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).

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) — by Brian Mark Hennessey

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) — by Brian Mark Hennessey

The Mirfield 12 Group of child aspirants to the priesthood, (referred to as “Comboni Survivors” henceforward in this article), who have made historical allegations of sexual abuse that was perpetrated by clerics of the Comboni Missionary Order against them at their seminary boarding school at Mirfield in Yorkshire in the 1960s and 70s, have committed themselves to seek “core participation” at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The Inquiry has also become commonly known as the “Goddard Inquiry” after the appointment of Justice Lowell Goddard of the New Zealand Judiciary as the Chair-person. The format of the investigation will be broken down into a number of groupings, one of which will examine abuse in institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.

The formulation of the Inquiry process had a rocky start within the Home Office. This is not particularly surprising given the very broad range of institutions which had failed in one way or another in managing historic cases of child abuse. Mark Murray, a leading member of the Comboni Survivors, participated in Home Office Meetings during this difficult process. He was not alone – as many groups of Survivors were dissatisfied at the initial, concentrated objectives of the Inquiry which favoured extensive participation of the major public institutions at the expense of Survivors – and the Government was forced by public opinion to have a re-think. The resultant balance of the re-adjustments made is still regarded as unsatisfactory by many Survivor Groups – but slowly the views of Survivors, who want a greater level of participation even now, are still being pressed. The Comboni Survivors are confident that the Inquiry will make further adjustments in favour of Survivors – who are the ones who have suffered severly at the hands of institutions’ neglect – rather than focusing the Inquiry specifically and almost exclusively upon those very same institutions. The Survivors must be heard extensively and loudly.

Besides the difficulties that have and are being experienced in achieveing the right balance of the Inquiry so that all participants can be satisfied at the end of the day, there are many detractors who are both vocal and negative. Some claim, rather extraordinarily in a cart before the horse attitude, that we should have the recommendations from the Government now, before the investigation. They pour scorn on the claims of Survivor Groups over the extent of the abuse and they suggest campaigners to be obsessive panic-mongerers who are “corroding” child/adult relationships”. They pour scorn also on the Inquiry itself which, they suggest, is not about justice, but about therapy. The Comboni Survivors do not agree with these views, but they counsel the Goddard Inquiry that the final format agreed between the Inquiry, Institutions and Survivors must demonstrate beyond doubt that the balance of the Inqury is finely set so as to silence, unremittingly, their detractors.

As a group, the Comboni Survivors welcome the Inquiry and wish it well. They are committed to the Truth Project, the participation in which they regard to be a moral duty for the future understanding and the benefit of Government and Institutions which have the need of formulating both policies and practices for the protection of the Nation’s children.

They believe also that core-participation for Survivors must be extended, because institutions that have failed in the past will continue to fail in the future. That has been the experience of the members of the Comboni Survivors to this day. The Comboni Missionary Order, after half a century of failings, are as resolute today as they were in the past to refute the initial historical reports made to them, cast doubt on the veracity of Survivors’ allegations, deny dialogue and refuse apologies. They have adopted a policy of total silence in the belief that their silence will give them the security of perrenial unaccountability. This is both un-Christian and deplorably un-just to Survivors. The Comboni Survivors look to the Goddard Inquiry for the total accountability of the Comboni Missionary Order Institution that has unjustly maligned them in a manner that amounts to both re-victimisation and hierarchical discrimination.