Thursday, July 31, 2014

Helping Danny or How to Heal the Wounds of Clergy Abuse

Virginia Pickles Jones

(Published as “Coping With Clergy Abuse” in the Colusa Sun Herald on February 8, 2008.)

Danny’s lawyer grasped my hand and said, “Thank you for bringing Danny into court today.  Can you bring him in tomorrow?”

“I’ll try,” I said,  “I have young children; I can’t guarantee that I will make it.”

“Can you give him a call to help him get going if you can’t bring him in?” the lawyer asked.

“No problem,” I said, “I’ll call him twice.

Danny had missed an earlier court date.  The charge was criminal mischief.  He was angry at the Catholic Church for being so slow to settle his clergy abuse lawsuit, and he took his anger out on someone else’s property.  So I offered to bring Danny to court to prevent him from missing another court date.  We arrived late.  I could not leave my own home earlier as my children did not have anyone else to care for them before school.  When I got to Danny’s house, he hadn’t finished dressing.  He spent fifteen minutes wandering around his house looking for his shoes and jacket while his mother criticized him.

The judge, expecting another no- show from Danny, had already issued a warrant for his arrest.  She rescinded it when he managed to arrive -- albeit twenty minutes late.

After court, Danny and I walked through the Park Blocks in downtown Portland to the garage where I parked my car.  I drove him home.  On the way, he showed me his photo album.  I tried glancing over as I drove up I-5.  The photos showed his mother’s First Communion, his sister’s First Communion, his own First Communion, his great aunt, the nun, his mother hugging a priest....  When I parked in front of his parents’ rundown bungalow, he pulled out a second and third album -- photos documenting a very Catholic childhood.
I needed to go.

Before getting out of my car Danny turned to me, “Thank you very much; it has been a very long time since anyone has done so much for me.”

The next morning I called Danny twice -- once to wake him up and a second time just before leaving -- with hopes of avoiding any delays.  This time Danny couldn’t find his Xanax.  He was afraid that he would break down on the stand.  He never found the Xanax.  Time was drawing short.

‘We’ve got to go, Danny,” I said.

Danny’s hands and legs shook visibly as we drove to downtown Portland.
“I’m going through a panic attack,” he said.

I dropped him off by the courthouse to look for parking.  I didn’t want him to be late.  Danny didn’t know the room number of his courtroom.  His lawyer was planning to meet him at the top of the stairs to the third floor of the building.

“I will find you, “ I said to Danny, “I won’t abandon you.”

I found him huddled with his defense lawyer and the prosecutor outside his courtroom.  I sat at a distance and read my newspaper.  The prosecutor was offering Danny some options.  Danny didn’t want any of them.  The prosecutor decided to give Danny two weeks to think.

Afterwards the prosecutor shook my hand too, “Thank you for bringing Danny in.”

There may be glory in prosecuting a murderer or a rapist or a robber.  There is no glory in prosecuting a hurt and angry clergy abuse survivor for a minor property crime.

I had been mentoring Danny for five months.  When he was up, he would call me two or three times a week.  When he was down, he was too depressed to call so I called him.  His father, himself a sex abuse survivor and former drug addict, was drinking himself to death.  His mother, exhausted by the drugged out, dysfunctional men in her life, coped by actively expressing her pain and anger at them.  Danny was always on edge.  He talked of leaving his parents’ home but where could he go?  He hadn’t held a job in five years.  I urged him to seek therapy, but there were roadblocks I couldn’t persuade him to get around.  I didn’t judge or criticize Danny.  I just accepted him. I could only offer myself, my ear, my heart, my own experiences coping with my own childhood sex abuse.

Danny told me about his journey of coming to terms with his abuse and realizing that he had been harmed.  He believed that angels guided him.

But he said, “I am mad at God.  How could God let children be abused by priests?”

Danny also described his fights with his mother and sister and problems with his father, who would pass out on the floor after drinking whisky instead of eating.

The night after I took Danny to court for the first time, I called to make sure he was on track to go to court the next day.

“I’ve had it with my mother,” Danny said, “She’s been mean to me all day.  I’m leaving.  I can’t stay in the house with her anymore.  I’m going for a walk.”

The January night was cold and rainy.

“Pray for me, Virginia,” Danny said.

Those words meant more to me than all the thanks that he and his lawyer had given me that day.

