Hell, Hope and Healing — part three – by Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea – paraphrased and abridged for this site by Brian Mark Hennessy

Healing through Post Traumatic Growth

(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 third of four parts of an article entitled “Hell, Hope and Healing”. Mary’s article has been paraphrased and abridged for this site by Brian Mark Hennessy)

 

Too many children and teens are faced with soul-battering betrayals, abuse, neglect or terrifying family dynamics that send normal developmental pathways, including those related to the brain, off the rails.

If healing can occur from the truly devastating consequences of adverse childhood experiences — including sexual abuse by clergy — can survivors also experience meaningful growth through their confrontation with trauma? Can post-traumatic growth also occur in institutions that fostered abuse, as well as in the advocacy organizations that have worked on behalf of survivors? Let me be very clear: No one ever is “better off” because they were abused or suffered other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Every child and adolescent is entitled to a “good enough” childhood where suffering is manageable and betrayal is minimal. Unfortunately, too many children and teens are faced with soul-battering betrayals, abuse, neglect or terrifying family dynamics that send normal developmental pathways, including those related to the brain, off the rails. At the same time, none of us gets from the cradle to the grave without a full measure of suffering in some way or another. Studies have shown that the meaning we derive from our suffering and how we carry the remnants of that suffering into the future determines to a great extent what kind of life we live and how fulfilled we are by it.

Through a tragic loss of innocence early on in life, these survivors accept that life is not fair and therefore demonstrate greater resilience when it is not.

 

Over the last decade or so, researchers have begun to study post-traumatic growth, defined by Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, University of North Carolina, psychologists and post-traumatic growth experts, as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” Trauma survivors who achieve post-traumatic growth develop a perspective on life that is balanced and pragmatic. Through a tragic loss of innocence early on in life, these survivors accept that life is not fair and therefore demonstrate greater resilience when it is not. They embrace the reality that there really is no justice for a survivor of ACEs because a shattered childhood can never be returned whole. Continued anger and resentment for them is, as the saying goes, like swallowing poison and hoping the other guy dies; these survivors do not want to give more of their soul space to the trauma or to those who caused it. Post-traumatic growth thus engenders a greater appreciation of life and a changed sense of priorities that privilege living and loving and making life work. While trauma survivors who experience post-traumatic growth maintain a clear sense that really bad things can happen in life, they also feel that having survived the original trauma(s), there is not much else they cannot handle. Again, that does not mean that they will not hurt — terribly sometimes — but they have a confidence forged in the fires of trauma recovery that they will also survive and even thrive through future losses, betrayals and traumas.

“Victimization occurs when a person or group exerts destructive power over an innocent person or group”

.

When adverse childhood experiences are exposed, perpetrators, abusive or neglectful families, enabling institutions and others are often traumatized also. Here it is important to differentiate between “victimized” and “traumatized.” Trauma is a response to an experience, including but not limited to one that is victimizing. Even a perpetrator can be traumatized when she/he is exposed for victimizing another. Life is changed forever. Shock, anger, fear and other post-traumatic symptoms may ensue, including minimization, denial and dissociation. A central issue here is whether individuals or groups can engage with a traumatic experience in a way that promotes growth. Or do they harden defenses and avoid the kind of self-examination, pain and mourning that a victim has to endure in order to heal, become resilient and grow? Post-traumatic growth here emerges primarily from rigorous self-examination and a painful mourning process. The Catholic church is an institution traumatized by the sexual abuse crisis. The earliest response of the institution was to preserve its long-held identity as a source of goodness and godliness. Yes, its leaders acknowledged in a vague way that of course there is sin within the church, but the sense was always that sin was somehow a general thing and not assigned to specified actors in the church drama. I sin, you sin, we all sin was an implied mantra that attempted to diminish the criminality and evil of priests who sexually violated kids, and of bishops who protected perpetrators and covered up abuse.

Church officials lied, denied and projected blame on victims, parents of victims, a sexually liberated and sexualized culture, bad apple priests, the ’60s, the media. They had seen the enemy and it was not them.

It is still happening today, as when Germany’s Cardinal Gerhard Müller recently excoriated the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.” In his mind, the movie led to the generalization of blame for sexual abuse by some priests onto the shoulders all priests, and it was too hard on bishops who did not respond appropriately to reports of abuse. To be fair, another prelate*, Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna, once the Vatican’s chief prosecutor and deeply involved in investigation of the sex abuse crisis, said that all bishops and cardinals should see the movie to understand that reporting the crimes, not silence, “will save the church.”

