An Imperative to Be Healers
What have we learned about trauma 20 years into the Dallas Charter?
Twenty years after the Catholic Church in the United States self-imploded due to a heightened and appalled awareness of the extent of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, we know more:
• It’s not just a problem in the United States.
• It’s not just children who have been harmed.
• It’s not just sex abuse that has occurred.
• It’s not just at the hands of clergy.
Our eyes have been opened to see that trauma is all around us.
The Body of Christ is deeply wounded. The disciples of Jesus, who himself devoted so much of his ministry to healing, ought to be at the forefront of healing the world.
The presence and impact of trauma are huge and present everywhere:
• Individually, over 50% of Americans have suffered a childhood traumatic event, which includes not only abuse but neglect, abandonment, divorce, significant death.
• Natural disasters, sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and medical and emotional issues, all of which have a deep and long-lasting impact.
• Corporately, trauma can also result from racism, sexism, violence, war, genocide, social injustice, poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, emigration and refugee status, and, most recently, a worldwide pandemic and medical inequity.
• Ecclesially, trauma can be caused by clericalism, sexism, racism and other ecclesial divisions of the Body of Christ; the abuse crisis; the conquest of aboriginal peoples; the Crusades; the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; and on it goes. This history may seem a stretch except we have evidence that the impact of trauma can be passed genetically from generation to generation.
Consider, then, the congregations to whom you preach, because well over half the listeners have been traumatized. In addition, trauma affects presbyterates, parishes, congregations of consecrated life, dioceses and national conferences of bishops. The profound experiences of danger, harm, loss, vulnerability and powerlessness have left scars and open wounds in the lives of millions of people in our country alone. The past has not passed; it is very much present and often continues to wreak havoc.
While the Church can be a source and a place of trauma, imaginative faith recognizes that the Church also can be a source and place of our healing. As the Body of Christ, when one member is wounded, all are wounded; when one member suffers, all suffer; and as one heals, the whole body moves toward healing. Jesus showed us that healing is a sign of the reign of God, which is here and now. God’s desire is for our healing, especially because we cannot heal ourselves. Therefore, the Church should be known for its commitment and dedication of personnel and resources to healing.
The bishops of the United States seemed to acknowledge this in their preamble to The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, when they wrote, “We commit ourselves to do all we can to heal the trauma that victims/survivors and their families are suffering and the wound that the whole Church is experiencing.”
Granted, the charter didn’t promise healing for everyone, and in that document they were only addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse. But now that the Church is aware of the extent of the need, can we ignore it and only focus on clergy sexual abuse? In the name of Jesus the Healer, carpe diem!
Twenty years later, what can we learn from members of Christ’s body who have been traumatized? What do we need to understand?
First, the memories and the consequences of traumatic events don’t “go away”; trauma survivors don’t “grow out of it” simply because their bodies get bigger. Traumatic events can have a deep and long-lasting impact. The good news is that we know how to help people recover, although the victims have to do the hard work; others cannot do it for them, which is unfair but true. (See sidebar below)
We humans try to make sense and find meaning in events. But traumatic events cause great confusion about things like personal safety, how to be in healthy relationships, God’s protection and alleged punishment, rights and values that are prized but not upheld such as equality and human dignity, and expressions of love and care coming from people causing harm. The desire for understanding amid confusion can lead to false childlike conclusions about oneself, other people, how the world works and what God does and doesn’t do.
Traumatic events are an experience of powerlessness — victims were not able to protect themselves or to render a helpful response on their own. Or they may have been unable to prompt a helpful response from those with legitimate power to help them manage the traumatic event or its consequences. They perceive themselves as having had no choice in the matter and were treated unfairly; therefore, they felt innocent and victimized. Their experience of powerlessness leads to an ongoing belief in their powerlessness in the present, even though circumstances may be quite different. It is very difficult to make sense of the senseless or to find meaning in experiences of powerlessness.
One of the major effects of trauma is huge buckets of shame. While victims grapple with their experience of powerlessness, they also hang onto a false belief that they could have prevented it. In other words, they believe they had some control, or should have, or could have done something (because that is a more palatable belief than accepting that they were powerless in that situation).
Then, because they didn’t do something or were unsuccessful in their attempts, they believe that what happened was their own fault. They conclude that they are the bad person, and that leads to shame. Shame is the deeply held personal belief that there’s something essentially wrong or bad about me. Shame becomes part of the victim’s core identity — it was my fault, and therefore, I am bad, unlovable, worthless, fatally flawed, etc. Shame is a lie contrary to the truth of our fundamental human dignity and goodness in the gaze of God. Shame is debilitating.
Understanding the presence of shame also helps to understand why victims hide their trauma or did not disclose trauma when it happened. Because the core belief is that “it’s my fault,” and that “there’s something bad about me,” victims don’t tell, because then “other people will find out how bad I am.” The secret is kept hidden in order to protect themselves when they expect others to blame them for their trauma. Sadly, that is exactly what happens when trauma survivors reveal their trauma — they get blamed for allowing it to happen, for not telling, or not fighting harder, for somehow not responding correctly, instead of receiving compassion for their suffering.
