfounded and felt a “crushing” sense of betrayal, particularly since many had risked their political careers for these issues to which they were deeply committed.

Kennedy points out that leaders of the time were overly optimistic in believing that civil rights reform had been achieved simply because new laws were enacted. In themselves legal victories did not mean that as a nation we had put an end to racism or its effects. The laws in the 1960’s did lay an important foundation for future progress toward racial equality. However, much remained to be accomplished before the changes in our laws would translate into a daily experience reflected in the lives of average American citizens of color.

There seems to be a similar disparity in viewing the progress of reform related to the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Church leaders highlight progress as they see it. Skeptics and critics highlight areas where they see a lack of progress.

In 2004, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wilton Gregory, referred to a report on the extent and causes of the clergy abuse crisis and said, “The terrible history recorded here is history”.

A few years ago I attended a Virtus Teaching Touching Safety training session at which the US Catholic Bishops’ progress in the area of child abuse prevention education was praised as “unprecedented in the history of the world”. There was no reference to the unprecedented revelations of sexual abuse of children by clergy, or the cover up of those crimes that prompted action by the bishops. I contacted an archdiocesan leader to voice my concern about the use of such a misleading claim that never mentioned clergy abuse survivors. A few weeks later I was informed that clergy abuse survivors would be specifically acknowledged at all future adult training sessions through a specific prayer for victims.

At a meeting in 2008 on L.A. Archdiocesan finances I asked Cardinal Mahony what provisions were made in the budget for future sexual abuse claims following the global legal settlements of the previous summer. He quickly replied that there would be no further legal claims because we were doing such a great job with abuse prevention education in the L.A. Archdiocese. Surely he knew that his answer was an exaggeration. In reality individuals continue to come forward with previously unreported allegations of sex abuse by clergy.

How do you measure progress, or lack of progress towards justice and a healthy organizational environment related to religious authority sexual abuse?
By the numbers of people participating in sex abuse prevention classes in a diocese?
By the numbers of times church officials called law enforcement to report abuse allegations against an employee?
By the numbers of bishops who resigned or were fired for enabling or covering up for known abusers?
By the numbers of dollars spent on psychological counseling for abuse victims?
By the numbers of victims who meet with the Pope?
By how many children report abuse as soon as it happens?
By the numbers of pedophiles who are monitored and supervised to prevent them from re-offending?
By the numbers of laws passed extending criminal and civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse?
By the numbers of formerly confidential church documents made public?
By a declining percentage of suicides among clergy abuse victims?

Does progress in one area translate to progress in every area? Does failure in one area negate progress in other areas?

It is easy to criticize and blame. Consciously taking steps towards meaningful change is easier said than done. Systemic change is slow, uphill, going against the grain. It requires new ways of seeing, thinking, and relating to an issue. It often feels uncomfortable. It’s everyone’s work over time to make sure that it goes so deep that people no longer have to look at the policies to know the right thing to do.

Over the past several years how has your thinking changed related to religious authority sexual abuse, or child sexual abuse in general?
What brought about the change?
What is your role in making sure that needed changes are not just on paper?
How has a change in your thinking affected your actions?
How do you measure progress toward ending child sexual abuse?

I first met Eric Large almost two years ago, when I visited Blue Quills College, in Alberta, Canada. I met many survivors of abuse from the Indian Residential Schools and learned about a history previously unknown to me. More info on the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement is at: http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca and for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at: http://www.trc.ca

JR: You are a member of the Cree nation. I understand that you attended an Indian Residential School. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Canadian experience, would you say a little about the First Nations involvement with sexual abuse and IRS?

EL: Yes, I am a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and I resided at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School from the 1952-53 school year to the 1964-65 school year consecutively. In my area, the first Blue Quills Residential School was located on the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve from about 1898. The federal government and clergy from a Roman Catholic entity had firm control over the education of the children. The federal government policy was to assimilate the Indian children through industrial/agricultural training and very basic education. This policy was pronounced in the 1920’s as “to kill the Indian in the child”.

In 1931, a new residential school was built on federal crown land about 15 miles east of the Saddle Lake Reserve. The children were transported there by teams of horses and wagons and later by grain trucks and buses. The parents were put under duress to place their children in the residential school. Individual students suffered physical, sexual, and mental abuse from staff members. They also were separated from their parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family members and their First Nation COMMUNITY. The male students that were in residence prior to about 1952 worked manually on farm chores, feeding cattle, milking cows, cleaning barns, digging potatoes. The female students cleaned dishes, pots and pans, mended and sewed clothes, washed floors and other indoor tasks. Boys and girls were separated. There was a lot of routine, going to church, praying, and there was also play outdoors. But the academic teaching and encouragement was lacking. I suspect there were very few qualified teachers.

