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Abuse victims need to hear "I'm Sorry"
Words Heather and Holly have yet to hear
Abuse victims need to hear, Im sorry
Editors note: The following articles are the second part of a Catholic Register series exploring how well the Roman Catholic Church in Canada has implemented the recommendations of From Pain to Hope, the 1992 report on clergy sexual abuse of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

BY SABITRI GHOSH
Catholic Register Special
Every Christmas, Irene Deschenes dreads hearing them: the tiptoe cadences, the lullaby lyrics, which cue so many emotions:

Silent night
Holy night
All is calm
All is bright &

We used to sing Silent Night in the church choir as children, explains the 43-year-old mother of two. It just really saddens me.


img182
Psychologist Mary Klein
worked with dozens
of abuse victims
Shed hoped to escape it this past Christmas, now that her kids had grown up and moved away, and there was no tree to put up or carols to sing.

Still, she couldnt avoid hearing it on the radio and in the stores. Even minced into bland, wordless Muzak, its imperturbable serenity still upset her.

Its a real loss of my childhood and my innocence, she says, repeating the grief-stricken refrain of all adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Yet Deschenes grief goes even deeper than most. She was abused by a priest.

It was the post-Vatican II heyday of the early 1970s. The local pastor had a reputation as a cool priest, child-friendly and particularly fond of girls, whom he allowed to be altar servers at his Chatham, Ont., parish. He recruited Deschenes and other students from the nearby Catholic school to fold bulletins in the rectory  making sure to thank each one of them separately afterward.

I remember, says Deschenes, he had a great big armchair, reclining chair, and that was the chair to fear.

What happened in that chair remained unprocessed for the next 20 years until Deschenes, now married and living in London, Ont., took her daughter to see the priest celebrating her First Communion. He said, I want to speak alone to your daughter. And I said, No. And I had no idea why Id said that.

Struggling to understand her disturbing reaction, Deschenes thought back to when she was her daughters age and volunteering at her parish. The blurry memories came into wrenching focus. She called a priest, who put her in touch with the bishops delegate. The diocese said it would deal with the priest and pay for her to receive counselling.

Meanwhile, Deschenes told her best friend and her husband. Both of them cried. And that made me feel really good, she says, that they understood how painful it was for me.

Another Catholic friend proved less responsive.

She just kind of said, Oh. We couldve been talking about the weather, it felt like.

Others praised the diocese for paying for her therapy, a sentiment that quickly began to grate on Deschenes: My reaction was, Well, its the least they can do. 

Then, according to Deschenes, staff at the diocese started questioning the cost of her counselling and asking how many more sessions she needed. To her, it seemed that they  like her friend  were prodding her to move on, and fast.

What she really wanted, she explains, was to feel heard; and I wanted them to say, Thats awful. What happened to you was wrong, and should never have happened. And so lets make it right. How can we do that; what do you need from us? 

Mary Klein, a Milton, Ont., psychologist whos worked with dozens of abuse victims, says their need for a palpable reaction and for moral reassurance is genuine and profound.

Its that people understand what has really happened to them, that they understand the depth of whats happened, that theyre not just brushing it off. Theres also a level at which a victim, even though theyre told intellectually that its not their fault still, at some level, struggles with that, blaming themselves.

This is especially true of people abused by priests, for whom the phenomenon of self-blame can be much more lacerating than for other victims.

Studies show that sexually abused children go through significantly less trauma if they have a clear-cut victim-offender dichotomy. Since society historically never identified priests as offenders, people abused by priests often suffer a unique kind of torment in trying to account for what happened to them.

Thats why, Klein explains, so many victims of clergy sexual abuse long to hear an apology  if not from their perpetrator, then from someone representing the church.

For someone to say, Im truly sorry, tells them once again, at a deeply loving level, You did nothing wrong,  she says.

Deschenes never heard those words until years later, after she filed a civil suit against the diocese. When a settlement was reached following intense legal wrangling, the dioceses vicar general, Fr. Tony Daniels (now Londons auxiliary bishop), came up to her and personally apologized on behalf of the church.

Thats all I wanted to hear seven years ago, she remembers telling him, and we wouldnt be here today.

Survivors of clergy sexual abuse like Deschenes often speak in terms of getting it. To them, the hierarchy, most clergy and the Catholic population at large simply dont get it: not just the pain caused by the abuse, but by their failure to reach out and treat them like members of the same church.