Arrogance and clericalism abounded as a church official worked hard to restore power, control and an idealized view of the church and its clergy.

The 2,000-year-old monarchy refused for a very long time and, in some places, still refuses to embrace self-examination and mourning, and it hoped that this, like so many past scandals, would just blow over. It didn’t and it hasn’t, and that’s a good thing. There is also now a papal commission mandated to develop policies and procedures on sexual abuse. Victims, experts and clergy on that commission are talking with each other and are listening to each other. They are getting to know each other as people and not as straw figures. They are determined and most are hanging in even when the going gets discouraging. Many are justifiably doubtful about the ultimate success of this commission, but its members deserve suspension of judgment about the outcome until there is one, and they deserve support for their mission.

It is too soon to tell whether the hierarchy of the Catholic Church can or will grieve and repent enough for the destruction visited upon all of the people of God through sexual abuse of its youth.

Still, it is too early to determine if or when the church will do enough self-examination, engage in enough honest investigation of all the root causes of sexual abuse, and submit to a thorough enough mourning for the church that never was and can never be again. It is too soon to tell whether the hierarchy can or will grieve and repent enough for the destruction visited upon all of the people of God through sexual abuse of its youth. It would be indicative, for example, of real post-traumatic growth and institutional change if bishops and provincial superiors were clearly instructed to report all known or suspected abusers to secular authorities like the police and child protective services.

If church officials who cover up abuse lost their jobs, it would reassure Catholics that the church is convinced that covering up abuse is just as sinful and criminal as committing it.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign of potential change is the election of Pope Francis. The cardinals knew who he was when they elected him. And he has not stopped surprising. Although he has been imperfect, contradictory and even at times infuriating when it comes to sexual abuse, he also has attacked the kind of clericalism and ecclesiastical arrogance that fueled decades, even centuries, of the vilest sexual violations of the young. Welcoming the homeless into the Vatican; washing the feet of women; caring for the incarcerated; taking a relatively passive position on homosexuality; embracing other religions and even atheists as fellow travelers; rehabilitating previously excoriated “dissenters”; chastising bishops to get out on the street and pastor; modeling humility, humor, joy and mercy; reminiscing with the press about once having been in love.

 

All are death by a thousand cuts to the hierarchical hubris that enabled priests to soul-murder the young, with bishops and provincial superiors serving as accessories.

Whilst there are reasons to hope and reasons to remain doubtful that the church is capable of post-traumatic growth, it is understandable that many victims and advocates judge change to be too slow and too circumspect.

(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).

HOPE FOR THE HEALING OF SURVIVORS — By Brian mark Hennessy

HOPE FOR THE HEALING OF SURVIVORS — By Brian mark Hennessy

“Sexual abuse has been called “soul murder” and sexual abuse by clergy is an icon of spiritual felony”.

( Note: Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea is 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 second of a four part article in the National Catholic Reporter, (which can be accessed on-line at NCRonline.org.), Mary discusses the commonality and damage of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including clergy sexual abuse. In the article below (abridged and paraphrased by Brian Mark Hennessy) Mary focuses on the hope that most trauma survivors can heal because of inherent or learned resilience and through access to forms of healing resources).
Resilience: Since the 1980s, when child abuse and domestic violence emerged from society’s skeleton closet, researchers and clinicians have rightly prioritized the tremendous wounds caused by adverse childhood experiences. One of the ways in which Survivors can cope with the severe trauma of abuse is the learning of the skills of resilience. Resilience researchers have investigated the genetic, biological, social and spiritual factors contributing to resilience. They and others have identified a number of factors that appear to endow an individual with resilience:

• Above average intelligence.
• An internal locus of control. A sense that the individual can determine his/her own fate, even when trauma occurs.
• An optimistic cognitive style. Resilient individuals tend to be able to find the silver lining in even the darkest, most thunderous clouds. They are able to imagine a time when life will be better.
• A close, safe relationship with at least one adult not involved in the trauma. This is an area in which abusive priests were often the most despicable and damaging. Children known by predator priests to be in difficult home situations, or kids who came to the priests for advice or comfort about other traumas, were often selected as victims. Instead of responding to an already hurting young person with kindness and mercy, abusing clergy too often became another trauma for the child or teen.
• A consistent faith and/or cultural traditions that provided hope and a steady belief system. Once again, we see the travesty of priests whose sexual violations robbed victims of a faith-based building block of resilience to life’s challenges.
• A good sense of humor, even when life is tough.

