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SPOTLIGHT: Sex Abuse Survivors and the Road to Recovery

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As "Spotlight" refocuses the nation's attention on Boston's clergy abuse scandal, victims tell of struggle to heal

A well-known Catholic intellectual referred to the year 2002 as the Long Lent—a period in which shame was just heaped upon the Church because of the mishandling of sexual abuse cases by members of the clergy.

Indeed, Father Richard John Neuhaus’s term was appropriate: revelations about the Archdiocese of Boston’s mishandling of abusive priests did not end tidily with a bright Easter Sunday morning. What began as investigative reports by The Boston Globe on Jan. 6, 2002, just seemed to snowball for the rest of the year, with other journalistic inquiries around the country finding similar malpractice in other dioceses. While many Catholic leading lights went on the defensive, viewing the exposés as an attack on the moral authority of the Church, American bishops themselves revamped the policies that should have prevented the mishandling in the first place. The year ended with the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, and it would seem that “Lent” was finally coming to an end.

But for many victims of abuse, the Lent has continued; for some, sadly, it has never gotten past Good Friday.

Spotlight, a major motion picture depicting the Globe’s efforts to expose the Boston Archdiocese’s handling of clergy abuse cases, opens in New York, Los Angeles and Boston on Friday and nationwide later this month. Undoubtedly, it will reopen old wounds and revive old debates. Aleteia wanted to take a measure of one aspect of the abuse scandal: the healing of victims. We contacted several survivors and others involved in recovery and asked them to tell their stories, talk about what has helped them to find healing, and what steps they feel the Church still needs to take.

The uniqueness of each person’s journey is important to bear in mind. We present two stories today, but we by no means wish to imply that they represent a “typical” sexual abuse victim or survivor. These vignettes represent a range of experiences: both were abused by Catholic priests but in different places and different decades. One is male, the other female. Tomorrow, we will present the stories of survivors who speak about the impact sexual abuse has had on the family.

Where asked to do so, we have used pseudonyms to protect the identities of the persons whose stories we feature. Others have published articles about their abuse and have agreed to have their real names used. Several of our sources here have begun their own outreach to other victims of abuse.

 

“Katharine”

“Katharine” was 14 when she was abused by a young parish priest, but, she said, she had been “groomed” for the abuse for some time prior. The priest, whom she did not name, was a friend of the family, someone “who did a lot for me.” He recognized her interest in music by buying her a stereo and taking her to concerts.

The abuse continued over a period of a year and a half, in the early 1970s.

“And then it was over, and when it was over he didn’t have much to do with me for the next year or so,” she said in a telephone interview. But she would continue to be in close proximity for some time. He even officiated at her wedding years later.

“He baptized two of my three children, and I ended up working for him at another school” as a teacher, she said. “I never talked about it. It was just one of those things.”

But one day he disappeared, and it came out in the papers that he’d been accused of abusing boys in his care. The news threw Katharine into a state of shock.

“It all unraveled. I crawled up and began chronically crying. It was a terrible time.” By then she had three sons and knew she had to get her life together for their sakes. She went to the offices of the Archdiocese of Boston to report what had happened to her 20 years earlier. “I had to sign a paper saying there was no admission of guilt, but they would pay for my therapy, which is all I really wanted anyway,” she said.

She didn’t want to see any of the professionals the archdiocese was recommending but was fortunate to find a good Catholic therapist. ” I wanted someone who could see the context” of her faith. “I loved my faith. I never stopped practicing my faith. … The beginning of the healing was finding this wonderful therapist.

“The work I was doing with the psychiatrist was like dumping all these toys on the floor, dumping all the parts of yourself on the floor and trying to figure out which part was really you and which part had formed because of the abuse or was part of the abuse itself,” she recounted. “It was kind of taking yourself apart and putting yourself together again and leaving behind parts of your personality like the need to be perfect, things that had developed because of the abuse itself.”

She was starting to recover when the 2002 scandal broke, and the news sent her back into therapy on a more frequent basis. But she then realized she was not the only one who had experienced abuse. “And I realized it had happened to children I had taught” in the parish where she was teaching and her former abuser was also working at the time. “The realization that unwittingly I had kind of been present during the time it was happening to them, that was very damaging for me,” she confided.

Katharine’s pain was compounded by hearing homilies at Sunday Mass berating the Globe and portraying victims as people who were attacking the Church from outside. “You just wanted to stand up and say, ‘But I’m one of them,'” she said. “The reason we were all abused was because we were part of the Church. From the people I knew, we were altar servers and we were in the choir, and the Church was a very important part of our life.

“I was on my way to work one morning, and Cardinal [Francis] George [of Chicago] was on the radio, talking about another case, and he actually said, ‘If a 14-year-old girl entices a priest, it isn’t really the priest’s fault.’ I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along those lines. It was a blaming of the victim. I couldn’t go to work that day.”

The whole experience, she said, made her sensitive to people who are made to feel like they’re outside the Church, “whether they’re divorced or had abortions or they’re gay or lesbian and are made to feel as if they’re over there somewhere.”

