Survivors Offer Their Take on Church Changes Regarding Abuse of Adults

Awake Milwaukee [Milwaukee WI]

January 11, 2022

By Erin O'Donnell

Last week on the blog we described two new developments in the Catholic Church, which suggest that officials are beginning to acknowledge sexual abuse of adults by clergy and other church leaders. These include changes to the Code of Canon Law, which now recognizes that adults can be harmed by priests who abuse their authority. Additionally, lay people in leadership positions in the Church can now be punished under canon law for abusing minors or adults. 

The second piece of news is that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in November to review the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, also known as the Dallas Charter, later this year. This is three years earlier than planned. Before the vote, three bishops went to the microphone to urge the committee reviewing the document to consider protections for adults. 

Curious to know what victim-survivors of abuse in the Church think of these developments, we reached out to several women who were abused as adults. Their responses include a mix of hope and skepticism, as well as some downright distrust. 


“I was positively elated and shocked when I saw the change to canon law regarding the abuse of adults,” says Esther Harber, who was sexually assaulted by a priest while serving as a lay missionary in New York City in her 20s.  But the success of those changes depends on how they are enforced and interpreted, Harber adds. “There is still a lot to be teased out around how this law will be applied and carried out, but I think it is a fantastic first step.” Another survivor, Dorothy Small, who experienced abuse twice as an adult, also feels positive about the changes. “My initial reaction was one of marked relief,” she explains. As December 8 approached—the date when the changes to canon law took effect—“I felt ready and in a position as an advocate to address it.” Small spoke at a public event in Sacramento, California on December 8, which was an important experience for her. “I have felt such peace and healing in its wake. We cannot heal what remains concealed in secrecy and cover-ups.”

Survivor Dakota Bateman believes that priests and deacons, like mental health professionals, should operate under a strict code of ethics. She sees the canon law changes as a good first step. “My initial reaction is that it’s about time,” she explains. “We need to realize that if someone is being trusted with another’s vulnerability, then they must be held to a high standard to not abuse that trust.”


Many survivors want the Vatican to do more to clarify the term “vulnerable adults,” used in Church law related to sexual abuse. Pope Francis’ 2019 apostolic letter, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, established new norms related to sexual abuse, making it a crime for priests, deacons, and religious men and women to abuse what it calls “vulnerable adults.” 

According to Vos Estis, a vulnerable adult is “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence.” Survivors and advocates say that this definition appears to focus solely on adults with disabilities, and are disappointed that the canon law revisions did not do more to flesh out the term.

“Any adult of any age can be vulnerable from the impact of life’s sharp blows,” Small offers. “Those of us with adverse childhood events caused by abuse are vulnerable to more of it throughout our adult lives. The other area that creates vulnerability is the power imbalance,” she explains. For example, the power imbalance between a pastor and a parishioner makes the parishioner, who has less power, vulnerable to victimization. 

“Vulnerability needs to be defined in terms of ‘power-over,’” says one victim-survivor who asked not to be named. “Intelligent and competent people can be vulnerable because of the way they lack power in a setting or circumstance. Victims do not become victims because of something that is wrong with them, but because of the wrong choices of others.”


The victim-survivors we spoke with hope that U.S. bishops will bring an understanding of power differentials and more to the table when they discuss the Dallas Charter later this year. Even then, Harber has doubts about what these meetings can accomplish. “While I am glad that the USCCB is finally discussing this scourge on the Church,” she says, “I am rather cynical and don’t think the vast majority of bishops really want to implement these types of regulations within their dioceses.”    

Another survivor of abuse as an adult, “Grace,” (not her real name) remains a practicing Catholic and has made efforts to connect with past and current bishops of her diocese to tell her story and seek healing. But these encounters have been painful and disappointing. For example, her meeting with one bishop “immediately felt like an interrogation, not a conversation. His words almost felt scripted and my words blocked out,” she explains. His tone-deaf response re-traumatized Grace instead of helping her heal. She has found that there is a “deliberate withdrawal from serious conversation” about the issue of abuse of adults. 

Survivors often have deep wounds as a result of their abuse and the insensitive responses by some Church leaders. Church culture needs to change to bring about healing, these women say.  “It is important for me that the bishops begin to see survivors not as liabilities, but rather as wounded lambs in their flock,” Harber says. “I am so tired of being treated like a poison instead of a spiritual daughter.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog