This is the first in a series of related articles by this author. She writes directly from her experience as a Roman Catholic, yet the topic is no less relevant to the Orthodox Church.
I was wounded at the nexus where the holiness of priests touches the innocence of children. In my case, that involved being sexually and emotionally harmed by a series of Catholic priests for a period lasting over a decade. One day when I was nineteen years old, I drove away and did not return until many years later, after finally I had accepted the Lord’s indwelling. At the time of my escape, I had grown to hate the Catholic Church; but I nevertheless returned quietly, alone and guarded, to Mass, to Adoration and to praying my rosary. I was a stealth Catholic, until the emotional impact of what had happened drove me into exile.
Contrary to media caricatures, I had no repressed memories. Like fellow victims I compartmentalized the experience and, in particular, its traumatic emotions. Unfortunately, the emotions eventually bubble up. As adults, we find so many ways to outrun the past, or bury it. I was self-destructive, but called it “youth” as I just continued the harm started by my abusers. I was “high-functioning,” which only meant I carried a private shame agony that kept me isolated from people who were able to care about me—and for me. Busy with a good career in New York City, I thought it was all working. I thought I had escaped.
Then, it happened. I just hit a wall whose details I’ll spare you. It was awful. Someone suggested I try therapy, which I began with the enthusiasm of a neophyte. My goal was to change my life, start anew, as fast as possible. It never occurred to me that abuse, which was then five years behind me, was still pulling the strings in my emotional and spiritual life.
Within the first year of therapy, psychology revealed its limits. It relied on a medical model. Abusers were sick, their impulses were pathological. What I had experienced went beyond this scholarship. I had experienced evil. Therapy could not account for that, or for moral wrong. I was growing disillusioned and restless. We were stuck within a telescopic framework by which a medical model defines the human person. And there I was, a child of God trying in vain to find my identity in clinical terms.
Meanwhile, I continued to try, with limited success, to enter a church or attend Mass. I wanted therapy to help me overcome the shakes. Instead, the therapeutic model dismissed this as a repetition complex, i.e., a masochistic seeking of repeated harm. Alternatively, a therapist condoned it as self-soothing, like meditation or a warm bath. Therapy was simply not able to comprehend that I needed the Eucharist to find my human identity. My therapist at the outset viewed my return to the Eucharist as noncompliance, but I couldn’t stay away from it. Without telling her, I kept trying to sit for long periods in a quiet, empty church where I could spy anyone approaching to hurt me as I gazed on the Monstrance [the Blessed Sacrament on display]. As St. Peter said, “Where else can we go?”
It has been a great grace that our Christian communities more freely to turn to therapy for professional care when someone is struggling psychologically with a situation or a mental illness—acute or chronic. Oddly, however, trauma and mental illness seem to have been too fully delegated to psychological care, which, like any health care, is important, sometimes life-saving, but ethically constrained, as a clinical science, from offering the human person completion or fulfillment. Only Jesus Christ can offer that—with particular promises for innocent victims.
Here, it seems to me, the Church has lost confidence in preaching eternal reality and divine identity to the traumatized or mentally ill, especially those sexually abused as children by priests. The Truth is no less compelling—or needed—by us, regardless of whatever crippling shame or self-doubt the institution may feel. Certainly, a trauma-informed language is critical to avoid re-wounding the wounded; but, then again, in a world so terribly traumatized by a culture of death, a trauma-informed ministry has great evangelical force generally.
I’ve come to believe that, in this way, the Church herself is wounded by the same evil that destroyed my childhood. She bears an imprint of my wounds on her. Many people mistakenly see abuse such as mine as sexual in nature, but I assure you it was violence by sexual means. It was domination that destroyed free will. It was an ascendancy of lies not just in my life, but in lives beyond mine—family, teachers, parish, priests, and Church. My wound is not, I have discovered, my wound only.
Consider bishops. Priests by identity, they were and are called to forgive. Predators, with lies as the cornerstone of everything they do, perverted that forgiveness into enabling. Enabling became complicity, and the web of lies tightened. Church leadership lost credibility, and the Prince of lies smiles. The real problem is that the Truth entrusted to the Church seemed tarnished in the eyes of the world, and the boldness of belief was cowed before our Church’s collective and very public and very terrible sins. Priests, whose very lives and vocations are the exact opposite of what I experienced in abuse, became objects of derision or doubt, and even suffered doubts within their own hearts that they had something of critical relevance to offer to a victim of clergy abuse. To the degree this accurately describes any priest, the abuse that wounded my life still pulls emotional and spiritual strings in the life of the Bride of Christ.
On the plus side, therapy inadvertently forced me to articulate Christian realities. One was that, after doing all the work with one’s counselor, after reading all the self-help books and gathering up all the common wisdom, after all the practicing all the skills to manage the post-traumatic stress, after making whatever peace you can make, you are still left waiting at the end of your own power. We do not heal ourselves. We all need a Savior. Nothing other than our Lord Jesus Christ will suffice. Not for me. Not for anyone wounded with me. For this reason, we must preach to each other, using our faith stories of wounds and healing in grace.
One of the most difficult realities of therapy is how, as we heal in professional care, our change affects all those wounded with us. The same is true with even greater impact as our spirits heal, too. Without a particular effort, survivors of abuse begin to heal others without knowing. These impossible wounds we bear in our lives become, also, gifts or even callings to serve. The very stories by which the Church may be shamed are those that the Lord will use to heal all of us, and heal those beyond the wounds of abuse in our Church.
This is a bold claim, and in it I have no doubt. For this reason, my service is to bring faith stories of all wounded by the abuse I suffered into service, in dialogue and in study, fostering a trauma-informed ministry that inspires all Christians to find a new evangelical confidence serving a wounded world.
Teresa Hartnett is the co-founder and editor of The Healing Voices magazine and co-author (under the name T. Pitt Green, with Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS) of Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse—A Christian Approach. Through Spirit Fire Ministry she partners with dioceses, priests, sisters, and other Christian ministers to promote healing after abuse or trauma in faith settings. The website offers many free resources. She also manages operations for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and runs her own publishing consultancy.