 

“It is important to note, however, that all researchers point to sexual abuse while young as a particularly pernicious adverse childhood experience that results in multiple times the risk of experienced in other trauma-related challenges”.

 

Telling the narrative: Unlike the first time around, the survivor has control of the timing and pace of being “in” the original adverse experience when telling their experience. Memories can be painful and sometimes are at first acted out as much as “remembered” in the way we usually think of that. It may be in therapy that survivors put some of their traumatic experiences into words for the first time. Doing so begins to structure the memories, gradually taking some of the affective heat out of them.

”It is essential for a trauma survivor to tell their story to another who bears witness to it”.

 

Differentiating between past and present: Something happening in 2016 that is sufficiently evocative of some aspect of the earlier experience creates a kind of time travel. Survivors then experience themselves as if the ACE is happening right now. They feel and act in ways that confuse them and those around them. In therapy, the survivor gradually is able to register and process a situation as it is now and to react accordingly.

 

“With post-traumatic stress disorder, time is distorted”.

Integrating the personality: One of the wonders of the human psyche is its ability to cope with the awful. When trauma has been especially severe, the mind may split experience into a variety of compartments representing elements of ACEs that would be too overwhelming to process, store or remember as a whole. . In therapy, survivor and clinician identify dissociated aspects of the personality and work with them to foster a more unified internal world for the patient.

 

”Dissociation allows some aspects of the personality to grow and even to thrive while other parts remain trapped in timeless terror, rage and helplessness.”

Re-entering the body: Many survivors of abuse and/or neglect are alienated from their bodies. Some coped as children by leaving their bodies during traumatic times.

 

Patients describe having been on the ceiling looking down at the child being abused or standing at the door with their hands over their ears as “he” was penetrated anally by a priest.

Repairing the sense of self: I have never encountered a survivor patient who did not in some way blame her/himself for the early trauma. The viciousness of the patient’s self-loathing is often breathtaking. Putting guilt and shame where it belongs — on the shoulders of the adult who committed harm or enabled someone else to harm — loosens internalized attachment bonds to figures that once were loved and vitally important to the survivor. The patient is in a predicament: Selfblame protects those attachments but requires cognitive and affective contortions that deplete resilience; relinquishing self-blame and self-hatred and putting the adverse experience in proper perspective with blame placed on the responsible adults is a loss of attachment bonds that is terribly painful. It also can evoke long-held-at-bay rage that the survivor has usually turned against the self.

 

Anger, rage and a demand for restitution often marks a period of trauma recovery that is important in restoring wholeness.

Mourning: Perhaps the most soul-searing yet most necessary component in trauma therapy is the survivor’s mourning for the childhood that never was and never will be. Survivors almost universally feel cheated at some point in therapy. They have suffered, cried, raged, worked hard to heal and there is no restoration, no making it up, no justice. As one patient cried out,

“This is too much. I can’t stand it — I won’t — you can’t make me. I can deal with the abuse — maybe, perhaps. But the idea that I can’t go back, that my childhood is broken forever — I can’t live with that. I won’t know that I never was and never will be just a kid.”

When the survivor seems to have completed a mourning process and is functioning well on most days in most ways, the good trauma therapist begins almost to turn the tables on the survivor. Having spent perhaps years encouraging the patient to relate their narrative, feel the pain and loss, have empathy for the terrorized child they once were, and mourn the childhood that is gone forever, we guide the patient into considering what life can be now, reminding them (if it is true) that no one is traumatizing them now. It is here that the therapist can help the survivor build or expand on resilience.

It is another tragedy of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis that faith was often shattered along with body and mind boundaries.

(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).

In Loco Parentis

I had not suffered these experiences, what right had I to feel the way I did?

However the sense of betrayal that I feel and that I believe we all should feel, is immense.  In such a small community behaviour such as this could not have gone unnoticed.  However no action was taken and therefore I have drawn the conclusion that there was collusion.  One can offer as a weak defense that the perpetrators of these acts were sexual deviants driven by some mental disorder.

