Brian Nixon, Spotlight: Supporting Those Affected By Clergy Abuse, CrossMap

In the new Hollywood movie, Spotlight, the story is told of how journalist of the Boston community took on the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of sex abuse. The priest at the center of the abuse was John J. Geoghan.

According to the Boston Globe, the “church allowed abuse by priest for years.” Writer Matt Carrol and Michael Rezendes, state, “By 2002, more than 130 people had come forward claiming that former priest, John J. Geoghan, allegedly fondled or raped them [1].”

This is all-too-common and disturbing news; something any denomination or group of godly clergy never want to hear coming from it’s ranks. But it’s the truth. It happens. And hopefully the truth will set the church free, finding healing, help, and hope for both the victims and the perpetrators of abuse. Justice and judgment need to be enforced, but so, too, does love and long suffering-extending support and spiritual sustenance to those affected by clergy abuse.

I recently participated in a Spotlight type event in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few months back I was approached by a friend who told me his story of being raped by a priest in New Mexico at the age of 12. I was horrified by what I heard. As clergy, my heart broke, and my sense of justice was ignited. We talked, prayed, and I listened.

And this past week, at a local chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests-[2]), my friend was able to briefly share his story, the first time he did it publically since the occurrence over 40 years ago. The details are too disturbing to tell. All I can say is that by the end of his speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He went from John Doe (his designation in a plaintiff) to the person he is, stating his full name-John Lund (he allowed me to use his name in this article). He was free. And I was privileged to hear his cry of liberty. And along with three other people who shared at the same event, a consensus of courage was displayed in acts of collective consolation among the victims.

John said he had no ill will against godly clergy, or a particular denomination (he as since found peace with God, coming into a vital relationship with Christ). But he was speaking out for the future: possible children who may be abused and for people who’ve yet found the resolution to share their story. He was speaking on behalf of the voiceless. His bottom line message was that clergy abuse must stop and the victims must find help and hope.

In addition to the victims, a psychologist (who shared stories, comparing the abuse to the holocaust) and a former Roman Catholic Church lawyer, Fr. Thomas Doyle, spoke. Mr. Doyle explained the history of abuse in the Church (going back to the early 1st Century) and how high up in the Roman Catholic Church the knowledge of the abuse went (yes, to the Pope). Doyle was one who wrote the report that was handed to individuals high in rank in the Vatican [3]. Both presentations were penetrating and insightful in their analysis of what occurred within the Roman Catholic Church, offering the survivor’s wisdom taken from SNAP: acknowledge your courage and know that you are not alone.

On the SNAP table there were three handouts for the people to take: An Information Sheet of Abuse in New Mexico, a Statue of Limitations, and the Science of Suppression. All the information was helpful, but it was the Science of Suppression information that has valuable information for people beyond the New Mexico State lines. I give the information because it is important for people-particularly in the church-to see.

* Victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not make the connection between the acts of sexual abuse when he or she is a child, and the emotional and psychological harm caused by the abuse.Victims often employ psychological coping devices shielding them form the realization of harm. Some of these coping devices include:

1) Repression: Victims of childhood sexual abuse may repress the severity of the trauma, the intensity of the emotions related to the trauma, or what they were damaged by the sexual abuse.

2) Intellectualization: Victims keep themselves from awareness by explaining aw the fact that they have been harmed. That person may intellectualize they are not really harmed because it was a priest that did it or because no one knows about it.

3) Disassociation: Victims in a severe state of distress feel as if they were out of their body and the childhood rape happened to someone else.

4) Denial: The victim may refuse to accept the childhood rape happened. To them, it was either a flawed memory or imagination.

* Most experts in forensic psychology support that a reasonable victim of childhood sexual abuse would not be able to understand the extent of the harm they have suffered without professionals help.

* Although the sex abuse survivor may be aware of what happened with the abuse, and that they have a life problem, the connection between the two almost always requires professional help to process and understand, and begin to heal.

* Many years may pass where coping strategies suffice, until a triggering event breaks down those survival strategies, and the adult victim has to suddenly manage the symptoms of their childhood sexual abuse. Often those symptoms can be overpowering and debilitating, and help is needed.

I was corresponding with some friends after the event. One of my friends pointed out that clergy abuse is a form of internal persecution of God’s people, an irony of sorts. We in the church are called to care, protect, and lead other members in our body, to shower them with love, compassion, and truth. But in the case of abuse, clergy are caught in opposite actions, showing cruelty and cunning deception. My friend stated, “The irony of abuse within the confines of a church which condemns persecution is persecuting its own flock.”

In a day and age when the persecution of Christians is on the rise around the world, who would of imagined that some in the church are as guilty as those who don’t believe, peddling persecution in the form of parishioner abuse, causing untold pain to God’s people.

Now that’s food for thought. But just as importantly, fodder for action: to stop the persecution of God’s people-wherever it may be found.

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