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Forgiveness is Not Enough, When it Comes to Healing for Sexual Abuse Victims

interceding virgin mary

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Much has been made of the smaller-than-expected audience and sometimes-hostile reception Pope Francis encountered during his visit to Ireland. While commentators noted the contrast with the more enthusiastic greeting that awaited Pope John Paul II when he arrived in 1979, they did not make the connection between something Francis said and young Irish people’s drift away from, or even outright rejection, of the church.

At the Marian Shrine of Knock, he begged for forgiveness of the sins of members of the Church of Ireland who committed abuse of whatever kind and asked the blessed mother to intercede for the healing of survivors and to never again permit these situations to occur.

One can say that, although he did mention young people who were robbed of their innocence and children taken from their mothers, his appeal was still too vague. And, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest, I feel that he placed too much emphasis on “forgiving” the “sins” of the perpetrator and not enough on the healing for the victims.

Then again, it may be that neither he nor the Church can do otherwise. For one thing, addressing the plight of survivors in a more specific way would open up the Church to even more scorn and more lawsuits than it already faces. But more to the point — at least from the point of view of survivors and the general public — clergy members, from parish priests all the way up to the College of Cardinals, simply are not equipped to help survivors move on from the abuse we have suffered.

What they, and the Pope, don’t seem to understand is this: those of us who have been sexually abused as children were traumatized. This is not the same as simply having one’s feelings hurt by a thoughtless word or some quotidian misdeed. It means that we have been changed, irrevocably, in fundamental ways. We lost our ability to trust, not only priests and the Church, but other people, even those with whom we have (or should have) our most intimate relationships. That is because, as modern research has shown, the stress caused by trauma affects our brains: It sensitizes the “reptilian” parts, which is more impulsive, and restricts the “limbic” area, which helps us record our memories and form our judgments from them. And, of course, that stress affects the body, manifesting itself in a number of health issues such as hypertension and diabetes.

So, while “forgiveness” of “sins” might give the perpetrator a clean slate, it does nothing to alleviate trauma and its effects in victims. If anything, asking (or, more precisely, guilt-tripping) a victim to “forgive” a perpetrator only re-traumatizes that victim. I know: whenever I’ve been asked to “forgive” someone who has caused me real harm — whether that priest in my childhood or an abusive ex-spouse or partner — it’s like another blow to my body, not to mention to my mind and heart.

As I’ve said, the Pope and most priests, as well-intentioned as they might be, simply don’t understand the difference between being sinned-against and being traumatized — and that the latter happens to children who are sexually molested by priests or taken away from their mothers. I think most of them can’t, in part because they don’t have the training that would allow them to do so. But even those who have such training, I believe, still operate under the belief that, when the victim forgives, he or she heals along with the victimizer. Too often, it just doesn’t work that way.

Really, all one can do after abuse is to prevent it from happening again. That doesn’t happen through “forgiveness” or “redemption.”  Only taking away the opportunities for abuse, for inducing trauma, can do that: priests (or any other adults) who abuse children must not be allowed access to them. And the abuse from my ex-partner stopped, not through “forgiving” him (as he begged me to do), but after an order of protection and the loss of his career.

Still, trauma remains. I work through mine every day. No amount of “forgiveness” can change that. I am sure other survivors could say the same — and feel exasperated or enraged, or both, by the Pope’s plea, even if he could not have acted in any other way.


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    The trivilisation of how to ‘recover’ or ‘heal’ from sexual abuse angers me. It equates the trauma with healing from a cut finger. One quick ‘shriek at the ceiling’ (as Captain Cassidy calls it) and all is well. If it isn’t, the survivor is at fault because his/her prayer isn’t magically and instantly answered.
    I quote from an official UK report on abuse in high places which took evidence from over 1000 survivors.
    ‘Panic attacks, low self-confidence, obsessions, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug use were also reported by people who gave distressing accounts of the impact of flashbacks and trauma throughout their adult lives.
    “I could be in a party and having the best time of my life, but I could smell something or somebody could say something or somebody could touch me and I’m right back to the abuse,” said one survivor. “Until the day I die that’s never going to change.”
    Thank you for your courage in sharing this post, and internet hugs for you as you live daily with the trauma and seek ways to manage it..

