Sunday, April 11, 2010

THE PATH TO HEALING

Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism for this extraordinary article from Father Tom Doyle on the path to healing for sexual abuse victims. However, it is also a brilliant summation of the path to healing and spiritual wholeness for all Catholics today in light of the horrendous scandal now unfolding day by day. The comments in parenthesis are Colleen's.

There is no available tradition or font of information about healing the spiritual wounds of clergy sexual abuse. Consequently one can only look at the damage and its sources and respond to each aspect of the trauma. It goes without saying that any therapist working with victims should be well aware of the idiosyncratic nature of sexual abuse by clergy and by Catholic clergy in particular.

The first level of response should be to the victim's self-destructive belief system. The immediate concern should be the victims' concept of a priest. He or she needs to be aided and supported in shedding the magical notion that the priest is somehow the personal representative of God or the stand-in for God. The dependence of the victim on the priest and on the clerical system needs to be first challenged and then replaced with a deeply rooted sense of personal spiritual autonomy. This "adult spirituality" of the victim-priest relationship will bring freedom from the misplaced guilt that burdens so many victims. (This is certainly clinically true, but the Church itself, cannot afford to take this route because it undercuts virtually the entire Catechism when it comes to the priesthood and sacramental system.)

De-mythologizing the concept of the priest necessarily leads to a re-imaging of the notion of God. This is perhaps the most fundamental and radical dimension of the healing process. Upon it hinges the victim's concept of Church, sin and even self. Catholic theology is rooted in a theistic notion of the Higher Power. God is a supernatural, personal being who controls all aspects of life. It is possible to move to a concept of God that does not lend itself to the toxic beliefs about guilt, suffering, sin and punishment.[42] Such a transition is easiest on the cognitive level but much more challenging to the emotions. Many victims are all too painfully aware of the personal devastation caused by the sexual abuse yet they continue to feel guilt because they have exposed a priest or sued a Church entity such as a diocese. This is all grounded in the irrational belief that God resides in a special way in the institutional Church.

Once a clergy abuse victim begins to accept a Higher Power that is non-judgmental, non-vindictive and not under the control of the ordained office-holders of the Church, he or she will be able to move to the next necessary level of healing which is separating the visible, institutional Church from the Higher Power.

This should include an unfolding of the mysterious emotional ties and reactions associated with the victim's relationship to the institutional Church. Once the variety of feelings are acknowledged it is perhaps time to cognitively examine the historical and doctrinal bases for the Church's contention that it was founded by God, is controlled by God through clerics and provides the only authentic source of spiritual security. At this stage the victims may be helped by reading one or more books that provide an objective and scholarly exposition of traditional Church teachings and traditions on the nature of the Church.[43] As they examine concept of the Higher Power they realize that what they have believed in and feared was not an authentic reality but someone else's vision of what god was all about.

Responding to the Loss of Religion.

The victim's anger at the Church and possibly at religion in general needs to be acknowledged and affirmed as a healthy response to the abuse. If it has not been done earlier in the recovery process this might be the appropriate time to examine the radical distinction between organized religion and spiritual security and strength. The toxic belief that God will be displeased if the victim feels anger towards the Church must be dispelled and replaced with a more realistic belief that the organized religious body has actually been a barrier to a secure relationship with the Higher Power. Victims attribute spiritual power to the visible Church because it has been presented as the only pathway to God. Most Catholics are never allowed to progress beyond a level of spiritual and religious development that is early-adolescent at best. The recovery process from clergy sexual abuse offers a unique opportunity for spiritual maturity. This maturity will provide the emotional security needed for whatever choices the victims makes about the place or religion, worship or a higher power in his or her life.

Affirming the Church's responsibility.

The institutional Catholic Church has thus far avoided accepting its responsibility for the culture of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up. Church authorities have made public apologies for "mistakes made" and have shifted the blame to others such as the media or the medical profession.[44] Yet no public statement has given evidence of a full awareness of the causality of clergy abuse or of the damage done to those abused.

Victim/survivors need to explore the substance of some of the official apologies and then come to an emotional as well as cognitive acceptance of the fact that the institution and its office holders will not because they cannot respond in a manner that would reflect full awareness and accepted responsibility. Some victims get "stuck" in an almost endless contentious process trying to get the official Church to realize the enormity of their actions. They need to come to a realization that the Church's narcissistic self-concept of a perfect society renders its leaders incapable of comprehending that the responsibility is rooted in the very core of the institutional Catholic Church.

The Church's responsibility is directly related to the process whereby it has educated and formed Catholics from childhood to adulthood. The victims need to be able to see this as effective pre-conditioning that is related not only to the grooming for the abuse itself but also for their subsequent guilt and shame in responding to the violation of their bodies and souls. (They also have to understand that experiencing this same conditioning is the reason their fellow laity turn on them and irrationally support what ever excuse the Vatican or a given bishop uses.)

A key aspect of this process is the concept of sexuality internalized by most Catholics. The guilt, shame and fear associated with it are responsible for much of the post-abuse trauma. Re-examining the Church-given sexual awareness can be a slow, difficult and often fear-laden process but it must be done in order to guide the recovering victim in the internalization of a healthier notion of sexuality.

Finding an authentic spirituality.

Most clergy abuse victims did not realize that they had a spiritual dimension to their being until it was taken from them. The final phase of healing involves the discovery of this spiritual dimension and the acceptance of an authentic, life-giving spirituality. God or the Higher Power is re-imaged from an omniscient super person to a source of power and love that is not shaped or limited by human conceptions. The traditional relationship with God was far too enmeshed with loyalty and obedience to the deity's self-styled earthly representatives. When this is abandoned there is room for the transition to a spiritual relationship with a Higher Power or even an institutional Church that is not a source of pain, fear and guilt but rather enhances life and provides joy and balance. This non-toxic spirituality requires a healthy sense of self-worth if it is to take root and grow. The path to emotional and spiritual health is often long, always arduous and usually bewildering at times. Yet is can be traversed with an outcome that promises not only freedom from the spiritual pain but a new and hope-filled future.

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