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For some survivors of sexual abuse, faith is a part of healing

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The numbers paint a stark picture:  in every parish, every school, every neighborhood in the United States, there is likely a victim of sexual abuse. 

About one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the results of 2010-12 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which was published in 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

And when the perpetrator of that abuse is a priest, deacon or religious, there’s a unique kind of suffering — an evisceration of trust. In some cases, the death of faith. 

“I can’t even describe that feeling of having faith literally ripped out of your senses,” said Michele, who asked that her last name not be used. She said that she was sexually abused by two priests in different states. “My faith was in my muscles, it was in my bones, it was in my joints, it was in my ligaments and tendons. When that happened, I could feel this intense pain of my faith dying. I shattered into a million pieces that day. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to put myself back together.”

Michele stayed away from the church for years. Eventually, she started testing the waters in her parish, St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville. After reading a story in the Catholic Herald about the Office of Victim Assistance, she decided to reach out. Another chapter began. 

Her story is her own, but it reflects the complicated relationship many survivors have with the church. They have been hurt by its leaders, and sometimes the response from leadership —  yet their faith has withstood unimaginable things. They feel drawn to their parish, and then sit in the parking lot during Mass because it’s too painful to cross the threshold. 

“I think you’ll find that the vast majority of survivors — whether they are coming to church or not — their faith is very important to them. And they want a way back in,” said Michele. “They don’t want to be sitting in parking lots. They don’t want to be sitting watching Mass on TV because that’s safer, because nobody can reach out of the TV and hurt them. Most are too afraid to reach out to a parish priest and say, ‘I need help, this is what happened,’ because they are sure they are going to be rejected again.”

That’s where Frank Moncher comes in. 

“What people need to experience is someone who is welcoming them back to the church, who has heard their story and to feel that they are not judged for their story or suspected of ulterior motives, that they are just greeted with a sense of ‘you belong here,’” said Moncher, a licensed clinical psychologist and the diocesan victim assistance coordinator. 

When someone calls the office, Moncher’s goal is to listen attentively, “expressing sorrow on behalf of the church.” He adjusts his approach with each person to find out “what the church can do to facilitate their healing.”

Moncher’s office sponsors support groups open to any and all victims and survivors of abuse, not just clerical. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge attends events quarterly and meets with people individually. Throughout the year, there are Masses for all victims of abuse and retreats. Recently, educational sessions began, at survivors’ request.  

More people, “a few every week,” started calling the diocesan Office of Child Protection and Victim Assistance after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report this summer. Some people call because they want to report a case of abuse (the Diocese of Arlington reports every allegation to civil authorities). Others want someone to hear their story, which some are telling for the first time. Some ask for advice for a friend or relative. Still others are looking for spiritual guidance. 

Not everyone desires to have a relationship with the church after being harmed by its representatives. But many do. 

 “We do see this as a ministry,” said Moncher. “Our hope is that people who have been hurt by people within the church can realize that the church is still welcoming of them and can be a safe haven; that the person who hurt them doesn’t represent Christ and the church. That person who hurt them went outside the bounds of what the church is trying to do. And so hopefully we can be a bridge back to the church.”

For Chris, who attends a parish in Northern Virginia, sharing his story with the diocesan newspaper was an act of cautious trust. He asked questions about the purpose of the interview. He laid down clear boundaries: No last name. No recording devices. No quoting out of context. The article would not be a “snow job” to make the church look good.  

And then he talked about the stuff of nightmares, in the hope that it might help someone else. 

“I think as a Catholic it’s all of our responsibility,” Chris said, “to make our church the best that it can be.”

Over the course of the next hour, his story came out in bits and pieces, by now all too familiar: a middle school student in another state. A priest shuffled from parish to parish to parish.

Chris prefers not to talk too much about his abuser, who died a long time ago. He’d rather talk about practical ways to help victims of abuse feel safe again in church. He has lived in multiple states and would like “a uniform approach across the U.S. as to how victims are treated.” One diocese, he said, limited the number of counseling sessions provided to three. 

When he tells people what happened to him, they often ask why he is still Catholic. 

“I think the reason I’m still Catholic is because of my experience with really good, holy Catholics,” said Chris. “I focus not on the deficiencies in the church but on the good that it does.”

But that’s not the only reason: Chris believes that he can make a difference. 

“If we do have faith and we do go back to our roots, we can get through this as a church,” he said. “It may cost, but we will get through this.”

Find out more

To learn more about how the Diocese of Arlington provides opportunities to report abuse, heal from abuse, and find support through the Office of Child Protection and Victim Assistance, go to bit.ly/diocesearlingtoncp

The Diocese of Arlington encourages anyone who knows of misconduct or abuse on the part of any cleric or employee of the diocese, to notify civil authorities and reach out to Frank Moncher, victim assistance coordinator, at 703/841-2530.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018