MAKING DISTINCTIONS: MOVING BEYOND CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE by Teresa Hartnett

This is the second in a series of related articles by this author. Her experiences as a Roman Catholic have relevance for the Orthodox Church as well. 

girlprayingMany survivors of abuse can be triggered by simple gestures or images. In my case, it’s a challenge I have learned to manage well enough. It was terrible when I discovered how my feelings on a perfectly normal day could suddenly crash into dark despair because a gesture or an image rattled old feelings of terror or grief branded long buried. It was as if the abuse I had worked so hard to escape had resumed emotionally.

Most adult survivors of child abuse find creative ways to deal with triggers. Many do so without turning to addiction or self-abuse. Others do so after overcoming addiction or self-abuse or other unhealthful life choices. It’s a very real possibility, which is seldom featured in media or more generally, that we often build well and whole lives.

When I first grappled with triggers and how they blur the distinction between the current moment and past feelings, my therapist suggested a single phrase: “This time is not that time.” The mantra was a lifesaver, drawing me out of the roiling past while I was at work or on a crowded New York subway. While it worked, it also hurt. Each instance was a reminder that, after everything I had done to escape the past, I had not escaped at all. What I had done instead was recreate a version of my childhood as a young adult and called it “living free.” 

Soon, I would learn what freedom really is, but first I needed to make distinctions that untied what kept me constrained by my abusers’ lies. For example, I believed I was guilty for the abuse. I confused my own self with the culprit. Why? Because that is what abusers tell us whom they abuse. We are to blame. We are the problem. The greater the imbalance of power between the abuser and the abused, the greater the social fabric lines up behind the abuser, the more irrefutable is the abuser’s lie. That lie is branded on our hearts and our personalities after the abuser is done with us and discards us like a used syringe.

From that point, we are left with the lying mirror. What we see is what remains from whatever our abusers said to achieve their evil ends. And what they said always had the same subtext: that we had no worth other than utility. To the degree these falsehoods affect any survivor’s self-concept, they are a barrier to adult healing. That’s why the wound of abuse lasts so long. Healing requires confronting the lies, changing the mirror.

The first critical distinction is between an adult’s force and a child’s dependence. Such a thing had never occurred to me. It came as a shock that I actually should have been protected. And then, I had to internalize a distinction between loving and grooming. I was born for the former, my abusers were expert at the latter. Grooming by a predator priest, of course, blurs the distinction between God’s love the predator preaches and the grooming he passes off as love.  

All survivors of abuse grapple with shattered relationships. We mostly all grapple with the question of why God abandoned us to suffer. Because my abusers were Catholic priests, my trust in the Church was broken, too. It is a hard distinction for fellow survivors of clergy abuse to make between the Church as a failed moral authority complicit with abusers, and as a moral authority worthy to offer counsel in our healing. That survivors remain in pain or exile from the faith because of this particular impasse pains me personally and greatly.

Sadly, the vocal or visible Catholic religious and laity alike seem publicly to agree that victims should “just get over it,” and even fault survivors for not forgiving. They are conflating our need to forgive with their wish to avoid the topic. This extends the wounds in relationship, because these strong voices blur, like our bishops in the United States of that era, the critical distinction between forgiving and enabling, between predator and priest. I grieve the persistence of this confusion deeply, but my life in God is testimony enough to refute their falsehood.  

Anyway, healing doesn’t happen looking outward. In my own heart, I faced the hardest distinction of all—between forgiveness and surrender. Every expert source—both in psychology and in religion—says forgiveness is a lynchpin in healing; but forgiveness did not come easily to me.  For one thing, the anger fueled by unforgiveness can be protective. It would take time before I would be safe enough to forgive.

The Lord, with His grace, nudges us—or catapults us, depending on the good Lord’s wristwatch—toward joy in Him if we but seek, and so we are drawn to surrender to Him. I share with all human persons a resistance to surrendering my will to His will. In addition, my very real problem was that what I had learned about surrender in a faith setting was what abusers had taught me early. Surrender was terrifying, confusing—and created lasting shame. Surrender led to annihilation, not the fulfilment God offers. Parts of my personality, my childhood, had indeed died this way. It was reasonable early in the process to resist surrender as a way of choosing life over death.  

Then there was the distinction between gift and work. Every Christian confronts this reality in life. In my case, I felt entitled to my fragile little shard of peace because I was sure that I had earned it, escaping abusers and the setting where they seemed to roam—the Church. The price of peace was grief and exile. Alas. My formula was not delivering the promised dividend, because God’s peace is never earned. It is a free gift. Our Lord paid the price. What I suffered was nothing compared to His suffering—and to His reason for suffering.

For an adult who had been used as a child and discarded by abusers, the idea that such a gift would be offered to a shame-filled me in particular presented a paradigm shift of cataclysmic proportions—that is, a change that felt like yet another annihilation. My hand, which had been clenched in anger or resolve, or busy reaching or grabbing for security, needed to open and receive. I would never be the same. God waited.

God was un-teaching me. I had to learn His Truth. Only His Truth could break the bonds created by the lying predators. Sometimes this un-learning was as confusing and painful as the abuse. All survivors really suffer as we heal. In my case, I can say it has been worth the grief and misery, and I am grateful my recovery helped me surrender in infinitesimal increments to God, not in the abstract, but in a real, observable state of recovering human psychology.

We all make choices about healing from abuse. I chose to focus on the Lord more than others have needed to do. In focusing on Him, I simply stopped caring about what happened to hurt me—without losing my commitment to protecting children now and advocating for trauma-informed therapy and trauma-informed ministry. Many survivors have walked through a far more conscious and definitive turning point with forgiveness, but this is just my story.

The Creator and Healer of my psychology poses a question to me, and to all survivors of abuse and trauma, and to all human persons, in Deuteronomy 30:15. God says “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.” Then, God explains how choosing one brings destruction and estrangement, and choosing the other brings life. We emerge from our desert or our exile and, in claiming our promised land and true identity, face many defining battles where we must trust God even more.

Compared to fruit we harvest from the lies of abusers, however, these struggles are worthy, these conflicts purposeful, and this identity as a child of God is free and true and truly free.

The title of this article is taken from a chapter in the author’s book, Restoring Sanctuary, published under her pseudonym, Teresa Pitt Green.

See the author’s initial article for Orthodoxy in Dialogue on the theme of childhood sexual abuse, “Many Wounds, One Savior.”

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.

Ms. Hartnett is available to conduct workshops or engage one-on-one with Orthodox bishops, priests, and laypersons who minister to abusers and victims/survivors of abuse, or who are themselves abusers or victims/survivors of abuse.