Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Day A Church Listened to the Father of a Clergy Abuse Survivor

Changing the Paradigm:  Listening Brings Healing for Survivors and other Catholics


Virginia Pickles

            The last Saturday in March 2009, two Santa Barbara Franciscan priests listened as the father of a clergy abuse survivor spoke.  They sat in the conference room of a Catholic Church.  Rectangular, Formica tables arranged in a large, closed square, soft light from the rainy day filtered through the windows of the former the former Catholic school.  An African tapestry covered one table.  On that table a candle burned in a glass vase ringed by a statue St. Francis, a three-inch painted wood replica of the crucifix of San Damiano, and a print copy of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis.  Fr. Armando, who was wearing a grey shirt with a white clerical collar, sat at the table with the candle.   Fr. Larry, who was wearing his brown Franciscan habit, sat next to him.  The father, a middle aged man with a lined face and black hair, sat at the other end of the arrangement of tables, tears streaming down his cheeks.  He spoke haltingly.
            Growing up, he was the only Catholic boy on his block.  Other boys attacked him for his faith.  He fought back with his fists.
            His mother told him, “This is the wrong way to fight for your faith.  If you want to defend your faith, go into the seminary.”
            So he entered the seminary.  He studied for the Catholic priesthood for several years, leaving when he realized that he was called to be father and husband more than he was called to be a priest.
            “But, “ he said, “Catholic priests taught me the values that I have now.  I support my (survivor) child because of my Catholic values.”
            He teared up again; his mouth trembled.
            The whole Compassionate Gathering listened attentively as he spoke: the two Franciscan priests, a man physically abused by his father, a woman sexually abused by her father, and several Catholic parishioners who want to reach out to survivors of abuse with compassion.
            Compassionate Gathering ( was cofounded in 2007 by a group of Catholic parishioners, sex abuse survivors, clergy abuse survivors, and other members of the community to heal the wounds of abuse in our society.  Until now, the paradigm has been that survivors of clergy abuse could only trust other survivors to support and believe them.  Compassionate Gathering changes that paradigm.  We offer survivors of all forms of abuse mentorin, spiritual support, and referral to other support services.  Then, when survivors reach the right stage of healing, we bring them together with other Catholics and members of the community for mutual healing and understanding in Compassionate Gatherings.  We meet  have been meeting monthly at Fr. Armando’s church.  To bring diverse Gatherings of people together, we use the spiritual discipline of Compassionate Listening adapted from skills developed by The Compassionate Listening Project ( and Santa Barbara therapist and peace worker, Gene Knudsen Hoffman.  Fr. Armando Lopez not only gives us a meeting place, he also helped us get our start and passionately supports our ministry.   
            Survivors of abuse are often filled with deep pain and anger.  They exhaust the people around them, sometimes telling the same story over and over again.  Family members and friends stop listening in order to cope with their own stress.  As a result, survivors feel betrayed and isolated.  But when we nurture the skills to listen to stories of pain compassionately, listening becomes uplifting for everyone present.  By listening to the wounded as long as needed, as often as needed, we end up being a part of the healing process.  Eventually the wounded person is able move forward through recovery to healing.  Sometimes they move to reach out to others and help them on the path to healing.
            For the father whose child was abused by another priest, it was deeply moving to have two Franciscan priests and a room full of parishioners and community members listen to him with so much compassion.  But meeting with two priests was not possible for him when he first came to us in April 2008.  He is a devout Catholic who continues to attend Mass every Sunday.  When his daughter confessed being abused by a priest to her parents, he went to Church personnel for support.  They were unable to give the family the support they needed, and the experience wounded them deeply.  It was not until the father’s third Compassionate Gathering that that he met Fr. Armando, and then he met him only as an anonymous participant in a Gathering.  Later, the father and his wife met Fr. Armando again at one of our potlucks.  They talked to him about their pain and found him very compassionate and supportive.  Finally, the father was able to tell his family’s story before two Franciscan priests.
            The father concluded his story by thanking us.
            “Our family was standing on one leg,” he said, “You (Compassionate Gathering) have given us another leg to stand on.”
            Next Fr. Larry spoke, “The clergy abuse lawsuits just hit the surface of this issue, through Compassionate Listening, we are able to go to a much deeper level of healing.
            As this was Fr. Larry’s first time at a Gathering, he added, “Thank you (Compassionate Gathering) for helping us (the Catholic Church) heal our wounds.”
            Then Fr. Armando spoke, “When Franciscan leadership transfers me from this parish, I am going to start a Compassionate Listening group wherever I go.  I really believe in the healing power of Compassionate Listening.”
            We Catholics find the clergy abuse issue difficult to deal with.  We feel wounded by the lawsuits and accusations of abuse against priests we love and cover up against bishops and Provincial ministers we revere.  We want survivors to forgive, forget and move on.
            When we express these sentiments, we unwittingly drive survivors away from us and validate the prevailing paradigm – that survivors cannot trust other Catholics.  But we Catholics can change the paradigm.  We can offer survivors of clergy abuse our support and belief.  We can listen to the stories of everyone wounded by abuse with compassion.  And when we do this, all sides of the Catholic clergy abuse issue find healing, all sides are uplifted.
Epilogue:  I wish this story had a happy ending.  It did not.  The Franciscan Order did not embrace my efforts to bring survivors of clergy abuse together with other Catholics.  Only these few priests supported my efforts.  Eventually, the Franciscans left the parish.  They claimed that it was due to their declining numbers,  Their numbers are declining but they had just started staffing another parish in Western Oregon, and the parishioners of St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish had loved and supported the Franciscans more than any other parish.  I was also not supported by the survivor groups or the lawyers.  So we helped a few people and then our mission ended due to lack of interest and support.  Honestly, the leadership of the Catholic Church is never going to do the right thing unless the people of the Catholic Church insist that they do so.  Standing outside of a church informs parishioners that there is a problem but most parishioners hearts and minds aren't changed by that.  I think the way to change hearts and minds is to bring people inside the church but even that won't change hearts and minds because most people don't know how to listen to words of pain and anger without getting upset themselves.  If you teach people how to listen with compassion, you will teach them how to open their hearts and minds.  They will both provide the right support to the wounded and be much more open to the message that much more needs to be done to end abuse and heal the wounds.

Well, I couldn't get the Church to do the right thing, so I got frustrated and left.  That and my kids became teens with much more to do outside of the church (driving time with mom to get a license, volunteer jobs, sports activities.  I don't know that I won't ever go back to a Catholic Church.  I do know I won't go back to St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  More likely I am to go back to Quaker Meeting  where I came from before I converted to the Catholic Church.  My ancestors who came to this country in 1687 were Quakers.  Quakers who worship the traditional way in silent meetings have no paid ministers.  I am drawn to that idea.  Holiness is not conferred by one's title or training.  It is conferred by one's actions.  Fr. Armando and Fr. Larry were holy men.  The leadership of the Franciscan Order not so much.

Please note: That St, Elizabeth of Hungary Parish is a made up name for a real place and, if there is a St. Elizabeth Province of Franciscans, I don't know where they are.  I made up the name because I was very inspired by St. Francis and by the Franciscan Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.  She was a queen who felt it was her duty to live simply and minister to the poor.  When her husband, the king died, his family threw her out of the palace because they did not like her habit of ministering to the poor.  She died young.

Virginia Jones is a parishioner at a Catholic Church staffed by Santa Barbara Franciscan priests and a cofounder of Compassionate Gathering.  She can be reached at

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