Spirituality and Sexual Abuse

(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?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to Spirituality and Sexual Abuse

  1. Liam says:

    I don’t know. I hesistate to speak of survivors as a group for whom such a “solution” is in search of. Why? Because my observation has been that, while there are important commonalities in experience, victims remain utterly individual in terms of effect and response. Which shouldn’t surprise us.

    Which is why there is possibly (possibly) a greater chance in effecting change to reduce the likelihood of future of abuse (because that’s addressing common causes rather than individual effects), rather than in corporate actions that will “heal” the survivors as a group.

    So I wonder to what extent, if any, the question might be an arresting distraction from realities we would rather not face – the Good News is not always comforting or healing in any tangible way, even to victims.

  2. Liam says:

    Anyway, as to the question that prompted your inquiry (what have we learned), I would venture: not much.

    I nearly had my breath taken away in my former community (which had a share of survivors, though not at the hand of the priests of our community) by how quickly the abuse crisis was reified and not really learned from in any way. It was really shocking to me how quickly people didn’t see connections in the abuse situation to how they themselves behaved – ideological blinders had not shifted a millimeter….

  3. FrMichael says:

    Not a lot has changed, unfortunately.

    Some of what I have learned:

    The bishops proved that they are corrupt institutionally and have no means of fraternal correction.

    Unless under the brightest of media spotlights, the bishops will be part of the priests’ club first and only secondly shepherd of souls for the entire diocese.

    Most priests are unable to empathize with the victims– it is a crime beyond our ability to comprehend in its ugliness.

    That priests in general have internalized the moral relativism of our society, and even though most were not aware of the coverups, after the revelations a majority were opposed to the zero tolerance policy. Priests, in general, prefered to look at their seminary classmates’ misdeeds in light of their shared experiences and friendships in seminary and ministry more than through the lens of sin and justice.

    That lay ecclesial ministers were as lax in desiring justice in this matter as bishops and priests.

    That the Lavender Mafia is able to keep a lid on things, preventing this scandal from spreading to an even more widespread phenomena, that of actively gay priests.

    That things will not begin to change fundamentally until the Baby Boomer bishops and priests retire and/or die.

    That the laity has a short attention span and does not have the fortitude to demand reform of their priests and bishops. Once the worst of the miscreant priests were removed, we’re all back to playing pretend that the priesthood in the US is a model of Christian discipleship and blessing to the Church.

  4. anon says:

    When I was 4 years old, my friend and I were molested by a neighbor’s grandson. When I reported what happened to my parents, I had my mouth washed out with soap and was beaten with a belt. Needless to say, I have some trust issues. Also, I feel as if I can depend on nobody when the chips are down. Over time the memories dimmed until the church sex abuse scandal reared its ugly head. Quite frankly, I don’t trust the upper hierarchy to do what is right. Also in trolling through the blogs, I found that too many people were defending the church and excoriating Voice of the Faithful (not that they are perfect). It isn’t that the laity has a short attention span. It’s that the ones who want reform can’t make headway against those in the church who want to go back to the old ways. I want more transparency in the church in all matters (there have been some past headlines about priests misappropriating funds locally). I’m not likely to see it. The Baby boomers are not the ones wanting the old ways. It’s the younger people who didn’t experience the old traditions who want the old ways (least in my neck of the woods).

  5. Pingback: Sex Abuse: The Witness of Codependency « Catholic Sensibility

  6. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thank you – especially anon – for writing.

    It is very important to address the question of preventing further abuse. I am sure that any answer will inevitably be complex.

    But I wanted to ask a slightly dfferent question here: What is the theological lesson of the sex abuse crisis? This is a question that has to be faced, I think, but with caution.

    After the Holocaust, we could not preach the Gospel in ways complicit with antisemitism, and thus we presently have the Jewish-Christian dialogue. We have purified our readings of the New Testaments texts. It has often been said that the credibility of the preaching of the Gospel in Africa and the developing world depends upon its capacity to address extreme poverty and oppression. Thus, we must continue to purify our exegesis of otherworldliness and unnecessarily escapist tendencies.

    Although, of course, the situations are not the same, after the sex abuse crisis, can we say that the credibility of the Gospel in America depends upon its capacity to address the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse? If God cannot be God for a survivor, can he be God for any of us?

    I realize that survivors are different, but Crisp has found that their experiences (including her own) do have similiarities.

    Thanks again.


  7. FrMichael says:

    Neal, I think the theological lesson here isn’t a new one, but a reemphasis of an old one: the bishops’ role as shepherds of the People of God are more important than the idea of them as “super priests” which could be found in the immediate pre-V2 period. Only those bishops who recognized that their primary responsibility was to the People at large and not their presbyterates were able to effectively deal with the Scandal.

    I don’t think longterm that the effectiveness of the preaching of the Gospel will be dependent upon how the survivors of sexual abuse. We have only to look at the public school system, where abuse is far more rampant than the Catholic Church. It faces no threat of extinction or even significant reform. The American people do not have the persistence or organizational skills to fix these types of social problems, so as Americans we will simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    You’ll have to forgive me for taking so long to get back to you.

    First, I agree with you that we need to emphasize the bishops’ role as shepherds of the People of God rather than the idea of them as “super priests.”

    Second, I understand that a number of institutions have suffered from sexual abuse scandals. And, we might go on to say, they also need reform which may or may not take place, given the negligence of the American people.

    So, we agree. But …

    My emphasis in this post on the survivors of sexual abuse has to do with the Church’s specific vocation – something that is not shared by the public school system. The Church must be able to say – as Nicholas Boyle has said – “For this too Christ has died,” even in the darkest situations. The Church cannot realize its catholicity otherwise.

    Thus, besides being a social problem, the sex abuse crisis presents a direct theological problem: Can God be God for a survivor? If the question is unanswerable, the Church quite possibly will suffer from a loss of its eschatological dimension.

    Thanks for your comment. And thanks for your ministry.


  9. Pingback: Christmas and Silence « Catholic Sensibility

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