Abuse Victims' Camp

By Judy Valente
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly [Kentucky]
November 26, 2004

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In the nearly three years since the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal broke, hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid out to victims. But for many of those victims, cash settlements don't erase the pain. Now, there is a national retreat center for those victims located on a farm near Louisville, Kentucky. A number of Catholic bishops and religious orders have contributed to the project, but the Church does not control it. It is not therapy; it is not a faith experience. It is about the survivors' healing and recovery through telling each other their painful stories. The identity of a participant in our story has been obscured to protect her privacy. Judy Valente reports from what is called, simply, The Farm.

JUDY VALENTE: They arrive at dusk on a Friday night -- a plumber a secretary, a truck driver, a professor. Among them, Shannon Age, a 44-year-old mother of two. This is Shannon just after making her First Communion.

SHANNON AGE: My sister and I both were raped, on both of our Communion days. He told us we were dressed as God's brides. He was God's man, and only he could show us God's love. It was as if, in his eyes, it was our wedding night.

VALENTE: (to Shannon): Why did you keep this dress?

Ms. AGE: This is the little girl I was before he did these things to me.

VALENTE: This photo of the two girls was taken by their mother, unaware that only hours earlier, both had been raped -- by the same priest.

Shannon and the others have come to a 1,300-acre working farm, where corn and other vegetables are raised. Some of the buildings have been donated for use as centers for health and wellness.

The weekend retreat is run by The Linkup, an organization for survivors.

SUE ARCHIBALD (The Linkup): What's unique about The Farm is that it's the first place survivors of clergy abuse can go that really is their own.

VALENTE: It's not unusual for survivors of clergy sexual abuse to gather together to tell their stories. But The Farm offers something unique: A chance not just to confront the pain, but to move beyond it toward healing.

RAY COPPOLA (Psychotherapist): In the process of using a bunch of different exercises and structured activities, it's like an inquiry into the self. In the course of telling their stories and experiencing each others' stories, it's as if their stories massage each other. They come to look at their relation to their story in a different way. So that if one goes into the heart of the wound, it's possible one can actually discover a gift.

Ms. ARCHIBALD: The Farm is a very special place.

VALENTE: There is no religious aspect to the program. Most of these people have long since left the Catholic Church. Some practice no religion. Many have suffered from alcoholism and depression. But they are not here for therapy.

Ms. ARCHIBALD: I think that you can get stuck in therapy where there's really nothing fresh or new. And it seems as though you almost need a catalyst to push you to the next level. And so, with the combination of experiences we have here, we're hoping that spark can be lit.

VALENTE: The weekend begins in a low key. Each person pairs up with another victim, then another and another. They are allowed two minutes to tell and retell the story of what happened to them.

TOM WEITER: I was sexually abused by the priest -- age 10 through 12.

ANN HITCHINS: I never told anybody -- at all. I just went on with my life.

Ms. AGE: I didn't understand why I was scared of everything. I'm scared of men. I'm scared of the dark. I'm scared of beds.

Mr. WEITER: I told my mother about it when I was probably 13 or 14 years old, and she told me I was lying because I just didn't want to go to church.

VALENTE: Those who have been to The Farm before talk about what it was like at first.

JOHN SCOTT: Before, I couldn't talk. I was all knotted up -- couldn't express myself. But, it's a whole lot better.

Mr. WEITER: I can look back on what -- how this controlled me all through my life. The fear, the anger, the guilt, the shame, the low self-esteem was controlling my life and I was never in control of my life.

VALENTE: The participants include one man who was a victim of parental, not clergy abuse. He also acted as a facilitator, encouraging the others.

READ HARRIS: There's that resolve in you that you've used all your life just to get you to where you are. It's inspiring to be among people who are so determined to get their life back and to deal with their issues.

VALENTE: The next morning, the survivors who are here for the first time walk the grounds, finding an object to share with the others.

IRENE DESCHENES: I found this piece of bark laying beside a tree. To me it symbolized my pulling away from the roots, my roots, and that includes my family of origin, and the Church.

