Hell, Hope and Healing

Note: Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea is the author of “Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” and a psychologist who has been working with sexual abuse survivors for 30 years. In the American Catholic Journal entitled the “National Catholic Reporter”, (which can be accessed on-line at NCRonline.org.), Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea has published the first of four parts of an article entitled “Hell, Hope and Healing”. This parapharse of Mary’s article has been posted on the Mirfield Memories site by Brian Mark Hennessy.


Foreward: Comboni Survivors of sexual abuse who access this site may be helped by accessing Mary’s vast experience that is clearly established within those articles, the first of which has just been published. With appropriate acknowledgement to Mary and the National Catholic Reporter I have paraphrased extracts from that first part below. I have no doubt that, in varying degrees according to their experiences, Comboni Survivors will recognise in themselves some of the long term impacts that will have been caused by their adverse childhood experiences when they were child seminarians at Mirfield Yorkshire. Those adverse experiences at the hands of one – and in some cases more than one – corrupt Comboni Missionary cleric may have been sexual – but they may have had other causes also – and thus their experiences may have resulted in a complicated and diverse range of impacts. I do not suggest that each individual survivor will have experienced all or even some of the possible, specific impacts listed below. Every distinct individual survivor will have had unique experiences and will have been impacted differently.


Much of what Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea relates derives from her own experience and research, but that experience has been enhanced by a study of more than 17,000 Americans in the period 1995-7. The research was conducted to determine how many had been subjected to adverse childhood experiences and what symptoms and disorders they suffered that differentiated them from those patients who did not have such histories. The data indicates that only a little over one-third of subjects had no adverse childhood experiences at all. For the remainder there was a clear correlation between the symptoms and with the frequency and/or intensity of each particular stressor. To put these statistics in perspective, the percentages as extrapolated for the population of the United States at the time of the research suggest that over 50 million of the population were sexually abused before the age of 18.

Mary states that it is now known that adverse childhood experiences can have major effects on every aspect of human functioning. Symptoms and disorders increase commensurately with the greater number of types of adverse childhood experiences to which a survivor has been subjected – and to the frequency at which those experiences have occurred. Notably, Survivors have more medical problems, are on more medications, and use the health system more than others in the population. Scientists now believe that much of this stems from a surfeit of stress hormones coursing through the bloodstream and compromising the immune system. Stress hormones are great in an emergency, but they are supposed to go back to normal levels when the crisis is over. Kids who are being abused or neglected are in emergency mode so much of the time that their stress hormones are always high, stay high into adulthood, and do physical damage over time.

This results in the person’s inability to successfully modulate emotion so she or he may swing from states of intense affect to those marked by numbed passivity. Our ability to judge the true danger of a present-day situation is damaged; we may confuse people around us by overreacting or underreacting to current situations. Often the adult survivor’s history is littered with unsuccessful friendships, work relationships, and romances that confuse and hurt both them and those around them.

For those who have experienced sexual abuse specifically, normal sexual functioning is elusive. Even sex with a beloved partner can trigger flashbacks or terrifying emotional states that interrupt sexual encounters or lead us to avoid sex. Sexual abuse survivors may blame their bodies and sexual responses for the abuse and can be too ashamed to be comfortably sexual.

Heterosexual boys abused by men may be tormented with doubts about their sexual orientation. On the other hand, homosexual boys who are sexually abused are robbed of the opportunity to grow gradually into their sexuality; instead, the perpetrator imposes it on them.

Survivors often have a fractured sense of self. One part of the traumatized child may be formed as a precocious individual who can learn, make friends, get a job later in life, and obtain an education. Another aspect of the person, however, remains a frightened, grief-stricken child who emerges when conditions are reminiscent of the original trauma. For victims of priest abuse, for example, a Roman collar, someone clicking rosary beads, or certain hymns can evoke childhood memories. The survivor, no longer firmly rooted in the present, may experience the memories, fears and bodily states he or she felt at the time of the abuse.

Most survivors think that they were somehow responsible for what happened to them. They believe that they should have stopped it! Depending on the nature of the adverse childhood experience, survivors feel dirty, ashamed, worthless and self-loathing. Often they take their guilt, rage and self-hatred out on themselves through self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse (which also deadens psychic pain); promiscuous and unprotected sex; walking alone in dangerous areas at night; cutting legs, thighs, arms and pubic areas; tearing out eyebrows and hair; hustling or prostituting; or making suicidal gestures. Sometimes they die. In fact survivors are almost three times as likely as other individuals to make at least one serious suicidal gesture in their lives.

Research indicates that many survivors turn away from religion and even from God. People develop their image of God through the way they are parented early on and through religious experiences they may have. Their capacity for awe, for experiencing wordless times of wonder and transcendence, depend in large measure on the nature of their early relationships. When these are betrayed through abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or serious dysfunction, their capacity to surrender to the ineffable that is God may be destroyed. The especially heinous aspect of sexual abuse by priests and the depravity of the cover-up and unapologetic stance of bishops and provincial superiors often renders asunder the young person’s ability to look to God for comfort and mercy. Instead, the priest as God to the child or adolescent has become a criminal transmitter of evil. One patient who was sexually abused by a priest remarked : “It taught me that there is a lie in the world. As I grew up and gave up on my piety, I grew to hate the smells, sounds, feelings of church. … My spirituality and ability to believe in a higher power were destroyed.”

(In Part 2 of this series, Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea will focuss on hope and healing for survivors of sexual abuse. If any Comboni Survivor recognises the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and feels that he needs professional assistance, then they may contact Mark Murray on this site who will strive to assist by suggesting appropriate counselling services. Alternatively, Survivors of childhood abuse can seek the assistance of their local General Practitioner Doctor who will be able to refer them to an appropriate specialist).

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