Virginia Pickles Jones is co-founder of a not-for-proift, Compassionate Gathering, and Facebook sites, Compassionate Gathering and Inspirational Oregon.  Virginia was baptized Catholic in 2001, by a priest who was later removed from ministry for abusing children.  She asked questions and combed the internet for answers and concluded that the leadership and the people of the Catholic Church BOTH needed to do more, MUCH MORE, to support clergy abuse survivors.  You can contact Virginia at

Becoming a Survivor Advocate
paradigm up until now has been that clergy abuse survivors could only trust other survivors.  How did I, a convert to Catholicism, become an advocate for clergy abuse survivors?
  I live in Portland, Oregon, but I grew up in Colusa, California.  When I was four years old, two teenaged boys lured me into a neighbor’s basement and sexually abused me.  Through the years that followed, I struggled with the demons of low self esteem, anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and a combination of anorexia and bulimia.  I was a very good student and graduated from Colusa High School in 1977 as Valedictorian.  But my demons followed me into college.  I never achieved what other people think a Valedictorian should achieve.
  I never forgot being abused.  I always knew what had happened to me was bad, but I did not come to terms with my abuse until I converted to Catholicism.   The clergy abuse scandal started me on the path of exploring my own abuse and seeking healing through therapy, spiritual retreats and mentoring by other survivors of sex abuse.
  The scandal motivated me because it touched my life in such a personal way.  The dynamic and giving  priest who baptized me and my children Catholic in June 2001, was removed as pastor of my parish in May 2002, when a man came forward claiming this same priest had abused him more than twenty years before.  This loss was so painful.  The people of
my parish were angry and confused and divided.
Church leadership provided few answers.   Within months, church attendance dropped by more than one-quarter.
  Devastated by the loss of the priest who had baptized me and frustrated by the lack of information, I sought my own answers on the internet.  I discovered that accusations of sex abuse against my priest dated back to 1981.  A boy told authorities at his Catholic high school that this priest was abusing him.  School authorities did not report the abuse to the police.
  I realized that clergy sex abuse and coverup hurt the whole Catholic Church, so
I started reaching out to survivors.
  In August 2004, I met the boy who had accused my priest of abuse in 1981.  He was a forty year old man whose struggles with depression and anxiety
were so great that he was unable to hold down a steady job.
  I tried telling other parishioners about what I learned.
  A cantor replied, “The bishops have taken care of everything.  We don’t need to do anything.”
  A receptionist said, “I don’t want to get involved.”
  A lector said, “It’s people who won’t let go of the issues who are the problem.”
The Gift of Listening Compassionately
  I despaired over the repeated rejection I received when I tried to talk to other parishioners about the clergy abuse scandal, but I kept following the issue on the inte
rnet.  In October 2006, I saw a reference to The Compassionate Listening Project.  The word “compassion” intrigued me, so I started investigating The Compassionate Listening Project.  The Project works to bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis by listening compassionately to both sides.  Both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict feel wounded.  Both sides view each other with anger and distrust.  But when wounded people are listened to deeply, they begin to heal, they begin to trust, and
they begin to open up.  People on opposite sides of a conflict begin to listen to each
  This is what is needed to heal the wounds between survivors and other Catholics, I thought.
  Sexual abuse is very wounding to the psyche.  But we Catholics feel wounded too -- by abuse and coverup of abuse but also by accusations of abuse and coverup against priests and bishops we have known to be good.
  I started training with The Compassionate Listening Project, and I preached Compassionate Listening to every Catholic I knew.  Eventually, I persuaded several parishioners of the value of listening compassionately to survivors, and we took the first steps to form our own group, Compassionate Gathering.
  We began by meeting in my living room -- several Catholic parishioners listened to survivor Elizabeth Goeke tell her story of enduring an attempted sexual    assault by a priest when she was a young nun.   The
priest who served as Elizabeth’s confessor in her convent ordered her to remain silent about the abuse.  When she could not, he told her to leave her Order.  She remained a practicing Catholic after leaving the convent and went to another priest to ask for his advice during Confession.
  This priest called her “a dirty woman” and threw her out of the church.  Elizabeth left the Catholic Church and remained silent about her abuse for nearly forty years.  In 2002, she went back to her convent for a reunion.
  Another former nun said to her, “Of all the young nuns, I thought you were the most likely to stay.  What happened?”
  Only then did Elizabeth tell her story in public.  She hoped she would be embraced by her Sisters.  Instead they questioned her decades of silence.
  But parishioners from my church listened and empathized.  Our Gathering ran an hour over the planned time.  Everyone talked about how uplifted we felt -- and we spent the afternoon talking about sex abuse!
Now we hold Compassionate Gatherings at my parish on the second Saturday of every month.  Elizabeth Goeke, who is a therapist as well as a survivor, leads a support group for survivors while parishioners listen to the story of one survivor.  Later everyone comes together to work on spiritual and practical avenues for healing.
  Several survivors have come forward.  Other parishioners hurt them with
critical comments.
  But we listen as long as we are needed.

Note:  Some names have been changed in this story to protect people.
Virginia Pickles Jones lives in Portland, Oregon.  She founded Compassionate Gathering with clergy abuse survivor, Elizabeth Goeke, to support survivors and to bring survivors together with other Catholics for mutual healing and understanding.  For more information contact Virginia Pickles Jones at or 503-866-6163.


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