YVONNE CHISHOLM: This leaf here -- the leaves fall, and they change colors. And so does the healing. It goes on. It's pain. And the seasons change, and you should change.

VALENTE: Now, the experience will intensify, as the stories become more specific.

Mr. COPPOLA: If a brother called or a priest called and wanted to take me out or do something with me -- "yes" was the only response all the time.

VALENTE: Ray Coppola, the psychotherapist who leads the sessions, goes first. He was abused at age 14.

Mr. COPPOLA: He sort of starts to tussle with me, like, wrestle. I'm elbowing him, or whatever. And then he's a little more forceful and sort of rolls on top of me. And the next thing I know, in one quick movement, he had my pajamas and my underwear right down around my ankles.

VALENTE: After Ray has told his story, the others, including two sisters from Chicago, take time to reflect and prepare. It will be their turn next.

Ms. CHISHOLM: The abuse went on for years. I would try to stay home from school, and he would come to the house to look for me. I'm nine years old. All I wanted to do was roller skate and jump rope.

JACKIE HUMPHREYS: I was a beautiful green leaf then. And what he did -- I knew it was wrong. What happened to me I kept in here, and I let it destroy me.

IRENE DESCHENES: And I remember the first time he kissed me. I came to later learn it was called a French kiss.

Mr. HARRIS: I only prayed a couple of times, but when I realized my prayers weren't being met, I gave up. As I got older I thought, how perverse is God? If he's here, he's watching me get raped by this man.

Ms. DESCHENES: I want to get out of this grief. I don't want to feel sorry for myself anymore. I don't want to cry anymore.

Mr. COPPOLA: Sometimes, with the support of other people, we can find our way. To do it alone -- it's a difficult path. But I would say, respond to every call that excites your spirit.

Ms. ARCHIBALD: It's a bit tough with clergy abuse survivors to talk about spiritual healing because many have felt as though they've suffered spiritual abuse. Spiritual healing really is rebuilding the core of strength that's within us. Once we rebuild that we really feel like we belong to ourselves again.

VALENTE: Finally, in what may be the most wrenching and cathartic part of the weekend, they write an imaginary letter to their abuser.

Ms. CHISHOLM (reading from letter): Why did you put your hands, your mouth, on me? I love to dance and to play. You took all that away. I loved being a Catholic and you took all that away. My mother believed in you. I believed in you, and you took that away.

Ms. DESCHENES (reading from letter): Why me? Why? Why? I can't. I won't. Oh, my God. Oh, no. Stop! Stop it! Don't. Don't. Not me. No, no, no. Oh, ouch! Ouch! What do I do now? Where do I go? Oh, my God. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

Ms. HUMPHREYS (reading from letter): I forgive you, not for what you did, but to release it from me and give it to a higher power to pass judgment on. God have mercy on your soul.

Maybe, maybe this will give me the closure that I need.

Ms. DESCHENES: I think that was a good exercise for me because it took me from what I was feeling or thinking as a child. I rarely express anger. So, to have written it down, maybe that's all I need to do.

VALENTE: Ray Coppola calls the experience at the farm, "a mixture of pain and beauty."

Mr. COPPOLA: This weekend allows them to be focused in the moment, in a very acute, sometimes intense way. Maybe that will help them to get some momentum. We've heard from people who've been through the program that is exactly what it does for them. They actually find that they're standing on new ground.

VALENTE: On the third and final day, they gather in the woods to say goodbye. The program is too young to show results, but for these survivors, it shows promise.

Mr. HARRIS: I saw this single red rose, bright and red, surrounded by dirt and death. It reminded me that within us all resonates a spirit and a will that is colorful and alive and just demands to be attended to. And that despite the barrenness that surrounds us from our abuse and our pain, there is still that hope that is represented by this flower within us that will spring eternal and give us a future to live for.

VALENTE: For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Judy Valente in Brownsboro, Kentucky.


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