Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Listening to Bartimaeus: Why We Need to Pay Attention to Angry Survivors of Abuse as Well as the Nice Ones

I think blogging is therapy for me.  I am feeling frustrated right now and find myself needing to write.  I've seen a blog that accused me of being a professional writer paid to blog or of being a front for a group of priests.  I wish my life were that easy.  No, it's just me writing this blog with occasional help from a friend.

I am struggling to find my way between all the sides of this issue of clergy abuse. So there are some survivors who think I am a shill for the Church.  On the other hand, there are Catholics in my own group, compassionate caring Catholics who have heard many survivors share their stories,  heard their pain and anguish over their lack of support from the Church they grew up in and yet these loving people still think that if only survivors opened their hearts and minds, they would understand how much the Church is trying to do for them.  These lovely, sweet, caring, well meaning Catholics make feel like a mother trying to raise an errant group of teenagers bent of rebelling agains my wise counsel because they think they know better.  (Actually, come to think of it, in real life, I am a mother trying to raise an errant group of teenagers bent on rebelling against my wise counsel because they think they know better.)

My perspective is that both sides -- hurt and angry clergy abuse survivors and confused and hurt Catholics -- have truth in their perspectives.  Both sides, survivor and other Catholics, include well meaning, caring people who want to end abuse and care for survivors on them.

However, sometimes when you are personally involved with a painful issue, you can't look at it objectively.  The clergy abuse issue is that kind of issue for many survivors and for many Catholics who are not survivors or their family members.  I think I can better explain myself using an example other than clergy abuse.  So I will tell the story about a grandmother I met on the Walk Across Oregon in rural Oregon.  She wasn't a clergy abuse survivor.  She wasn't even Catholic.  Her story began when her son died before marrying his pregnant girlfriend.  She begged the girlfriend to keep the baby, promising to help raise the child.  She cared for that grandchild two or three days a week.  When I met the grandmother, her grandchild was around ten years old.  Over the years she noticed that the child had many bruises.  He told her about how his mother beat him with a stick and shouted at him and criticized him.  A few times he had broken bones and had been seen in the emergency room.  One of these visits the child's mother said he had fallen out of a tree, but the grandmother noticed a hand print bruise on the child's broken arm.  She reported what she observed to Child Protective Services (CPS).  Perhaps she waited too long, because such injuries need to be reported right away to give CPS the greatest leeway in coping with them.  CPS is badly underfunded and way overwhelmed and has to cope with having enough of the right evidence to act.  Our justice system is based on the premise that we don't punish people unless we are pretty sure they are guilty.  Moreover, in the case of child abuse, there is a desire to protect the relationship between parent and child and keep the family intact if possible.  And sometimes relatives at odds with each other will make false accusations of child abuse.  So CPS has to be very careful to act only if the evidence supports action.

My experience working with people from CPS on the Walk Across Oregon is that CPS employees passionately hate child abuse and really want to end it.  They just have many constraints within which they must work.

So anyway, the grandmother was very frustrated with her interactions with CPS.  The next time her grandson came to her with a significant injury, she reported that injury to CPS again -- once again with indifferent results.

I am hazy on the exact details.  Eventually the grandmother got so frustrated with CPS that she reported her grandson's injuries to the police.  The policeman believed her and questioned her son's friends.   They corroborated what the grandmother said about what was happening to her grandson.  But that was as far as things went.  Once again, the grandson was left in an abusive situation.  The grandmother was getting angrier and angrier, and each time she went to CPS, she got more and more hysterical, trying to get them to do something, anything.  Instead, a CPS employee told her that she was the problem.

Then she had a verbal altercation with the boy's mother.  She threatened the mother, not with physical harm, but that she would report her to CPS.  Not a wise move.  If you are going to report an adult to CPS for child abuse, don't warn them what you are going to do.  The mother then forbade the grandmother to have contact with the grandson.  The grandmother had no custodial rights and that is when she met me. At ths point I have to keep the rest of the story confidential.

Put it this way, if you want people to pay attention to accusations of child abuse, don't get hysterical when nothing happens.  This is totally unfair because when you are a loving adult seeing a child you love being hurt, the human reaction is to get hysterical to try to stop it.  On the other hand, another human reaction is to withdraw from a person who is shouting at you or criticizing you.

I hope this story can help both sides in the clergy abuse issue, survivor and other Catholics, to see the issue more clearly.  Both sides of an issue such as clergy absue or child abuse have valid points on their side.  Problems arise when we lose our temper trying to defend our point or when we shut down and stop listening to the angry voices we don't want to hear.  For survivors I'd advise you will be much more effective if you can communicate the information you need to communicate calmly and respectfully.  But the bigger burden of communcation rightly fully falls on the shoulder's of other Catholics who have told me they don't want to hear any more negative stories about survivors.  Yes, those stories are wounding, but they aren't nearly as wounding as is the abuse itself.

