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).