As a psychologist and spiritual director, Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell has received and counselled victims of clergy sexual abuse. The sexual abuse crisis in the Church looms large and we need to understand the long-term psychological, physical and spiritual effects of abuse on those whom this evil has been inflicted, as she carefully and painfully explains.
The recent release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report revealed that over the course of 70 years 300 perpetrators in six states sexually abused at least 1000 victims. The actual numbers are likely to be far higher in reality given how difficult it is for survivors to come forward and share their stories.
In the wake of the blame game being played out between different factions of the Church’s leadership, the risk is that we lose focus on the needs of the survivors of clergy sexual abuse. They should be our primary pastoral focus.
It is clear that we urgently need to address the systemic problems which have created a culture within which these kinds of atrocities could happen and be covered up.
We also need to pay attention to the healing needed by those who have already been victims of clergy sexual abuse who will forever live with its effects. Our extreme responsibility towards them cannot be ignored or denied.
People may find it very difficult to disclose what happened to them for all kinds of reasons. Often there is a sense of shame attached to the experience. They may blame themselves for what happened to them. This is a common feeling among survivors of sexual abuse but the person abused is never to blame.
There is always a power dynamic at play. The abuser may ‘groom’ the person, seeking to gain their trust over time and to manipulate them into ‘allowing’ the abuse. They may even have been threatened by the perpetrator if they ever told anyone about the abuse.
Where the abuser is someone respected or trusted in the family or community (usually the case when the abuser is a priest), the person may feel that there is even less chance that they will be believed if they were to tell others what was done to them.
Sexual abuse includes all forms of sexual violence, ranging from molestation to rape or any other form of non-consensual sexual contact. It is an experience of trauma which may be a single experience or which may be repeated on multiple occasions.
The impact of sexual abuse is deep and pervasive. Its effects tend to be felt in many different areas of a survivor’s life. Symptoms may include panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares or sensory flashes, emotional shutdown, numbing, repression of memories, anxiety, depression, disrupted emotional relationships and low self-esteem. Physical symptoms like sexual dysfunctions, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal and gynaecological disorders are not uncommon in victims of sexual abuse.
Survivors of sexual abuse are at extremely high risk for long-term mental health problems. They may experience depression which can be intense and long-lasting and which may put them at risk of suicide. Chronic anxiety is often a struggle for survivors who may suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as flashbacks and hyper-vigilance.
Many survivors battle to form healthy and fulfilling relationships. When people have been abused as children it may be especially difficult to enter into a healthy intimate relationship as an adult. Addictions such as alcoholism and drugs are up to 26 times more common among survivors of abuse because there is a need to dull overwhelming pain.
When a person is abused by a priest (or another person with spiritual authority, for example, a spiritual director) the impact is not only emotional but also spiritual.
The experience of such trauma is likely to have a significant impact on the person’s relationship with God. They may experience God as impotent or powerless for not having prevented the trauma. They may feel that God has abandoned them.
Survivors often struggle to pray because in the silence intrusive thoughts or memories of the abuse may surface. While some survivors understandably want nothing to do with the Church, others have a very conflicted and painful relationship with it.
They may long to be part of a Church they love and desire to receive the sacraments. At the same time, they may be re-traumatised every time they set foot inside the Church. Often the Church was a key part of their lives so there is the loss of a sense of a safe place and a community.
Many of those who have sought help from the Church, have faced a second layer of trauma. Often they are not believed. It is devastating to a survivor to discover that the person who abused them is now ministering somewhere else, especially, if they were assured that the person had been removed from ministry. They could feel that they have been re-victimised.
It is a sad indictment of the Church that the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests recommends that they don’t go first to the Church to report their abuse – as for many this has been a traumatic experience – and that if they do they should take another person with them to act as a witness.
The Church should offer access to psychological and spiritual support for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Many simply cannot afford the kind of psychological support needed.
It is a grave misconception to think that offering a few months of therapy is going to enable victims of this kind of abuse to heal. The damage is usually so great that healing is a long-term process.
There are centres for priests who perpetrate abuse to go and get treatment. Where do the victims of abuse go to heal? There need to be places made available by the Church where there are well-trained people to provide survivors with the support they need to heal, both emotionally and spiritually. That’s the very least the Church can do.