My reaction to Catholics who don't want to listen to hurt and angry survivors is two fold.  First, how can you understand a situation without listening to all sides?  If you never listen to survivors, you'll never know why so many are angry and estranged from the Catholic Church.  By refusing to listen, you short circuit opportunities for healing and prolong the scandal.  My second reaction is that listening is the most basic form of healing.  I don't mean just the mere act of sitting there and not talking while someone else is talking, I mean listening with your heart, trying to understand another's feelings even if you don't fully agree with them.

Listening was the at the root of the two events cause me to advocate for clergy abuse survivors.  The second event happened one Sunday in the fall of 2003. I heard a Bible reading in Mass about Bartimaeus the blind beggar.  The story is told in the Bible in the book of Mark 10: 46-52.  Bartimaeus was sitting on the side of the road to Jericho when her heard a commotion.  He asked the others around him what was going on.

"Jesus is coming," he was told.

Bartimaeus had already heard of Jesus.  He knew Jesus had this gift for healing.  Bartimaeus wanted to be healed, to be able to see, so he started crying out.

"Jesus heal me; Jesus heal me."

The disciples around Jesus were annoyed by this noisy man so they told him to be quiet.

Bartimaeus really wanted to be healed, so he would not be quiet.  He kept shouting, "Jesus heal me."

Eventually Jesus heard Bartimaeus.

He said, "Who is that man and what does he want?"

He ordered Bartimaeus to brought to him.  Then Jesus listened to Bartimaeus and healed him from his blindness.

No matter how much the angry words of clergy abuse survivors hurt, I wish other Catholics could see that survivors are just like Bartimaeus.

All survivors are saying from their hearts is, "Please love me, care for me, I am feeling abandoned.  Please make sure no more children are abused.

And so on that Sunday morning more than seven years ago, I knew someone needed to listen to the stories no one else wanted to hear and to advocate that others should listen too.

The first event that caused me to be so moved when I listened to the story of Bartimaeus in Mass was the removal of an abusive priest from my parish.  That removal was very painful.  Many people loved the priest because he was very dynamic.  Others were amazed and frustrated that anyone could support a pedophile.  Forums were held, and the former Youth Minster of the Church came forward.  Her stories indicated the priest had sought unsupervised contact with church youth.  The upshot of that was the likelihood that he had abused in the parish.  People were angry that the Youth Minster had revealed such information and blamed her for ruining the priest's life, and she was harassed until she left the Catholic Church.  So the forums did give people an opportunity to talk about an issue, and they served to dispense a modest amount of information to the parish.  What the forums did not do was help anyone heal.  There was no guide for how people should listen to each other's stories and feelings, and people were free to attack each other.  Someone always left those forums feeling wounded.

In other words, Jesus has quite a few disciples in the Catholic Church like those who followed him on the road to Jericho.

What they are saying feels to survivors like this, "Go away; don't bother us; let us be comfortable."

I knew that we Catholics needed more help with the listening than the leadership of the Catholic Church was giving us so I learned the spiritual discipline of Compassionate Listening from the Compassionate Listening Project.  But our group doesn't just listen to survivors of clergy abuse.  We listen to people on all sides.  We've listen ordinary parishioners and priests tell their stories.  We offered to listen to the Archbishop, but he decline the offer, telling us that the Archdiocese has its own program of healing.  I've heard from survivors about that program.  A few felt that what the Archdiocese was doing was fine.  More felt that what the Archdiocese was doing was inadequate.  Some were very, very angry at the Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese and other Catholic entities remind me of CPS in the grandmother's story -- good, well meaing people who are restrained in their actions for healing and prevention of clergy abuse by concerns over lawsuits and bad publicity and by the things their lawyers and insurance companies won't let them say or do.  At the same time the grandmother reminds me of clergy abuse survivors.  I'll leave my comments at that except to say I plan to offer a series of classes some time in spring 2011, on listeing and speaking with compassion to help people more effectively report abuse and heal the wounds of abuse.  

Copyright 2010 Virginia Jones

1 comment:

  1. The grandmother wasn't defending a point when she lost her temper, she was defending her grandson. I appreciate that state agencies are hamstrung by budget and staffing constraints but I can only applaud a grandmother who is in people's faces pointing out that a child is being abused. It's not something to be patient about, let alone, nice about