Priests' Convocation to Focus on Trauma

By Eileen Connelly
Catholic Telegraph
October 24, 2008

DAYTON DEANERY — When the priests of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati gather for their annual convocation at Incarnation Parish in Centerville on Oct. 29, they will hear about a subject particularly relevant to their ministry today. Father Kenneth Schmidt, a licensed mental health professional and co-founder of the diocesan Trauma Recovery Program in Kalamazoo, Mich., will speak to the clergy members on the topic of "Trauma and Pastoral Care: How We Handle Stressful Situations and Help Others do the Same."

Father Kenneth Schmidt

Father Schmidt, who also serves as pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish in Kalamazoo, said his talk would focus on "how we, as priests, are handling the trauma that is going on in the church, and how we are going to be good pastoral caregivers to others."

Since 2002 the Trauma Recovery Program in Kalamazoo has reached out to any adult Catholic who is a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect. In a 2005 article, "Signs of Unresolved Trauma," Father Schmidt notes that, depending on the definition used, 10 to 50 percent of children experience some form of trauma. "Untreated childhood trauma affects an adult's ability to be a healthy and productive member of society," he wrote. "The effects of trauma include injury to the mind and spirit as well as the physical body. Survivors of trauma commonly and consistently display recognizable and predictable patterns of unhealthy behavior that can be changed and healed."

Among the signs of unresolved trauma that clergy members must be attuned to are the adult's inability to manage their feelings, intense self-blame and feelings of guilt and unworthiness. In ministering to survivors Father Schmidt said, "As confessors we must be careful not to say or do anything to trauma survivors (to imply) that what happened was their fault. This means that when a survivor comes in and confesses the trauma, don't absolve them for it, because there is no sin in having been abused. In the penitent's mind it's their fault. Absolving them for it reinforces the mistaken notion that they sinned."

It is also important for priests, and all those who minister to trauma survivors, to ensure that they know "it is okay to tell and that church personnel are safe to tell," he added. "Trauma survivors are trying to assess who they can trust to tell. They make the decision by watching me, listening to me and then work up the courage. It's my compassion, my listening ability, the sense that I'll observe the boundaries."

The appropriate initial response is key toward reassuring the survivor and moving him or her in the direction of healing and hope, Father Schmidt stressed. He spoke of one situation in his diocese in which a trauma survivor was told to "get over it" by a priest with whom she shared her secret. A more appropriate response, said Father Schmidt, would have been, "What an awful thing to have happened to you. I can't imagine how hard it has been to live with that all these years."

It is critical to reassure the survivor that he or she can heal and to give them a sense a hope, which is, he said, "the most successful element in treatment and recovery."

"We also want to give out signals that we can handle the hard truth that people may share with us," Father Schmidt added. "We want to be people who are trustworthy, confidential and can handle the heavy emotion they are dealing with. We need to allow them to have their feelings, not hand them a tissue and say, 'stop that now.' This doesn't just apply to priests, but to youth ministers, religious educators and pastoral ministers."

In addition to the trauma suffered by the survivors, Father Schmidt said it also important to acknowledge the impact the clergy abuse crisis had on the church as a whole. "What we've been through in the Catholic Church in the last six or seven years has also been traumatic as we've watched people we've respected be _removed from ministry, people who are friends and have had accusations made against them, whether true or not. As people in parishes we've seen our pastors removed. This has frequently led to divisions in parishes with some people saying, 'He was a really good person. He couldn't possibly have done that," while others are saying, 'What a horrible person…nothing is too bad for him because he hurt kids.'"

Pastors must respond, Father Schmidt said, by helping parishioners find the truth, encouraging prayer and forgiveness and promoting healing.

Regarding the upcoming convocation he said, "It is very encouraging that the presbyterate is facing a very difficult topic. That in itself is a very good thing."


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