But how do you come to the defense of the bystander?

These people helped shape my life, these bystanders were ‘in loco parentis,’ our surrogate parents who failed in their duty of care.

People whom I held as role models and shining examples of humanity I find to be flawed.  They are men just like you and me, but they can hide from the real world behind their cassocks and collars with impunity.  Through the court of confession they can be judged and sentenced by one of their own and on leaving the smallest of courtrooms be admonished with a prayer or two and a promise to be repentant, released with a once again unblemished copy book .

I regret the fact that due to my youthful naivety and blind faith I was unable to see what was happening and help and support my friends.  These were boys who through no fault of their own were singled out. They were not victims, they were vulnerable.  The God Squad was a group of devout young boys whose deep religious beliefs were manipulated against them in the perfect environment and this was allowed to happen in full view.

In Nardo’s Bedroom

Occasionally the ‘God Squad’ would say our evening prayers in Nardo’s bedroom. This did not happen that often at first – the chapel was still Nardo’s preferred place to pray with “his group.”  I remember he had an electric organ and our evening sessions of singing, saying prayers and generally spending time in Nardo’s room became more frequent.

I remember, in particular, the folk hymn ‘Kum Ba Yah – this was one of our favourites – and we would sing it with gusto and enthusiasm.

It was around this time that some of us – myself included – would go and see him alone in his room.  I and, I suspect others, became quite jealous if we knew that other members of the group – “The God Squad Group” – had been in his room or were with him.

For my part, Nardo began asking me to come to his room at specific times during free time in the evenings and weekends.

Betrayal

I am not interested in retribution, apologies or compensation for myself. My concern is with the question of betrayal by others and the harm that betrayal has done to us.

Firstly, Romano was, at best, eccentric.  He behaved in very different ways to his two contemporaries, Father Eugene Murtagh and Father Frank McCullagh.  There was hardly any comparison with the behaviour of more senior Clerics, such as Cerea, Stenico or Wade  – his extreme religious views, his intimacy with young boys, his erratic behaviour.

For example, he would often punch boys in the middle of the chest with the heel of his clenched fist.  I, and others, believe that his bizarre actions must have been observed and well known by others in positions of authority in the House of Verona, yet he was charged with the pastoral care of vulnerable young men.

Secondly, I find it hard to believe that Romano was a one off.   I was at Mirfield for a very short time yet I quickly found myself exposed to a lack of due care. Therefore, turning a blind eye to uncomfortable situations was perhaps endemic.

Thirdly, I feel a deep sense of betrayal to my father, whose chest swelled with pride when Romano brought me home for a brief visit. For many years after my Father would relate this story with pride, that the Italian Priest thought so much of his son that he brought him home for an unscheduled, unannounced visit.

And finally the deep sense of betrayal to those young seminarians, my friends and brothers who may also have suffered a lack of care and support that was rightly due to them.

A “Caring” Adult

More than forty years have passed since that evening and from time to time it comes back to me. It is quite possible that I have managed to suppress the full impact of that night; it is also highly probable that for many years it affected my sexual desires and actions. The memory of holding the naked torso of an adult male can creep up on me when I least expect it.  For example, when I have recognised the vulnerability of my own children, wondering how a ‘caring’ adult can take advantage of an innocent child.   Sometimes it comes to me during or after a sexual encounter.  I have never raised this issue in counselling, nor have I contacted the Verona Fathers to discuss the trauma this issue has caused me.  I have instead chosen to block it from my mind and tried not to think of it.

Only Father Romano Nardo will know what actually happened that night.

All that remains is the memory that I never went back to his room or the God Squad and I lost my respect for him.

Father Romano Nardo

It was not until the arrival of a rather unusual Italian Priest at our West Yorkshire Seminary did I begin to feel a certain closeness.  Father Romano Nardo was unusual, not only as a Priest, but also as a person. This eccentric young man made an instant impression on me despite his odd appearance; he wore thick glasses, big glasses, actually, very big, thick glasses.

Romano was the first Priest of the Comboni order to offer an explanation for my unbearable homesickness. Pain, he told me was a route to God.  By accepting our pain, learning to live with suffering, we move ever closer to God.  As a rational adult I’m capable of offering counter arguments.  But in vulnerable adolescence the notion that pleasure is sinful and pain and suffering is spiritually uplifting resonated with me and I embraced his theological reasoning.