The Voices of Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse

Ewa Kusz, a member of the organizing committee for the regional conference on the protection of minors for central and eastern Europe taking place in Warsaw, gathers the voices of people who have been abused by priests.

By Ewa Kusz

What do those who have been wounded within the Church say? What do they expect from the Church, from “Church people”?

To give one single response is difficult because each abuse victim is different. Each one of them has a different life story both before and after the trauma. Some of them speak immediately; others, after a few years or even many years later. Some have met others who have helped them along the way, while others have remained completely alone in their suffering.

Those who have been wounded are speaking. Some demand their right to speak and be heard at the top of their lungs. Others speak about it timidly within the quiet of a psycho-therapeutic setting, or they confide only in their loved ones. Some scream. Others speak by remaining silent with their silence.

The text I propose here is an attempt to gather the voices of people whom I have accompanied whom I have asked what their expectations are regarding the Church.

First: recognize they exist

The first thing people who have been wounded need is simply that of being recognized and welcomed as they are, and that they have the right to exist with all of their suffering, pain, and wounds.

A priest, a representative of the Church, often presenting himself as “God’s representative”, looked on his victims as objects to use and abuse, thus destroying their dignity as a human being. It has happened, more than once, that these priests motivated their own actions using religious reasons or by declaring that it was God’s will. The physical and psychological violence thus inflicted touches the basis of the person’s existence, destroying their dignity as a “child of God”, destroying the experience of God who is Love in those whom they have abused, and destroying their experience of the Church as a community, because it was precisely there that the violence materialized without anyone preventing it or reacting to it. Therefore, victims expect that the Church, in which their abuse took place, recognize the abuse not as a sin committed by a sinner who needs to be pardoned, but as a criminal act that wounded them – the victims.

Above all, victims of abuse expect to be listened to in their pain, in their anger, in their helplessness. At times they are ashamed and continually question themselves whether it was their fault. Sometimes they aggressively make accusations. If they decide to come forward, they desire to be welcomed attentively and considerately as people who need to speak about a wound that was inflicted not only on them, but on the entire Church community. They do not want to be treated as nuisances who disturb the “sacred peace”, as intruders, or, worse, as the ones who are acting against the Church. Those who have been wounded expect to be welcomed “correctly”, not only according to the rules of formality, since when they come forward, they come into the Church as Community, and not as an ecclesiastical institution that functions correctly. Victims want to have the right to express themselves as they are able to, to express the pain and suffering they have so often kept hidden for years. They do not want to be dictated to; they want to be welcomed and accepted.

Victims expect justice. They want it to be clearly stated who committed the abuse and who was abused. And they want those who defend the accused priest – their abuser – to hear it too, since so often they blamed the victim because no one told them the truth, or because they chose to be silent – sometimes out of a sense of helplessness, other times out of a misguided desire to “defend the Church”, as if the truth regarding a criminal act regarding harm inflicted could threaten the “faith of the little ones”. Those who have been wounded expect that those who have abused them receive a just punishment since it can be an opportunity for them to change and convert. Victims want to be proactively involved in the canonical process in which their abuser is subjected to judgement. In our day, it is the accused priest who has more rights, which are in turn denied to the victim. This too makes the victim a non-important person, since he or she is treated as if the process is of no concern to them at all.

Those who have been wounded within the Church want to have the right to choose whether they stay in or leave the Church. They want to choose their own path for themselves. They do not need to be instructed regarding what their relationship with God should be: this is exactly what the abuser did to them. Victims want their choice to be respected. They want to experience acceptance, comprehension, respect, hearing named clearly who the perpetrator is and who the victim is – this helps them to heal, particularly when the one who does this is a Church leader.READ ALSO23/04/2021

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Second: respect the time for “healing”

Those who have been wounded want to heal. They need time and help to do this. They do not want to be told or dictated to regarding who should help them. They want the choice to be left up to them. If they should need money to pay for the therapist or a lawyer … they want to have the right to be assisted in this way as well.