Another consequence of trauma is victims’ efforts to avoid their feelings. The emotions related to the traumatic events are real and are big — lots of anger, fear, sadness and even hatred. The feelings are also complicated, especially when the perpetrator is a significant person in the life of the victim: How can I hate the person who says they love me? How can I love the person I hate because they hurt me? Why am I afraid of the person who is supposed to protect me? Survivors may also realize that their behavior also leads to problems when they act in response to strong emotions.
So in order to deal with their big feelings, their confusion and their problematic behavior, victims do their best to avoid emotions, as well as anything that might trigger memories or feelings related to the traumatic events. They develop habits to help them avoid their emotions, which the brain stores as “survival skills.” These include drinking, sleeping, shopping, eating, addictions, self-harm, violence, extreme emotions [or none], depression, rage, suicidality and even perpetrating abuse on others. In order to feel safe, survivors continue to do those same things whenever their feelings or memories are triggered — yes, even perpetrating on others — which over time can lead to new difficulties, even though the traumatic event itself has ceased.
Humans are biologically hardwired to attach to another human being. This urge to attach is driven by the reality that children cannot survive without attachment to adults who will provide for their basic physical and emotional needs. Alongside the biological urge to attach is the biological urge to recoil in the face of emotional or physical harm. If children are severely neglected, or physically, emotionally or sexually abused, they experience a profound conflict between basic survival urges to attach or to recoil.
They believe that their survival is compromised by recoiling, and so they override the urge to recoil and follow the urge to attach. That ambivalence, the tug and pull between two biological urges (both of which exist to promote survival), does not disappear. Adults also experience ambivalence about whether to enter intimacy or keep a distance, to take emotional risks or protect themselves from getting hurt.
Therefore, it is no surprise that trauma survivors consistently report difficulties in their interpersonal relationships, rooted in the ambivalence about interpersonal attachment. Some avoid interpersonal relationships. They may tell themselves they do not want or need anyone. Or they may tell themselves closeness is too risky, and it is safer to stay disconnected. Some accomplish the isolation by quietly avoiding any opportunities for connection. Others keep people at a distance with overt unfriendliness.
Some survivors desperately cling to a relationship, even when it is very clear the relationship is not in their best interest. They are still driven by the reality of their childhood that they cannot survive without a significant attachment. The fear is so pervasive that it overrides objective information that now, in fact, their survival is compromised by staying in the relationship.
Other survivors vacillate between getting close and pulling away. Their history is marked by a series of relationships that develop quickly and intensely, followed by a rapid and volatile decline.
What seems to be very different ways of operating are motivated by the same desire — to keep themselves emotionally safe in relationships. Their efforts are generally unsuccessful, even counterproductive, as they seek to protect themselves from emotional discomfort and physical harm.
To summarize, survivors of trauma have:
• An experience of powerlessness that can continue to hinder self-protection and safeguarding their own well-being.
• Lots of shame because of a belief that the trauma is their fault, and that they are bad.
• A lack of skill at managing feelings and attempting to avoid emotions in order to feel safe.
• Survival skills they learned in order to manage their emotional distress.
• A distorted understanding of themselves and others, relationships, the world and God because of their experience(s).
• Difficulty in relationships because their experience of trust and intimacy is so skewed, damaged or destroyed.
What can we do?
Clergy are among a circle of caregivers who can wield an immense amount of power in people’s lives, along with parents, teachers and medical personnel. It is one reason that abuse by clergy is so heinous — it is an abuse of power and trust. It is also entwined with people’s understanding and relationship with God, which increases the extent of the harm they can cause. That same power can also be a positive contribution to recovery because clergy are in a unique position to help bring about healing. Clergy must recognize and acknowledge the amount of power they hold and not brush away the idea. It may be obvious to say, then, that clergy must cause no harm.
A priest must be in touch with his own wounds in order to be compassionate and empathetic toward others in their suffering. A priest must recognize his own areas of vulnerability, the tender spots that easily can be triggered and lead to his own problematic behavior. He must be aware of and accepting of his own experiences of powerlessness. He needs to engage in his own healing in order to be an effective instrument of the Lord’s healing for others.
A priest must be emotionally healthy. He has to be able to manage his own feelings and behavior in order to handle the strong emotions and pain that may be directed toward him. He also has to be able to handle the strong emotions and pain that will be entrusted to him by victims in their process of healing. They will watch closely to see whether their priest can be trusted with their deep feelings, or does he send out vibes that say, “I don’t want to hear this”? Avoidance is not the path to healing for oneself or others!
