(This is Neil.) Here I would like to ask a difficult and likely unwelcome question: What have we learned from the sex abuse scandal? We can say that we now grasp the importance of accountability, transparency, and honesty, but we probably espoused these values, albeit with less urgency, before the scandal. A bit more cynically, we can say that we are now more aware of the capacity of both “conservatives” and “liberals” to absorb even the most traumatic events into their familiar narratives about the acidity of dissent or clerical dysfunction. But is that all?
I’ve just read a recent article by Beth R. Crisp of the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University, published in Theology and Sexuality, about the complicating effects of sexual abuse on the spiritual lives of survivors. I think that, if we are to learn anything from the sex abuse crisis, it will be from the survivors.
First, though, we must ask about the effects of sexual abuse on the spiritual lives of survivors. The effects of sexual abuse are almost inevitably life-changing. The American philosopher Susan Brison wrote that her experience of abuse led her to understand the Jewish custom of changing one’s name after a brush with death. But these effects are not necessarily predictable. While Christian women who have been sexually abused very often leave the church, Dr Crisp’s own history of abuse instigated a journey into Ignatian spirituality and, eventually, the Catholic Church. But, even though any personal experience of abuse is unique, we can speak of a shared experience of abuse and reflect generally on the meaning of, as Crisp has written, “theology from a sexually abused body.”
So, how might surviving sexual abuse complicate one’s spiritual life?
Crisp has written of her own attempts to counter the resulting “low self-confidence” that comes from internalized guilt and shame – a “self-denigration [that] is a form of self-mutilation.” These feelings can be intensified if the church either denies that the abuse occurred or subtly places the blame on the “wayward” abused themselves. Put very bluntly, Crisp writes, “The notion that ‘We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it’ (Eph 2:10) may be almost incomprehensible.” Some survivors, she says, have likened the experience of abuse to crucifixion. “But Jesus’ crucifixion was followed by resurrection, and this continues to be a beacon of hope for survivors of sexual abuse.” Does the church, though, maintain a fascination with suffering that leads us to neglect the Resurrection?
Crisp also writes that it is hard for survivor to embrace silence. In silence, flashbacks of abusive episodes can return. Furthermore, silence involves a loss of control, which can be painful for those still scarred by actions performed on them without their consent. Finally, most survivors have suffered through the experience of being silenced. Thus, Craig Martin, in his statement to the USCCB in 2002 said:
Gentleman, I wanted so desperately to be heard. I wanted someone to listen to me. I wanted someone to help me. I wanted to break the silence and despair that was killing me. I wanted someone to hear my story.
Although I would still suggest that silence can, properly interpreted, be empowering, Crisp reminds us of the importance of self-expression. There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc 3:7, my emphasis). The lover does beseech his beloved,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely (Song 2:14)
Third, Crisp goes on to suggest that survivors are too often told that they must immediately forgive and refrain from expressing their anger and bitterness. But such pressure can threaten to absolve abusers or their institutional support without an assumption of any sort of responsibility. Furthermore, sometimes survivors hold back on declaring forgiveness in order to assert control over a situation in which their agency is dangerously imperiled. Finally, we often pressure survivors to forgive and release their anger because we forget that one must heal – a process that takes time – before one can forgive with integrity.
Lastly, Crisp tells us that survivors often have a difficult time with the sacraments. Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher, who also gave a statement to the USCCB in 2002, was molested as an adolescent by a seminarian. The abuse affected her later marriage – “This beautiful sacramental sign of total self-giving and union has, because of the abuse I suffered, been too often for us an experience of division and separation.” She also said:
Through all of this, I have remained a faithful and active Catholic laywoman. I have always sought to distinguish between the actions of one unfaithful minister and the Church but it has not been easy, especially in recent months. I have sought healing and peace in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Unfortunately, the abuse and its aftermath continues to make recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation very difficult for me.
The confessional has historically been the site of abuse. The very idea of being in close contact with a priest out of public view can itself be disturbing for a survivor. Crisp also writes that, with her history, she needs a wise confessor who will be able to distinguish between the desire for forgiveness and expressions of low self-esteem. I can add here that some survivors seem to have suspicions about the priesthood itself.
In Joe Cultrera’s film “The Hand of God,” his abused brother Joe connects the theology of the priesthood to his vulnerability to clerical sexual abuse: “I don’t know. He’s the priest, you know? He’s got the hotline to God, you know? He knows– he’s the guy who does the magic. He’s everybody’s friend. He’s not going to hurt me or anything.” Furthermore, the mysterious nature of the priesthood –the priest as defined as “set apart” – which many Catholics would link with clerical holiness seems to him to immediately raise the possibility of hidden corruption or deformation:
When [Joseph} Birmingham was molesting me, there was that sense I was going through some strange indoctrination, some ritual. Along with trying to get some sexual gratification, he was trying to change my life. He was trying to take me out of the realm of young boys who were going to have a normal sexual life. Because he had given that up, he was going to say, “OK, Paul, you don’t get it, either. I’m going to put this darkness in your life.”
The film ends by showing Fr Anthony Laurano saying, “I’m a man set apart. I’m somebody different, you know? And when you’re different, you got to watch out for them.” It then tells us that he was indicted for child rape.
But Crisp says that the Eucharist can be a profound source of healing. After all, the Eucharist is a body and blood freely given – the very opposite of rape, when a body is violated against one’s will. The Eucharist unites, putting together the broken body of Christ, while rape separates, leaving a victim in seemingly perpetual darkness. She quotes William Cavanaugh, “Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body.”
But what does all of this mean for our original question? What are we supposed to learn from the sex abuse crisis? Perhaps we should learn that if we are to credibly proclaim the Gospel – whether we are speaking of suffering, prayerful silence, forgiveness, or the sacraments and the priesthood – we must do so in such a way that it is Good News for the survivors of sexual abuse.
What do you think?