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A survivor’s perspective on healing in the church

First slide

After suffering child sexual abuse in the 1960s, Maria (name changed for confidentiality) spent the next several decades in the church feeling invisible.

She practiced her faith, served on parish councils and worked in soup kitchens, all while suffering silently in her pain and grief, uncertain of how to ask for help. Her perception was that the church did not want her or to know her pain. Unfortunately, this is common for victims of such trauma.

Maria’s story changed when a compassionate priest gently encouraged her back to the fullness of the faith. After a recent confession led to personal relief and spiritual healing, Maria called the Victim Assistance Office to share her story, seek support and to help others.

Maria recognized that she and others like her need bear no shame for what they have suffered; the blame rests on the perpetrators of abuse. She underscored a vital lesson I learned as Victim Assistance Coordinator: We can never overstate the truth that those who have suffered sexual abuse are not responsible for what happened to them.

The victims — now survivors, striving to heal and flourish — need to know and hear the church community proclaim that the trauma they suffered was not their fault and that hope, healing, wholeness and holiness are all possible. As Maria told me, shame is what keeps victim-survivors so often hidden, fearful of coming forward.

Maria’s bravery to speak about and seek assistance with her trauma fills me with awe of the courage it takes to make that first call, to reach out for help despite past suffering.

"It is a process of building trust and experiencing safety that allows a victim to seek help," Maria said. After reaching out to our office, Maria started attending diocesan programs, including listening sessions with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, spiritual reflections, retreats and virtual groups where victim-survivors gather online during COVID-19 to share their lives with each other. 

All of this supported Maria’s healing. "The biggest factor is decreased isolation because of the ability to share in a safe environment," she said. "What the VAC office’s efforts have provided has been a safe place associated with the church to further the development of my very stunted spiritual growth in an environment where the isolating nature inherent in sexual abuse is understood, a place where it is OK to shine some light on one’s past with others who ‘get it.’ "

For Maria and others, being implicitly understood, without having to explain or justify an emotional reaction, lets them simply be. Further, hearing others’ experiences presented Maria with opportunities to forgive herself for struggling and to feel things as she experiences them. Moreover, she finds that the opportunity to provide support for others is a gift to oneself as well.

Victim-survivors also need someone willing to listen and strive wholeheartedly to "get it," without then trying to "fix it." First and foremost, these are people who, like all of us, need to be loved, not problems to be solved.

The challenges though are real. Many victim-survivors have persistent post-traumatic stress reactions, sometimes conscious, other times painfully hidden from others and themselves. Unlike the PTSD from a vehicle crash or similar passing occurrence, this wound rips at the soul, a soul that longs for God’s love and the compassionate understanding of its brothers and sisters in Christ.

Maria’s ongoing healing is greatly aided by communing with those who have similar experiences and desire to find a way back to the church family. Some who were wounded by leaders in the church find this particularly difficult but are steadfast in affirming their rightful place in the body of Christ, which needs their witness and gifts as much as they need its healing presence. 

To those who are wounded yet silent, Maria encourages coming forward to begin the healing journey. She said the church has come a long way since her early experiences of seeking help. The previous era lacked understanding of how trauma impacts not only the children abused but their families as well, and how damaging careless suggestions are that it should be "left in the past."

Clergy, religious, and many faithful in the pews are increasingly sensitive to the plight of victim-survivors, and desire to welcome them in the church where they belong. They grasp the delicate balance of inviting victim-survivors to open up about their painful past, without forcing or expecting them to do so. The key, Maria said, is that there is a safe place for people to come forward and be heard, without judgment or expectation of a rush to closure. Healing takes time, and it also takes supportive, patient and loving companionship.

Moncher is a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the diocesan Office of Victim Assistance.

Find out more

Contact the Victim Assistance Coordinator, 703/841-2530 or victimassistance@arlingtondiocese.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021