I offer the following prescription from Fr. Tom Doyle describing the route for spiritual healing of Catholic abuse victims. I do this for a number of reasons. First the Vatican's response is creating more victims because the Vatican is making it very obvious that real victims were never their concern in dealing with sexual abuse. Second, although the Church has offered victims psychological counseling, the Church itself has never dealt with the ramification of the spiritual issues abuse causes in victims and how that impacts psychological health. Finally, the response to this crisis from laity is very often abusive in itself. There is a reason well meaning laity become a part of the problem rather than the solution. That reason is because they too are being victimized by their Catholic belief structure and can not afford to recognize, much less deal with, the whole betrayal issue which clerical sexual abuse and it's systematic cover up is all about.
This is an extract from a much longer talk Fr. Tom gave at the 2008 SNAP convention. When reading this, keep in mind that this same process is happening in any Catholic who grew up with the current teachings about the priesthood, the Church, God, and sexuality. The betrayal may not be on the same fundamental level as a victim of physical sexual abuse, but the dynamic is still operative to some extent in most all Catholics.
"The traditional therapeutic responses to sexual abuse trauma do not always provide relief from spiritual trauma. Anecdotal experience with Catholic clergy abuse victims over the past two decades has shown that most counseling situations did not respond to the spiritual trauma.
When the institutional Church has responded to victims it generally has offered psychological but not spiritual counseling. Indeed it appears that Church authorities, all of whom are clerics, were hardly cognizant of the nature and effects of the spiritual trauma. There is no available evidence that any Church office, from the Vatican to national bishops' conferences to local dioceses ever put into place programs or policies to assess the spiritual damage and consequently to respond to it. The late Pope John Paul II publicly acknowledged victims on several occasions but offered only prayer as a healing remedy:
'Therefore, I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt by these misdeeds�.So then, venerable brothers, you are faced with two levels of serious responsibility: in relation to the clerics through whom scandal comes and their innocent victims, but also in relation to the whole of society systematically threatened by scandal and responsible for it�.
I ask you to reflect together with the priests, who are your co-workers, and with the laity, and to respond with all the means at your disposal. Among these means, the first and most important is prayer: ardent, humble, confident prayer.'
"I have been close to you in suffering and prayer, commending to the "God of all comfort" those who have been victims of sexual abuse on the part of clerics or religious." As the Church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us � conscious of human weakness, but trusting in the healing power of divine grace � are called to embrace the "Mysterium Crucis" and to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness."
The late pope's call to prayer is mingled with his attempt to shift blame to the secular society. The promise of prayer for victims is really a long-practiced tactic for distancing the cleric from the person requesting help or relief. In this case the pope's words have provided no relief for victims and consequently are meaningless.
There is no available tradition or font of information about healing the spiritual wounds of clergy sexual abuse. Consequently one can only look at the damage and its sources and respond to each aspect of the trauma. It goes without saying that any therapist working with victims should be well aware of the idiosyncratic nature of sexual abuse by clergy and by Catholic clergy in particular.
The first level of response should be to the victim's self-destructive belief system. The immediate concern should be the victims' concept of a priest. He or she needs to be aided and supported in shedding the magical notion that the priest is somehow the personal representative of God or the stand-in for God. The dependence of the victim on the priest and on the clerical system needs to be first challenged and then replaced with a deeply rooted sense of personal spiritual autonomy. This "adult spirituality" of the victim-priest relationship will bring freedom from the misplaced guilt that burdens so many victims. (This is certainly clinically true, but the Church itself, cannot afford to take this route because it undercuts virtually the entire Catechism when it comes to the priesthood and sacramental system.)
De-mythologizing the concept of the priest necessarily leads to a re-imaging of the notion of God. This is perhaps the most fundamental and radical dimension of the healing process. Upon it hinges the victim's concept of Church, sin and even self. Catholic theology is rooted in a theistic notion of the Higher Power. God is a supernatural, personal being who controls all aspects of life. It is possible to move to a concept of God that does not lend itself to the toxic beliefs about guilt, suffering, sin and punishment. Such a transition is easiest on the cognitive level but much more challenging to the emotions. Many victims are all too painfully aware of the personal devastation caused by the sexual abuse yet they continue to feel guilt because they have exposed a priest or sued a Church entity such as a diocese. This is all grounded in the irrational belief that God resides in a special way in the institutional Church.
Once a clergy abuse victim begins to accept a Higher Power that is non-judgmental, non-vindictive and not under the control of the ordained office-holders of the Church, he or she will be able to move to the next necessary level of healing which is separating the visible, institutional Church from the Higher Power.