Theyre not the only ones to makes this observation. From Pain to Hope, the 1992 report on sexual abuse released by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, found that the uneasiness felt by Catholics in such circumstances prevented them from responding adequately to victims and that consequently, the victims and their families once more felt rejected. It tried to address what it termed their revictimization through several recommendations, most notably the creation of advocacy committees for victims.

And yet, From Pain to Hope, which gets near-unanimous praise for preventing further incidents of victimization, seems to have made little difference for Deschenes and other victims who already exist.

So, what happened  or, rather, didnt? A striking trend was revealed in The Catholic Registers study of how dioceses have implemented From Pain to Hope. While many have put rigorous protocols in place for reacting promptly to allegations and stopping the wrong people from becoming priests, the victim-outreach guidelines fared less well. In more than 90 per cent of dioceses surveyed, for example, the committee for victims recommended in From Pain to Hope was either defunct or never materialized. It would have provided victims with individualized support and pastoral care  a far more direct approach than the current practice of paying for third party counselling.

The spectre of these stillborn recommendations haunts the work of the CCCB task force now reviewing From Pain to Hope. In December 2003, it issued an open invitation to victims to contact it, presenting them with a dilemma over whether to respond or to simply ignore the church they felt had so long ignored them.

Deschenes assumed she couldnt respond. Four years earlier, in settling her lawsuit, shed unwittingly signed off on a clause that barred her from discussing her case with anyone except her lawyer or therapist.

I thought I couldnt disclose the amount of money that I received, she explains. But when I read further, I realized I couldnt even say that I was sexually abused by a priest.

Her friend Nancy Mayer, on the other hand, did meet with the task force. A social worker who specializes in counselling victims of clergy sexual abuse, she used the opportunity to highlight numerous instances in which dioceses had neglected peoples needs. Like the time she accompanied a victim making a complaint: the interview took place in a church rectory, an environment that triggered traumatic memories; plus, Mayer recounted, the priest conducting it clearly had no experience in what to do or what to say. And if I hadnt been there to offer psychological care, I think the experience wouldve been far more devastating to that particular person.

To the two task force members, Mayer described how she later wrote to the diocese, informing it of her concerns about how the session went, and offering her feedback as a mental health professional.

What I got back, she said, was a lawyers letter advising me to cease and desist.

Summing up, Mayer told the shaken pair: I want you to realize that your response, in fact, causes more damage.

Privately, task force members report being stunned by the acuity of pain and anger theyve encountered. Its edged them away from an initial focus on safe environments for pastoral work to confronting the broken relationship between abuse survivors and the church. As their co-chair, Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, delicately relayed at the CCCB plenary meeting last October, There is some feeling among the victims weve talked to that the victims have been somewhat ignored and poorly dealt with by dioceses.

Part of the problem, as Mayers anecdote underscored, is that many dioceses lack the knowledge to really grasp why and how they must reach out.

The Catholic Registers research seems to bear her out. Among dioceses surveyed, barely half  51.6 per cent  had a professional experienced in working with abuse victims on their advisory committees. As a result, many church leaders remain unprepared for the emotional turbulence of coming to terms with victims.

As Weisgerber candidly admits, When I think of victims, so often the ones who always come to mind are the very angry ones, and theyre writing books, and doing this and doing that, and theyre the ones I want to keep out of my way.

While Deschenes struggled to get on with her life, the diocese of London was arriving at a critical juncture of its own. Under Bishop Ronald Fabbro and Auxiliary Bishop Daniels  the man whod apologized to Deschenes  it had decided to try to budge one of the single biggest obstacles standing between the church and victims. Daniels had first stumbled across it a decade earlier, when, assigned to pilot the diocese through the initial wave of abuse-related lawsuits, he received some surprise instructions.

Just hand them over to the insurance company, he was told, and they will defend the diocese.

Its a central, if little known, tenet of the insurers creed. From hiring the lawyers to dictating the terms of the settlement, the insurer gets total control over any cases it might have to cover. Refusing to obey is, in effect, refusing coverage.

But that creed, and the policies that followed, were formulated generations ago  when no one talked about sexual abuse, much less thought of it as the subject of a potential claim.

And, in dealing with Deschenes and other victims, Daniels grew increasingly uneasy with letting it take precedence over the churchs own values: By simply handing the case over to the insurance company, he remarks, we were giving up our responsibility for pastoral care.

