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Clergy abuse: You are the antidote

A young man prays during Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco May 19, 2024. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

By Teresa Pitt Green

Each time another scandal related to sexual abuse erupts in the Roman Catholic Church, I find myself wondering: How many more people are being set adrift from our faith? How many others are being reconfirmed in their alienation from the sacraments?

The refuge to which these Catholics escaped I know well. It was where I fled while my abusers continued to enjoy sanctuary in the church, under cover of enablers who overlooked evil for expediency’s sake, rationalizing inexplicably a failure to protect victims from further abuse in the House of the Lord.

Yet without my faith, my healing would have been impossible. Nothing reveals the dimensions of the human person like abuse. A single act can inflict lifelong wounds on so many personal dimensions, including our hearts, minds, bodies, spirits and relationships. No single discipline can suffice in response. Only in relationship with the Creator of our complex humanity can we integrate all the ways we heal and find a full, new life. Only in the footsteps of my Savior do I find purpose in all the suffering — and grace to respond to its broadly causal evil.

Some might say my view denies the importance of psychotherapy. To them I say that therapy can play a critical role, but it is limited by the lens of its medical model and sees only pathology. It cannot account for evil and the effects of sin. Predominantly secular therapeutic schools tend to see faith as a source of comfort but not of identity. They also cannot incorporate a Trinitarian reality, so therapy works with a blind spot toward healing in relationship with God. In the best care, then, we are often left to wonder who we are and to underestimate who God is.

Some might say my view diminishes the role of litigation in helping survivors heal. To them I say that the benefit of lawsuits is inarguable by bringing abuse to light and driving reforms and an institutional culture shift. Yet justice in the courts is mostly delivered in monetary terms — with all the complications that involves — and the legal process re-traumatizes victims. This barely addresses an existential thirst for justice. Personally, I needed something more.

I needed a way back to the sanctuary of God. Historic abuses were a grave impasse, but so was contemporary complacency. I could not find fault with Catholics for resisting the sordid reality of abuse when their own lives may have been spared the test. Victims do not have that luxury, and this brings us back to questions like, who can make the sanctuary safe enough for someone to experience the triumph of Jesus over the evil unleashed in our young lives?

Where childhood lies dead in a web of lies spoken by abusers and their enablers, adulthood can continue to falter until we find the one Word who does not lie. We must encounter the one Authority who will never fail or harm us. Someone must shield us from the shadow of abuse in the institutional church while we venture to seek the Light anew. A Christian witness is needed to see us as precious children of God, not as the abusers and their enablers taught us to see ourselves with shame. Then, only then, do we have a chance to accept the victory Jesus Christ has secured over evil and its dark effects in our lives.

You and I can make a collective amends and recreate a safe sanctuary for those in exile from the faith. This process is challenging. This work cannot be, as many Catholics think, delegated up to chanceries or left to a dogged press. This commitment is not about bishops or others held to account for abuse. It involves rejecting complacency toward abuse. It means learning new information and changing old habits. Sometimes it may require speaking the truth not just to power but also to each other directly, regardless of personal discomfort — or loss.

The best time to begin is before abuse happens. Much research has been done in recent decades. We understand how the trajectory toward abuse begins and progresses. Best practices have been defined. There are free resources to help. Our work begins where we encounter clergy and laity who still prioritize mundane expedience, internal politics or a sense of entitlement over the five-alarm need for keeping all who are vulnerable safe in the sanctuary of God.

We must become unified in the belief that every child and vulnerable adult deserves to be safe. This requires of us anticipatory protective measures. It means building the ark when there is no sign of rain.

While we must come together to achieve this worthy end, we effect change on an individual basis, person to person, heart to heart. As we restore the sanctuary so the vulnerable are safe and the wounded may heal, we also heal our church and our world. Alternatively, we can decline this clarion call, ignoring the wisdom that tells us to be found standing on the right side of this issue when Jesus Christ returns to reclaim His Bride from those who have, with every victim, gravely harmed her.

Teresa Pitt Green is an internationally known author, speaker, and advocate for trauma-informed pastoral care. She co-founded Spirit Fire, a Christian Restorative Justice Initiative, whose ministry is to facilitate recovery from the lasting impact of abuse, especially clerical abuse, for survivors, their families, parishes, clergy and church leadership.

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