This should include an unfolding of the mysterious emotional ties and reactions associated with the victim's relationship to the institutional Church. Once the variety of feelings are acknowledged it is perhaps time to cognitively examine the historical and doctrinal bases for the Church's contention that it was founded by God, is controlled by God through clerics and provides the only authentic source of spiritual security. At this stage the victims may be helped by reading one or more books that provide an objective and scholarly exposition of traditional Church teachings and traditions on the nature of the Church. As they examine concept of the Higher Power they realize that what they have believed in and feared was not an authentic reality but someone else's vision of what god was all about.
Responding to the Loss of Religion.
The victim's anger at the Church and possibly at religion in general needs to be acknowledged and affirmed as a healthy response to the abuse. If it has not been done earlier in the recovery process this might be the appropriate time to examine the radical distinction between organized religion and spiritual security and strength. The toxic belief that God will be displeased if the victim feels anger towards the Church must be dispelled and replaced with a more realistic belief that the organized religious body has actually been a barrier to a secure relationship with the Higher Power. Victims attribute spiritual power to the visible Church because it has been presented as the only pathway to God. Most Catholics are never allowed to progress beyond a level of spiritual and religious development that is early-adolescent at best. The recovery process from clergy sexual abuse offers a unique opportunity for spiritual maturity. This maturity will provide the emotional security needed for whatever choices the victims makes about the place or religion, worship or a higher power in his or her life.
Affirming the Church's responsibility.
The institutional Catholic Church has thus far avoided accepting its responsibility for the culture of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up. Church authorities have made public apologies for "mistakes made" and have shifted the blame to others such as the media or the medical profession. Yet no public statement has given evidence of a full awareness of the causality of clergy abuse or of the damage done to those abused.
Victim/survivors need to explore the substance of some of the official apologies and then come to an emotional as well as cognitive acceptance of the fact that the institution and its office holders will not because they cannot respond in a manner that would reflect full awareness and accepted responsibility. Some victims get "stuck" in an almost endless contentious process trying to get the official Church to realize the enormity of their actions. They need to come to a realization that the Church's narcissistic self-concept of a perfect society renders its leaders incapable of comprehending that the responsibility is rooted in the very core of the institutional Catholic Church.
The Church's responsibility is directly related to the process whereby it has educated and formed Catholics from childhood to adulthood. The victims need to be able to see this as effective pre-conditioning that is related not only to the grooming for the abuse itself but also for their subsequent guilt and shame in responding to the violation of their bodies and souls. (They also have to understand that experiencing this same conditioning is the reason their fellow laity turn on them and irrationally support what ever excuse the Vatican or a given bishop uses.)
A key aspect of this process is the concept of sexuality internalized by most Catholics. The guilt, shame and fear associated with it are responsible for much of the post-abuse trauma. Re-examining the Church-given sexual awareness can be a slow, difficult and often fear-laden process but it must be done in order to guide the recovering victim in the internalization of a healthier notion of sexuality.
Finding an authentic spirituality.
Most clergy abuse victims did not realize that they had a spiritual dimension to their being until it was taken from them. The final phase of healing involves the discovery of this spiritual dimension and the acceptance of an authentic, life-giving spirituality. God or the Higher Power is re-imaged from an omniscient super person to a source of power and love that is not shaped or limited by human conceptions. The traditional relationship with God was far too enmeshed with loyalty and obedience to the deity's self-styled earthly representatives. When this is abandoned there is room for the transition to a spiritual relationship with a Higher Power or even an institutional Church that is not a source of pain, fear and guilt but rather enhances life and provides joy and balance. This non-toxic spirituality requires a healthy sense of self-worth if it is to take root and grow. The path to emotional and spiritual health is often long, always arduous and usually bewildering at times. Yet is can be traversed with an outcome that promises not only freedom from the spiritual pain but a new and hope-filled future.
The path to healing that Fr. Tom describes, demands the cross road choice I wrote about previously. It's a choice which will not be made by the Institutional Church because this path of healing necessitates the demise of much of the theology of the priesthood and the institutional power structure which is supported by that theology. It demands a complete rethinking of the nature of God and man's relationship with God. Finally, it demands a rethinking of sexuality, moving towards a theology of relationship and away from one based in sexual acts.
In as much as Benedict is taking the Church precisely in the opposite direction be prepared to hear more dissembling, lame excuses, blame shifting, and thousands of more victims coming forward. Be prepared to hear more from desperate supporters of the clerical hierarchy because it's in their survival interests to do so, but I think it's also going to be important to offer support to Catholics who are lost on a path which no longer supports their spiritual life.