Posts Tagged ‘trauma’

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.


Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »