Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How I came to terms with child sex abuse and rape and started Walking Across Oregon

I started working on the clergy abuse scandal in the summer of 2002, about a year after my children and I were baptized Catholic.  The priest who baptized us was removed when one of his survivors came forward.  My parish was torn apart by grief and anger.  Church leadership held several forums to help parishioners grieve and heal divisions.
However, after six or seven weeks of forums, church staff responded to parishioner questions by saying, “We can’t talk about Father.  We’ve moved beyond that now.”
But the parish had not moved beyond that.  Attendance dropped slowly at first.  People clung to the parish to cope with their grief and pain and anger, but five months after the priest’s removal attendance was down by nearly one third.
This caused me to question what happened in the Catholic Church and ultimately in my own life -- I was sexually abused by two teenaged boys at age 4, and raped on a date at age 22.  I had never come to terms with my own wounds.  I put them aside for many years.  I knew I was damaged -- I struggled all my life with depression -- but I did not understanding the extent of the damage.  Later I learned from my cousin that our mothers had both been sexually abused as children by our grandfather, abuse that probably caused my mother’s lifelong struggle with depression and psychoses.  My mother was simply unable to function much of my life.  That is how I came to be so unsupervised at age four that I could be abused.  I came to understand that you have to talk about abuse and actively work on healing in order to move forward.  If you do not, you may be doomed to repeat generations of abuse as my family did and as the Catholic Church and our society have done.
I also began reading about the clergy abuse scandal on the internet.  Eventually I reached out to clergy abuse survivors, even meeting a man abused by the priest who had baptized me and my children. Some of the clergy abuse survivors I worked with suggested that I seek therapy, and I began to work on my coping skills with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. 
While researching the clergy abuse scandal on the internet, I came across some ideas that I thought would help heal the wounds of abuse inside and outside the Catholic Church.  The first was Restorative Justice.  There is more than one definition of Restorative Justice.  The one that seemed most appropriate to me involved the concept of community.  The crime of abuse causes the whole community to lose peace and safety.  The whole community needs to be involved in the process of restoring these losses.
I understood that my church community had been permanently damaged by abuse and that parishioners needed to involved in the healing process.  At the same time most Catholics are wounded and afraid to confront such a painful issue.  When we had forums on the issue in my parish, angry people interrupted and put down others with whom they disagreed.  I came to understand this is the same thing that happened to many clergy abuse survivors -- alienating them from their faith communities.
Some way of implementing Restorative Justice was needed.  I saw a reference to The Compassionate Listening Project (TCLP) on the internet and knew this was the path to take. I remember the forums on clergy abuse in my parish.  it seemed to me that we Catholic needed help learning to  listen compassionately to each other and to those we have wounded.  I studied Compassionate Listening with TCLP for a year and a half.   The healing I received from TCLP retreats and mentoring was worth several years of therapy. I the meantime I started working to implement Restorative Justice to heal wounds we all carry from clergy abuse.  
However, Catholic leadership is not used to listening to lay women, especially to lay women who are divorced single mothers and recent converts to Catholicism.  Implementing Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church was not easy.  However, by 2006 I was working closely with Elizabeth Goeke, a clinical counselor and former Benedictine nun who is also a clergy abuse survivor.
Ou first step creating Compassionate Gathering, our organization that brings together abuse survivors with other Catholics and members of the community for mutual healing and understanding,took place in early January 2007. I arranged for a babysitter and set aside two hours for Elizabeth to tell her story at my house while while five parishioners from my parish listened compassionately.  The parishioners knew that the Church had not cared for the wounded properly, but hearing a story first hand from one of those wounded was far more moving than their intellectual understanding of the failures of church leadership.  Then Elizabeth, who has spent years working on her own healing, did something that many clergy abuse survivors may not be able to do.  She listened as we parishioners told of our pain over losing a dynamic priest and how much it hurt to have the grieving process short circuited by church leadership determined to move us froward from the subject of clergy abuse.  Three hours later we were all still talking, and my babysitter called to see if his services were still needed.  I had to close our meeting so my children could come home.  No one wanted to leave.  Our Gathering simply felt too good.
Elizabeth’s abuse was relatively mild and her healing advanced so she was a very easy survivor to work with, but what we all felt that what we did that day in early January 2007, would be incredibly healing if every parish included a group that embraced survivors the way we did.  We cannot move forward from the wounds of clergy abuse by remaining silent.  We must all start talking and listening compassionately for our own healing and to prevent future abuses.
The part about Walking Across Oregon?  Well, you will have to keep reading to find out about that.

Next Blog:  Getting to know clergy abuse survivor, Elizabeth Goeke.