Survivor Stories: Seven Lessons from the Sex Abuse Crisis from Those Who Suffered the Most

By Knight, Diane | U.S. Catholic, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Survivor Stories: Seven Lessons from the Sex Abuse Crisis from Those Who Suffered the Most


Knight, Diane, U.S. Catholic


For more than a decade, stories in the media have highlighted the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Much of the recent focus has been on Europe, though there have also been some particularly horrific new stories in this country, such as the one of Father Lawrence Murphy and his abuse of as many as 200 deaf boys in the residential school he ran in Wisconsin.

Most of these stories focus on the acts of offending priests and the fact that they were moved from parish to parish, ministry to ministry, continuing to allow them access to vulnerable children and youth.

Few focus on the individuals who were so gravely harmed. Yet it is they who are the heart of this unfolding, tragic story. As Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee pointed out earlier this year, it is the courage of victims and survivors to come forward and publicly tell their stories that has made us a different church today than we were before.

As a social worker and as a member and now chair of the National Review Board, I have been privileged to listen to many stories of victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse. I view this privilege as a sacred trust, to be received with great care and pastoral concern.

I have experienced the hearing of these individual stories as sacramental moments. They have been moments of great grace both for the survivor in the telling of the story and for me as the receiver of the story--in the connection that is made as we relate to one another.

The following are seven lessons that I and others have learned from these courageous brothers and sisters.

1 It takes great courage for a victim or survivor to come forward with his or her story after years, sometimes decades, of silence and feelings of shame. And it is crucial to them simply to be believed.

As a young adolescent, Jeanne was abused for several months by an associate pastor of her parish. She confused this priest's attention--and her reaction to it--with being in a romantic relationship. As time went on, however, she began to have doubts about what was going on and confided in a trusted adult.

This person arranged for her to meet with the pastor, who then accused her of being responsible for having led the priest into this relationship. When her parents learned of it, they also blamed her, giving no credence to the priest's role in initiating and maintaining the relationship. She literally had nowhere to turn.

Jeanne lived with the guilt and shame she felt, and she kept this secret about her life for nearly 30 years. She finally revealed the story to a therapist. Her relief at both telling the story and being believed after all of those years was utterly freeing, even though she still had much work to do in therapy to move toward real healing.

The feelings of guilt and shame took on an added dimension for many males who were abused by priests. As they matured emotionally and psychosexually, they experienced a struggle that centered on the question of whether what had happened to them meant that they were gay. Many eventually came to understand that they are heterosexual, and they are in successful long-term marriages today.

Even in that situation, however, the vast majority of those men personally took decades before they were able to share with their wives what had happened to them. The feelings of shame and guilt were that strong and that enduring.

On at least three occasions the individual coming forward to tell his or her story expected not to be believed. Though they had come expressly to tell their story, they expected to have to fight to be believed. Two men in their 50s to 60s broke down and cried when, after they had told their stories, I accepted it and apologized on behalf of the church for what never should have happened to them. Both expressed that it was such a relief just to be believed after all of these years.

2 Because of the violation of trust involved in abuse, some survivors trust absolutely no one to this day. …

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