Daniels gut instinct propelled the diocese into intensive discussions with its insurer. Warned that it could be forfeiting its coverage in certain scenarios, Daniels says it agreed to accept that risk for the sake of the victims.

Operating on a new understanding with its insurer, the diocese made a series of bold moves last year. It averted an insurer-driven appeal of the $2.7 million awarded to abuse victim John Swales; and, in accordance with her request, it voided Deschenes confidentiality agreement. Further, as a result of its negotiations with its insurer, the diocese announced that all other confidentiality agreements between it and abuse victims  which they call gag orders  would be nullified on request.

It was never our intention to prevent victims from being able to talk about their experience, states Daniels, adding that he, like Deschenes, hadnt really studied the degree of confidentiality that was involved.

Today, Deschenes can speak to anyone about any aspect of her story. Its just so freeing to be able to talk about it, she says.

Or not. For now, with nothing to keep her from contacting the task force, Deschenes has consciously chosen not to.

Id love to be involved with the church in reaching out to victims, she explains, but I dont feel that theyre ready to do that yet, and Im not sure if Id be able to participate in that if the genuine concern on their part wasnt there.

Weisgerber acknowledges that pastoral care of victims is something I have not been too sensitive to, or aware of. He presumes the same holds true for other bishops.

Probably, if people come forward and ask for it, they would get it. Thats not the dynamic that should be in place: there should be a kind of an outreach. But consciously or unconsciously, theres a kind of feeling that theyre not interested; they were hurt, and they got a settlement, and theyre not interested in us.

But some, like the leadership in London, are starting to recognize that the church must do more to manifest its contrition  even if it begins with challenging the powerful systems in the way. As Klein notes, Its the difference between remorse and repentance. Remorse is I feel badly for you, and repentance is, Im going to change my view of the world and how I do things because of you.

As bishops await the release of the task forces report later this year  I think were all in position, says Daniels, where, whatever advice we can get, well take  Deschenes waits, too. For what, shes not quite sure.

Im stuck in grief, she relates with a fragile smile. The last time I went to therapy, I said, OK, Im ready to do anger; lets get past this grief. I just dont know how to get beyond it. Its such a loss, not only of my innocence as a child, but it just feels like the foundation of my life was pulled out from under me. And I cant get up. And it doesnt feel like anyones helping me.

From her devout Catholic upbringing to her early parish involvement (making her easy prey for an abuser) to her stubborn clinging to bedrock beliefs in the Golden Rule and Christian charity, Deschenes  like most victims of clergy sexual abuse  was far more invested in her faith than the average Catholic. Even now, she speaks with nostalgia of helping couples with marriage preparation, serving as a greeter at Mass and facilitating Engaged and Marriage Encounter sessions.

The community was so important to me, she says. We shared a common bond, just by virtue of our faith and going to church every Sunday and seeing the same people.

These days, Deschenes thinks often about those people. In a way, shes still holding vigil  waiting, hoping, for confirmation that the faith they once shared meant something more than simply sharing a pew.

After all the publicity surrounding the lifting of her confidentiality agreement, she figured somebody wouldve contacted her. No one has; though a friend did say that the current priest at her childhood parish had apologized and prayed for her during Mass.

He didnt call me and tell me that, she says.

To survivors like Deschenes, in desperate need of support, such muteness seems like an inability to care and sets in motion the vicious circle of misperceptions  spun even more wildly out of control by the mechanics of insurance claims and litigation  that keeps them and the church apart.

But there is a way to break the vicious circle: by reaching out to individual survivors, who are in no position to reach out themselves. Klein compares the situation to that of a woman whos been abused by a man believing that all men are cruel and vicious  unless and until she meets a man who treats her otherwise.

If theres any kind of abuse, she explains, its healing for a person to have an experience of someone whos different. If survivors dont have any corrective experience  if nobodys coming forward  then they dont get a chance to correct that.

Nor do Catholics get the chance to learn from them. Klein argues, if we really opened up and heard them, we could learn about our own Christian faith. We learn about God through how we heal, how we grow, and people whove been through a nightmare and have faced difficulties, faced brokenness, theyre the ones who actually teach us about how God heals.

So, for the people who have been hurt, to know that people are listening and learning and growing gives them a sense of meaning. They do want to help other people; they want to make sure that other people dont get hurt.

That, she points out, is redemptive.

(Ghosh is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ont.)

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