Those who remain in the Church ask whether they will find priests who are prepared to accompany them on the journey toward spiritual healing as well, and whether the people they will meet might possibly harm them again – maybe not by abusing them sexually, but by imposing their own spirituality, their own religiosity, sending them to an exorcist or forcing them to forgive. They do not want another priest to dictate things to them because this is exactly what they experienced by those who abused them, those who through everything they did and said planted in them a distorted image of God, of spirituality, of religion, of the Church. Nor do they want it repeated by others with the excuse of doing them good or helping them. They need time for their wounds to heal.

Victims need another person to help them enter into relationships that do not harm them. The priest who abused them exploited their trust, their vulnerability, their openness to others. Now, they will approach this “other one” with diffidence. The Church was a place in which they suffered evil. Therefore, they now demand that the Church be a place of healing – if there is a place in the Church for them. And they are particularly sensitive when someone’s attitude is insincere or suspicious toward them, and of the uncertainty regarding what they will do to them, how they will be treated by them, what place the Church will assign to them in order to avoid that they become a “scandal” to others. They want a Church that is a Mother, and not only a teacher. They want a Church in which they have the right to be and to heal according to their own rhythms.

Those who have been wounded expect that even the community in which the priest who abused them was the pastor also be helped, since that community, too, is a “victim”, wounded by the criminal act committed by that priest.

In their healing process, the wounded victims in the Church do not want to be made to recount the evil they experienced time and again, in order to “bear witness” or “give testimony”. For them, this is like descending into “hell” again. Often, after many years, there may come a moment when they feel the need to “get everything off their chest” and tell everything, then the moment will come in which they do not want to revisit it anymore, precisely in order to heal – not to forget, since it would be impossible to forget – but to move on and not remain in the same place.

Third: learn from their experiences

Victims, who become “thrivers” in the following phase, are people who have already gone a long way on the healing process and are capable of viewing their own experience from a certain distance. Therefore, they know how to identify what is lacking in priestly formation, in the relationships of priests that leads them to seek “partners” among minors. They can tell us what in the Church’s culture and structural dimension fosters the abuse of other persons. They can suggest better ways to help victims and they can identify the errors the Church is still making in helping them. Lastly, they can tell us how to together build a Church that is more “human” and not just institutional. They can propose how to speak to those who have been wounded within the Church about God who witnessed the trauma they experienced. What they know is the result of their experience: the experience of the evil they suffered, but also of the long healing journey. Thus, they can teach us about the path that leads to healing, for they have already trod it, and now they know everything that was previously unknown.

As a Church, do we want to listen to them?

I have tried to represent what has been confided to me regarding the expectations of those who have been wounded in the Church and who are now in various stages of “healing”. Each of them provided more than one aspect they believe to be important. Most likely, in speaking with others, the list would become longer. After years of accompanying victims of both priests and other people, I am convinced that in order for their voice to be effectively “heard”, a profound transformation of the Church is necessary because today, the Church often adopts the form of a functional religious institution. In a Church that acts only as an “institution”, it will probably be possible to receive reports of sexual abuse correctly, there will be good codes of conduct regarding interacting with minors. But it will be impossible to fully respond to the cry of the victims. Neither will there be genuine concern that no one else be harmed in any way, not only by members of the clergy. By letting go of a certain culture of “power”, a formally correct style of management, we will manifest an image of God who is Love, who is tender, and of a Church that is welcoming and embracing. That would provide an opportunity to ask ourselves if the voice of those who have been wounded, abandoned, etc., is not a prophetic voice that can help us in our conversion.

Biography: Since 2014, Ewa Kusz has been the deputy director of the Child Protection Center at the Jesuit University “Ignatianum” in Krako. She is a psychologist and psychotherapist specializing in sexual issues and is a forensic expert in sexual offenses. In 2012, she participated in the Symposium “Towards Healing and Renewal” organized in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University on the sexual abuse of minors. In 2014 she was a member of the organizing committee of the first conference in Poland dedicated to the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.

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