JR: A year and a half ago, a Truth and Reconciliation Agreement was initiated with the Canadian government. What is it and how is it going?

EL: The Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners had an official Kick-off at the Governor General’s Office in Ottawa October 15, 2009 at which I was present as a support for a survivor and his extended great grandchild from Saddle Lake. Their work schedule is being waited on by everyone, especially the former students and their families.

JR: When we first met, you were part of a team to interview survivors and help them file their claims of abuse in the T & R process. How has that been?

EL: The abuse claims called “Independent Assessment Process” (IAP) applications are increasingly applied for. It is not part of the T&R as such. It is compensation, as specified in the Residential School Settlement Agreement, is for claims of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, consequential harms, and for loss of opportunity and loss and loss of income suffered by a former Indian Residential School student. The instructions recommend that a claimant to obtain the services of a lawyer because of the legal issues involved and the obtaining of supporting documentation.

JR: As with the Latino communities in Mexico and in the United States, I imagine there are some cultural issues that make it difficult for survivors to come forward and work directly on their healing process from religious authority sexual abuse. What cultural issues do you see that are important to understand with survivors from Indian Residential Schools?

EL: That these students were taken from their parents, away from their home, relatives, and community who had their Indigenous and tribal customs of kinship, identity, livelihood, language, songs, recreation, ways of worship, that formed cohesive communities and provided stability and continuity. Much of this was lost and must be recovered.

JR: On the other hand, what are some of the cultural resources that First Nation people can access that promote healing?

EL: We still have some elders and carriers of cultural knowledge. We still have singers that can sing and drum ceremonial songs, pow-wow, and round-dance songs. There are still ceremonial practices that are held sacred and that can be passed on to younger First Nation people. One round-dance ceremony involves the commemoration of deceased relatives by family members carrying the photographs of deceased relatives in a circle in the room. The family members are encouraged to make amends (reconcile) with themselves personally, with their parents, grand-parents, their community, and with other people both Native and non-Native.

JR: What’s it like for you to hear the stories of so many survivors? How do you take care of yourself?

EL: First it was difficult to hear the stories of abuse. There was anger, anxiety, distress, and tears. But I learned to listen to my fellow survivors. I try not to take this burden home.

JR: What is going on at the national level with the T & R process?

EL: On January 8, 2010, the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Tribal Chiefs Ventures Incorporated, and Blue Quills First Nations College co-hosted the 2nd Annual Indian Residential School Information Workshop. It focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All three Commissioners attended (Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild, and Marie Wilson. There were also representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, United Church, Presbyterian Church, and the Anglican Church. The Commission is going across the country to talk about their mandate and roles and responsibilities and trying to engage former IRS students to talk about their residential school experience. It’s a slow process with a 5-year timeframe. It is not quite set-up yet.

JR: How have you grown/ developed in this process?

EL: I believe I have grown in patience and listening. I am challenged to show some leadership at my community, region, and the national level. There is still the challenge of adequately communicating the various aspects of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement to former students and families. It is complex, lengthy, and comprised of legal and bureaucratic language than can be intimidating.

JR: I don’t believe that any settlement in itself will bring healing to those abused by a religious authority. What do you think would bring healing to First Nation people?

EL: Right, I believe financial compensation by itself will not bring healing. Each survivor, his/her family, community, and First Nation will need to consider the impact of residential schools and attempt to recover at their respective levels. Each survivor will need to consider his/her mental well-being, understand what happened, and bring balance to all aspects of their life, if possible.

JR: Thank you for your witness and work in supporting survivors and preventing future abuse. I wish you well in the Truth and Reconciliation process.

EL: Thank you.

Spiritual, not Religious

I heard the other day that the third largest religious group behind Catholic and Baptist in the United States was ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ It makes sense from the context of clergy abuse. Religious authority sexual abuse (RASA) victims were victimized because they were deeply religious. I was once one of those religious people who worked hard to be the perfect follower, and later a super-priest at that.

Given the ongoing reports of religious authority sexual abuse and cover up, why would why would anyone continue to be religious? In my December 10 interview with Sue Griffith, I referenced Thomas Doyle and Marianne Benkert’s article about Religious Duress, which makes that intuitively obvious point clearer.

On the other hand, I recently saw the documentary, One, which I recommend, about many people’s views of spirituality. Fr. Thomas Keating beautifully answered a question about the spiritual path (not the religious path). He said that there were three stages in the spiritual path. First, a person realizes that there is an Other, a higher power, God, or whatever we discover and call it. Then, a person tries to become that Other. Then, the person realizes that there is no Other. In other words, we are the Other. We are One.

