Article by CWS member Mary Pezzulo, originally published on Patheos.com
4th April 2019
I want to open by mentioning that I asked one of my friends who was raped by a priest if she wanted to write this article for me as a guest post, and she asked me to write it instead. That’s why I’m presuming to talk about it. I’ve taken my own medicine.
I’ve just been shown a sample chapter from a book called “Healing Our Church.” The author of this book doesn’t seem to be listed in the sample or the website, but it comes from the “Renew International” organization, with which I’m not familiar. This book is really a set of readings and instructions for the “Healing our Church” program, which is apparently a series of seminars being practiced in some parishes across the country and marketed to many more. The seminars are meant to “minister to hurting parishioners,” so that they might “start on the path to healing and renewed discipleship.”
The sample session provided is Chapter Three, “Rebuilding Our Church.” And if it’s an indicator of the thinking behind the whole of the book and the whole of the program, then I can safely say that both are worse than useless.
Let me walk you through the session as it’s written in the sample chapter. I’ll point out my objections as I go along.
It starts out with a hymn that sounds unbelievably sketchy in context. “O Jesus Healer of Wounded Souls” contains a line asking Jesus to “touch us” which I would leave out of any discussion of sexual abuse at all costs. There are better, non-triggering ways to say the same thing.
Then there’s a prayer, the Prayer of Saint Francis, which includes the line “O Divine Master, grant that I may never seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” This is an excellent prayer for many occasions. I like to pray it myself. But as far as a meeting addressing sexual abuse, it’s toxic. Abuse survivors very often find themselves in an agonizing vortex of self-blame. What they need is consolation, love and understanding, but they have been denied it and told that they don’t need it– indeed, oftentimes they’re told by their abusers that their natural longing for understanding is the victim being selfish. I have known emotionally abusive priests to quote prayers by Saint Francis in order to paint victims demanding redress as self-centered, in fact, and I don’t think I’m the only one. This particular prayer is a shockingly imprudent choice in any context to do with abuse.
And then we get to the real problem. The next section of the book and seminar is billed as a “survivor story,” but it’s not at all. It’s not the story of an abuse survivor. It’s the story of someone whose son was abused, and how she found the grace to stay Catholic. Mrs. Donna Harper coped with the knowledge that her son had been abused by a priest by staying in the Church and volunteering for a diocesan review board, where she “served more than 15 years” at the bishop’s request. Good for her and all. But why wasn’t this “survivor story” about a survivor? I’m the last person to say that parents of abused children don’t suffer, but why didn’t they write a story about Donna’s son? Why is Donna the one being billed as a survivor? Her son is treated as beside the point. They gloss over his trauma and his mother’s anguish except to say that she was “angry,” and then describe how she fell into line. She is portrayed as the good little victim who obeyed the bishop that betrayed her and went on to serve him so that he didn’t make the same mistake with someone else.
The next part of the session is something I don’t object to at all: a digest of facts garnered by the John Jay report, and they’re all true as far as they go. There’s no scaremongering or mention of a so-called Lavender Mafia, or anything of that sort, just statistics.
Then, there’s a Bible reading and a meditation on how the people at the session can be “ligaments in the Body of Christ.” It directs them to take the “protecting God’s children” class and get involved in the parish. It’s all directed at parishioners who weren’t themselves abuse survivors, addressing their shock and horror and exhorting them to be helpers instead of walking away. It doesn’t address survivors and it doesn’t address perpetrators at all.
It could be that this is just an extremely inauspicious chapter of the book. Maybe there are other chapters that quote survivors directly and have a different message. Still, this is the sample chapter that Renew placed on their page, as an advertisement, to make you want to buy the book and have these sessions in your parish. This is what they chose as a taste of what the whole program is about.
And based on this sample, it seems to me that the whole program is based upon two fundamental errors. The first error is that the people who witnessed abuse and the parishioners who found themselves shaken by what was kept hidden are the true victims here. The second is that the crisis in our church can somehow be solved by codependency. I believe this is a fair advertisement– because according to my friend, an abuse survivor from the SNAP network tried to join one of these sessions, at a parish in the Allentown diocese, and was turned away. Not only do they not want to listen to real abuse survivors, they don’t even want them in the room.
Nothing is going to get better if we’re not willing to tell the truth. And the truth is, parishioners who are in shock and questioning their faith are not the real victims here. Although families of abuse survivors suffer terribly, they aren’t the primary victims either. That ought to go without saying. The people whom the priests abused and the bishops silenced, are the victims.
The victims have to be at the center of any attempt at healing and reconciliation. They have to be the focus of any attempt at healing, and they also have to be allowed to be the leaders. They are the ones who should be telling their stories and what they think should happen next– not the people around them who were also hurt, but them, the primary victims with the most suffering. They should be the ones to speak, and everyone else should shut up and listen. This is true even if we don’t like what they have to say; even if they’re not good and docile model victims who remained practising Catholics and did the bishops’ bidding. After they’ve finished, we definitely need to address the wounds of their families and loved ones, and then look outward to bystanders who feel betrayed. But starting at the outside, addressing those least hurt, showing them the story of someone related to a victim and ignoring the victim entirely, is not going to work. It’s as useful as trying to spruce up a condemned house with a fresh coat of paint on the outside, at the same moment that the interior is on fire.
Telling the victim not to even show his face at these meetings ought to be out of the question. I’m struggling to even begin to address such cruelty and imprudence.
Further, it’s simply not going to work to give parishioners a list of ways that they can help prevent abuse, because parishioners were not the abusers. Handing them a to-do list is suggesting that they can help by becoming codependent enablers of the real abusers. It’s exactly like handing the wife of an alcoholic a list of ways she can secure the liquor cabinet. The laity did not do this. Priests did this. The hierarchy of our church abused thousands of men, women and children. They are in absolute power and we’re not. They make the rules and we don’t. They abused people and lied about it; they watched each other’s backs to cover up their lies. They cannot look to us to fix the problem now.
Any attempt to heal the Church from this catastrophe has to begin with and center around the actual victims who were hurt. They have to be free to show their faces and to speak. The hierarchy that caused this mess through their sin need to shut up and listen, to confess their sins publicly, to punish the abusers and to reform so it doesn’t happen again.
And what about the rest of us? The laity who weren’t sexually abused? We need to have the humility to allow survivors to take center stage. And we need to have the backbone to get good and angry on their behalf, to help get their message across, to speak truth to power and to demand reform.
Any program that wants to “heal the church” in a way that silences victims and panders to priests is only going to make it worse.
(photo credit https://www.herald.co.zw/acceleration-in-healing-of-broken-hearts/)