Her experience as a kind of “outsider” strengthens her conviction that the Church always needs to be with those who are in pain and those who need healing. “Never be afraid to listen, for however long it takes,” she counsels. “We’ve lost a generation, if not two, in the midst of all of this. It’s not all because of [the sex abuse scandal], but a lot of it can be traced back to a ‘them and us’ mentality, whether it’s the hierarchy and the laity or the victims of abuse and everybody else.”

But she also met people in the Church who were truly caring. There was a sensitive pastor who readily lent an ear, and helped her to heal through the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. There was an archdiocesan official who knew how hard it was for her to celebrate Christmas and Easter because of the abuse. There were times when liturgical music would especially involve her at church. The official “called me for many years on Christmas Eve, to see how I was, just to reach out to me and see how I was doing,” Katharine said.

The physical abuse, she said, led to a “spiritual wounding—not trusting God, not trusting that God loves you.” As a child she had come to know God the Father, an ability she credits to the love of her own father. But a budding relationship with God the Son and the Holy Spirit was “suspended” because of the abuse. “It was a feeling that I was always trying to work hard just to be perfect, because then I could be in the outer realm of Jesus’ reach. His love, his sacrifice was not for me. There was no personal relationship because I wasn’t worthy of that.”

In addition to therapy, she credits her healing to “friends who had grown up with me, some wonderful people who had seen me through some very dark times. And my own husband and children, who kept me tethered to life, when it would have been so much easier to give up.”

 

Paul Fericano

Paul Fericano was also 14 when he suffered sexual abuse. The abuse, carried out by a Franciscan priest at Saint Anthony’s, a minor seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1965, not only destroyed his vocation to the priesthood, it sent him outside the Church. He has written that he is no longer Catholic.

But Fericano is not bitter, and in fact he forgave his abuser and now tries to work with Catholic dioceses to provide healing to other survivors of abuse through a program called SafeNet, or Survivors Alliance and Franciscan Exchange Network.

“I felt this really deep betrayal by this priest, who left me feeling that I was not worthy to be a priest,” he said in an interview, “and that sort of cut to the core of not being worthy as a person. “When I left [the seminary] I felt that my pain, which I buried, was mostly this feeling of being betrayed and not being able to trust other men. For the longest time I was estranged from my father.”

He said he had some teachers who recognized in him a talent for expressing himself with words.

“In a lot of ways I think that may have saved me, writing, expressing myself with poetry and stories,” he said. “Long before I went for professional help, I think writing became my therapy.”

Later, receiving psychotherapy, he learned that he had to forgive his abuser.

“There’s nothing simple about forgiveness at all, it involves this real desire to journey and be willing to be truthful about yourself. I tell survivors forgiveness is not a convenience like it was when we were kids in the church. It’s this real conversation that you have.”

He met with his abuser, a man he said was in persistent denial, in his later years. “I’m not afraid to say it, we had a very compassionate relationship toward each other,” Fericano said. “I really felt for him, and at the same time I was working with other survivors who had been hurt by him, to get them therapy and even to get them lawyers to get them recompense for what he had done, and he knew that, and so did the Franciscans.”

Part of the process of forgiveness, he explained, was to “reclaim and relive my story,” Fericano said. “I tell survivors … if you want to forgive, you have to relive what had happened. You need to embrace that suffering, instead of pushing it away. I get disappointed in certain clergy members who tell me it’s time to move on. What do they know about moving on? To me it’s time to move through it, not move on. I think the priest who gets up in his pulpit and tells his flock it’s time to put the clergy abuse crisis behind us is doing a great disservice. There are hundreds of people in the pews who are silent who have been abused, whether they’ve been abused by a spouse or a partner or a priest.”

Going Forward

With Spotlight premiering this weekend, Boston’s Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley issued a statement recognizing that “the film’s release can be especially painful for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.” The cardinal stated:

The media’s investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the Church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself—to deal with what was shameful and hidden—and to make the commitment to put the protection of children first, ahead of all other interests.

We have asked for and continue to ask for forgiveness from all those harmed by the crimes of the abuse of minors. As Archbishop of Boston I have personally met with hundreds of survivors of clergy abuse over the last twelve years, hearing the accounts of their sufferings and humbly seeking their pardon. I have been deeply impacted by their histories and compelled to continue working toward healing and reconciliation while upholding the commitment to do all that is possible to prevent harm to any child in the future.

The writer, Dawn Eden, herself a victim of abuse by a family member, said that if the Church wants to help bring healing to victims of sexual abuse, “we need to bring healing not only those who were harmed by clergy but also to the exponentially larger number of those harmed outside of our churches and schools. The majority of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated in the home by a member or friend of the child’s family.”

“Victims often feel that they have been abandoned by God,” said Eden, author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, in a statement to Aleteia. “We as Church need to give them the spiritual help and loving community that they need in order to reclaim their identity as beloved sons and daughters of God in Christ. To do this, we need priests to not be afraid to preach about abuse and healing. We also need parishes to be proactive in fostering victim-led support groups like the Maria Goretti Network and SafeNet, because people find healing in community.”

 

Read Part II Here: the abuse crisis hits home: how families were impacted by the sins of the fathers.

 

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