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    Becky Wiren

    I am so sorry to hear about your abuse. If every good person refused to give money to the Catholic Church until there was a true repentance and overhaul, I believe the Vatican would experience a change of heart. Money talks. But instead, good people keep handing over money to this despicable institution.

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      This might sound harsh but I don’t think anyone who continues to hand over money to the Catholic Church, knowing what we all know about all the abuse and the cover-ups, IS a good person. Such people might well appear to be caring neighbours, loving relatives, involved in the community in all sorts of worthwhile projects (soup kitchens, homeless shelters) but they also seem to me (and I was raised in the Catholic Church) to be spineless, dangerously so, when it comes to the Church itself.

      The brainwashing goes deep, whether it starts when people are children (the majority) or when they convert as adults (which is what both my parents did): the one “virtue” that seems to override all else is loyalty to the institution. It isn’t PRESENTED in those terms, it is presented as faithfulness to God, but “God” and “the Catholic Church” are inextricably bound up in this mindset. One consequence of this is that parents of children who were raped by priests were often told by the priests and sometimes bishops whom they went to for help that if they chose to contact the police, that would be “disloyal.” Some were clearly given the message that they would no longer be welcome in their congregation and some were even told that if they contacted the police, their children would be banned from making Holy Communion or from being confirmed. In other words, they were often blackmailed into silence.

      The Catholic Church understands money. It always has done. A lot of that money has come from members of Catholic congregations all over the world, from people who see the giving of money as an essential part of their membership. What an individual puts in the collection plate every Sunday might be miniscule in comparison to the whole but it all adds up. To carry on doing this after all the scandals (and they haven’t finished yet) is not the behaviour of a good person; at best, it’s the behaviour of a coward. Ask any random person on the street what they think about men (and sometimes women) who sexually abuse children and they will express disgust in the strongest possible terms. Ask the same person what they think about people who PROTECT those who rape children and you’ll likely get an even stronger response. Yet people all over the world who attend Catholic Mass are doing that on a regular basis: shoring up an institution that has stood in the corner of child abusers time and time and time again.

      The Vatican would sort out this horrific problem YESTERDAY if it felt that financial contributions were being seriously affected; presumably, they aren’t? In my own family (my mother) and on various online forums I encounter practising Catholics who insist, even now, that they themselves are completely blameless and that all the blame should be heaped at the feet of the hierarchy but that, frankly, is an argument that does not wash. Without the rank-and-file, there IS no Church. And also, if those people really do think that the hierarchy behaved despicably, surely that is a really strong reason to not be involved on ANY level?

      Good people leave this kind of mess because they see it as corrupt, heartless, damaging. Lots of people have already left (the stats show that). The ones who have stayed, and who are still giving of their money, their time, their emotional resources are morally bankrupt.

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    I believe you are correct in that the leadership of the Catholic church doesn’t know how to help abuse victims. However, the leadership spent so many resources on shuffling abusive priests around instead of pulling them from access points in a vain attempt to cover it all up with hopes that the problem would go away. That’s fundamentally wrong.

    Thank you for sharing your story. That’s courageous.

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    Every time I read an account like this I become enraged again. The behavior of these priests caused not only physical and emotional trauma but also spiritual trauma. For every person like me who could eventually recognize that religion is nonsense there are hundreds of others who feel the need to cling to religion. To have to reconcile religious belief with the abuse inflicted by its leaders has to be a different type of trauma and my heart aches for these victims.

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    The Pope’s words mean nothing while there are still priests managing to avoid prosecution. There are a large number of documents in the Vatican which concern priests about whom allegations of child abuse have been made. The judiciaries of the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Australia (those are the ones I actually know about,there are almost certainly more) have made repeated requests to the Vatican over the past few years to have those documents handed over to them so that actual prosecution can proceed; the Vatican has repeatedly refused to hand the documents over. This is a clear and obvious way of obstructing justice.

    THAT should be the focus, not vaguely pleading with victims to offer forgiveness. (And forgiveness is, without genuine remorse on the part of the perpetrators, completely meaningless anyway.)

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