A healthy priest doesn’t have to be a licensed therapist in order to understand trauma and its long-lasting impact. That will allow him to have empathy rather than become angry at survivors’ behavior, and to show compassion rather than blame the victims (who already blame themselves). He will know that their strong feelings are consistent with what happened, and allow them to have mixed feelings rather than getting stuck in “the right one.” He will understand their behavior is often borne of pain, sorrow and old wounds, and not evil intentions. They will be comfortable as they accompany people in their suffering.
A healing priest will model and teach that situations are often complex (not simple), that thoughts and solutions are often complicated and nuanced (not easy). He will demonstrate in his own behavior that a middle road is often preferable to an extreme or polarized response; that matters are not always black or white but most often gray. He will be flexible and not rigid.
It will be important that a priest is able to heal through personal forgiveness and through the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. He will possess a full and proper understanding of what forgiveness is (and is not). A healthy priest also knows there is a danger of hypocrisy when he points to or gloats about the failures and sins of others while forgetting his own limitations, weaknesses and sin. He will be known for sitting in a seat of mercy rather than a throne of judgment.
First of all, talk about trauma. Don’t let it remain hidden in shame; people need to be freed from their sense of isolation that “it’s only me.” Trauma is a common part of our human experience, and people are trying to make sense out of something that they don’t understand. It was amazing that what was unfolding in the Church 20 years ago was rarely mentioned in homilies or that even a prayer was offered for victims in the intercessions.
At the same time, avoid preaching that blames, shames, moralizes and revictimizes the victims. What happened to them was not their fault. Rather, the wounded must have the Good News preached to them. Help the listeners connect their experience to the Scriptures of innocent and redemptive suffering.
Preach about forgiveness and the sacrament, not as a time to feel ashamed, but as healing for the victim, not something that is “given” to the perpetrator. When celebrating reconciliation, do not collude and reinforce their self-blame and shame by absolving them when they “confess” their trauma, because it was not their sin and they are not culpable. This is different from perpetrators who as adults are responsible for their behavior as adults, even if they were victimized as children.
Finally, continue modeling healthy behavior by including positive examples in your homilies. Speak in a way that models complexity and nuance rather than simplistic or black-and-white thinking.
When we understand trauma and its effects, we can respond compassionately. We can be more effective listeners, supporters and referral agents, instead of getting angry or quitting. We have to keep in mind that victims of trauma take a long time to heal; they don’t get better right away, so we’re in it “for the long haul.”
In our ministry, we can open the path to self-forgiveness as a path out of inappropriate guilt and shame. We can also support their grieving, remembering that grief is the process of healing pain and recovering after loss, not just death. There are helpful resources so you don’t have to do it all yourself, including the GriefShare program (griefshare.org) and Joyce Rupp’s book, “Praying Our Goodbyes” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95). Finally, over time our ministry can help survivors to restore and strengthen their relationship with God.
We can hardly address trauma without mentioning the pandemic — a worldwide situation that many people experience as trauma, and others whose past trauma is triggered by the experience and effects of the pandemic. It is a worldwide experience of danger, vulnerability and powerlessness, prompting fear, anger, blame and grief. A free online program called RENEW, which helps people understand their response and improve their skills can be found at www.TraumaRecoveryAssociates.com/renew. It’s also available in Spanish, called RENOVARSE.
After 20 years, more eyes are open and more people are trauma-aware — they realize that trauma is all around them and perhaps within themselves. So much needs to be done. Efforts are necessary to become trauma-informed so that people understand its impact and seek the assistance they deserve. Finally, the Church and its members must understand and assume their proper role as trauma healers in persona Christi.
FATHER KENNETH W. SCHMIDT, MA, LPC, NCC, is the advocate for priestly ministry and support in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Principles and Procedures Integrated into Church Life
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People highlights the following principles and procedures integrated into Church life:
• The Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection provides the focus for a consistent, ongoing and comprehensive approach to creating a safe environment for young people throughout the Church in the United States.
• The Secretariat also provides the means for us to be accountable for achieving the goals of the charter, as demonstrated by its annual reports on the implementation of the charter based on independent compliance audits.
• The National Review Board is carrying on its responsibility to assist in the assessment of diocesan/eparchial compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
• The descriptive study of the nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the United States, commissioned by the National Review Board, was completed in February 2004. The resulting study, examining the historical period 1950-2002, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice provides us with a powerful tool not only to examine our past, but also to secure our future against such misconduct.
• The U.S. bishops charged the National Review Board to oversee the completion of the Causes and Context study. The study, which calls for ongoing education, situational prevention, and oversight and accountability, was completed in 2011.
• Victims’ assistance coordinators are in place throughout the nation to assist dioceses and eparchies in responding to pastoral needs of the abused.
• Diocesan/eparchial bishops in every diocese/eparchy are advised and greatly assisted by diocesan and eparchial review boards as the bishops make the decisions needed to fulfill the charter.
• Safe environment programs are in place to assist parents and children — and those who work with children — in preventing harm to young people. These programs continually seek to incorporate the most useful developments in the field of child protection.