Some religious people are in that first group, knowing that there’s something out there. Some are in the second group, working hard to get it right when it comes to a particular religious practice to get to that something out there. I think that Keating and many others are pointing to a counter-intuitive step that transcends religion or being religious: realizing that there is no God out there. As many of the interviewees from various faith traditions echoed, we are all God.

I’m not saying that survivors have figured spirituality out, although many have taken the first step: to let go of religiosity. I imagine that many survivors are stuck without religion just as there are many stuck with religion. I believe that the next act is to step into the unknown and take on a new practice, one that is internally centered and not defined by inherited or external practice.

Imagine the most beautiful and valuable art piece you know of. Years ago, I spent a week in a remote town in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, called Mata Ortiz. I worked with one of the master potters, who had been trained by Juan Quezada himself, the second citizen in Mexican history to be declared a national treasure for his restoration and expansion of the ancient Paquime pottery tradition. We collected clay from the riverbed, prepared it for use, built the layers and formed, sanded, oiled and then carefully painted the pots before firing the pots (all without electricity or other modern help). Our paintbrushes were fashioned from strands of hair from our own heads, just as they had been done hundreds of years ago with the Paquime Indians, which makes the extraordinary painting done by these potters even more impressive. I was surrounded by phenomenal artists. When I imagine precious art, I think of their works.

Religion, scripture studies, and theology, in my mind, are much like these exquisite works of art. Some people dedicate years of study, research, and focus to be experts in these fields, to be able to differentiate between real art and high or low quality artistry, between authentic scriptural interpretation and misinformation. In our religious formation, we developed a world view through religious education; we came to associate great value with the teachings of these traditions. Perhaps they became as awesome or as precious as Michaelangelo’s David or the Sistine Chapel or whatever your most valuable art piece is. These are breathtaking works of art.

The art piece may cost tens of thousands of dollars, even millions. Think of a Rembrandt or Van Gogh painting and appreciate the story of its creation, preservation, and brilliance. Let it inspire you and confirm that its maker was touched by God to have produced something so valuable, so extraordinary, so worth millions of dollars. Fall in love with it.

What if the spirituality, enlightenment, healing or deep happiness was inside the David? What if your salvation were on the other side of the Sistine Chapel and could only be reached by breaking through it? Would you do it? Is salvation so important that you would break what you have held to be priceless, even touched by God? Rather than destroying a church, temple or people who worship where you or others were abused, I suggest letting them go if you desire happiness and peace.

I believe that happiness and peace following RASA are the bi-products of reconciling our former abuse with the joys, desires and hopeful experiences and our own spiritual lives. My suffering, depression, and PTSD led me to an appreciation that I was spiritually dead, and that it was time to let go of the sentimentality or veneration of the religious traditions in which I had died. My difficult and painful mourning was the key that opened the door from my virtual death row sentence to my spiritual release.

The difference between religious and spiritual is the difference between illusion and disillusionment. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand the illusions is to face the abuse and abusers in religious settings. Perhaps this will lead you to join another church or temple where you find support and appreciation for your recovery and spiritual path. Perhaps it means detaching from external religious traditions and paying attention to your soul and spiritual life through meditation. Perhaps it means a combination of these paths.

I went to a friendly interfaith meeting of leaders from many traditions last week. We learned about a recent Parliament of the World’s Religions that took place in Australia. It sounded like a deeply spiritual gathering and set of experiences. And then we saw a video in which one Aboriginal elder gifted the Dalai Lama with a special animal skin gift. It was a bit funny to watch this cultural or religious clash, registered as surprise on his face and awkwardness in this vegetarian’s body language to sit comfortably with the animal skin. People in the audience were laughing.

The meeting ended with each person announcing upcoming religious events and extending invitations to everyone else to attend. The last person to speak was a deacon from a local Catholic parish who proudly announced a religious education conference that takes place in Anaheim every spring. He said it was a wonderful gathering, in the spirit of the gathering we had been discussing.

He must not have known that the priest who founded that conference sexually abused children. He certainly didn’t know that that same priest sexually abused me.

And I sat there, considering the sincerity of this religious gift he was offering, knowing that it meant something very different to me and many others than what it meant to him. I think that spirituality is the best of what religiosity is after. To me, spiritual means choosing and creating religious and other organizations that see beyond the illusions that allowed for child sexual abuse. Spiritual, not religious.

Dr. Jaime J. Romo is the author of soon to be released, “Healing the Sexually Abused Heart: A Workbook for Survivors, Thrivers, and Supporters.”