Awake Milwaukee [Milwaukee WI]
June 20, 2023
By Awake Milwaukee
“When one victim-survivor can extend the hand of compassion and kindness to another, even when struggling with their own pain, that is grace to me.”
Jim Richter, 52, recently moved to Grafton, Wisconsin, with his husband, Ben. They previously lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they met in 2019.
They have two elderly dogs: a 13-year-old Great Dane, Lexi, and a 16-year-old schnauzer, Charlie. Richter works remotely as a pathologist for a cancer diagnostics company. “I enjoy being able to help people and solve problems,” he says.
Richter is eager for the better weather ahead. “This is our first summer here,” he explains, “and we are looking forward to gardening, boating, barbecuing with friends, and getting to know the greater Milwaukee area.”
Awake: Jim, I’m so pleased that you are open to sharing your story and insights with our community. Thanks so much. What would you feel comfortable sharing about the abuse you experienced?
Jim Richter: I was abused over several years as a teenager by a priest who could best be described as a serial abuser, having harmed many, many children over decades. He was also a groomer of child victims. He should have been arrested many, many years before he abused me.
Q. Jim, I’m so sorry that you experienced this abuse. Thank you for trusting us with this story. Could you describe what you see as the hardest part of your healing process?
A. The most challenging part of my journey as a survivor has been learning how to trust other people and understand boundaries. Abuse significantly impacted my ability to trust and understand people and relationships in a healthy, well-adjusted way.
Sexual abuse, particularly when it is perpetrated by a trusted person, breaches the boundaries of trust and robs the victim of innocence. Adult sexual behavior with a child damages and perverts the child’s understanding of sexuality, intimacy, emotional security, and, when a religious person is involved, there are additional layers of damaged morality and spirituality. “Rape of the soul” is a term a friend of mine uses to describe their abuse by a priest.
I spent several decades exploring these issues in both counseling and challenging relationships. I have learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and how better to share my feelings and thoughts with people who love me and care about my well-being. It has been quite a difficult road, but the result has been a better, more authentic life with people I love and who love me as well.
Q. Thanks for helping us understand how this type of abuse can influence later relationships. It’s so good to hear that your healing work has brought you to a better place. I wonder what has surprised you most in your journey as a survivor?
A. In my volunteer work with victims of sexual abuse, I am still surprised at the resilience of the human spirit, and the amount of kindness and compassion that people have for other human beings.
Everyone has their own story, and all of them are important, but occasionally one of them really packs a punch and reminds me of how incredibly important it is to have difficult conversations, talk about painful experiences, and support people as they find self-acceptance and understanding. It is the journey through the pain and shame and sadness that results in remarkable stories of strength, self-acceptance, and courage. When one victim-survivor can extend the hand of compassion and kindness to another, even when struggling with their own pain, that is grace to me.
Q. That’s really beautiful, Jim. Thank you. I know that you no longer consider yourself Catholic, so how would you describe your current feelings toward the Catholic Church?
A. My relationship with the Catholic Church can best be described as guarded, cautiously optimistic, and critical as needed. I believe in working within the institution to effect change, as well as outside of the institution to influence laws and culture that will hold institutions accountable.
I do not believe that forgiveness is an important component of a victim-survivor’s journey. There is a fallacy that in order for a victim-survivor to achieve healing, they need to practice forgiveness and extend the gift of forgiveness to move past the harm. That is absolutely untrue. Victim-survivors should own their experience and report their abuse to authorities. Responsible and compassionate religious people and institutions who abused them are the ones who should be asking for forgiveness and practicing the golden rule. It is then a choice for victim-survivors to accept, reject, or further process the idea of forgiveness. To put the onus on people like me is another form of abuse and misdirects the responsibility away from the perpetrators, leaders, fellow priests, and culpable adults where it belongs.
I believe that more church leaders should be willing to talk about harm and wrongdoing and take responsibility for the actions of their fellow priests. It is also the responsibility of the flock to hold leaders to the highest levels of behavior, professionalism, and to report all criminal behavior to the police.
Q. I wonder if you could offer some wisdom that you’ve gained in the process of healing that you think other victim-survivors might benefit from hearing.
A. I have learned to be gentle with myself, as well as with others, and to practice patience. It takes a great deal of effort, sometimes painful effort, to explore and process the trauma of abuse. There were many, many years when I was neither patient nor gentle with myself or others. I squandered a lot of years being angry and resentful and withdrawn. I didn’t yet have the tools I needed, and it took effort to talk about some of the things that happened in my life. Doing that opened up the possibilities that come with living a more authentic, honest and productive life. It has been a journey, to be sure.
Q. Jim, it’s so good to learn from you. Thank you for all that you’ve shared here. I wish you continued healing. In closing, is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?
A. Sure. For the last decade, I have been working with victim-survivors and secondary victim-survivors of sexual abuse, leading peace circles, participating in conferences and panels, and most recently joining the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. I have learned that the principles of restorative justice, which have been effectively applied in criminal justice situations, are also applicable to other forms of harm. Accountability to victim-survivors, acknowledgment of harm, acceptance of responsibility (either from an individual or an institution), and the involvement, support, and understanding of the larger community are all important components of effective restorative justice.
Using this approach in cases of clerical sexual abuse can be a transformative way to address a difficult topic and coordinate a challenging dialogue, provide understanding and compassion to victim-survivors, and address some of the cultural and institutional factors that lead to criminal and sinful behavior. Because I have seen this powerful approach in action, I hope that more Catholics will consider using these tools to bring about a healthier Church.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Jim Richter for sharing his story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors and are committed to bringing you their stories. In addition to Jim’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story, from Emily Ransom.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, you can find the contact information for your diocesan victim assistance coordinator here. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.