Book offers hope amid church abuse scandal

By Shawn Manning Chapman
July 27, 2019

In the current wave of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, it has been hard to know what to do. I have taken it on faith that the church eventually would survive this crisis and make the necessary changes to protect children and adults from abuse, because I believe the church is true.

However, I have also shared in the agonized cry of so many devout Catholics who have chosen to stay with the church in the midst of this crisis, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” as the abysmal response of church leaders has left me feeling helpless and angry. I had begun to think I never would see a meaningful response in my lifetime to this dire situation.

Abuse of Trust; Healing the Church gave me real hope for the first time that there is a way, and all of us can be a part of it right now.

I am confident that reading it will help Catholics understand the experience of sexual abuse and its effects better and to see how each of us can be a part of healing the wounded and helping the church take a righteous and effective path to being a refuge for the broken, making amends, protecting the vulnerable, educating families and reclaiming the spiritual fatherhood of our leaders.

The arrangement of the book helps to draw the reader into the experience of survivors, their spouses, their parents, by letting them tell their stories — “sacred stories” as they are called in the book.

These stories contain no lurid details but are very honest. Their authors don’t varnish the truth of what happened and what people suffer from clergy sexual abuse and the resulting trauma. It interested me to see how each of them found a path to healing. I enjoyed hearing about the way their Catholic faith actually helped them find restoration and new life, helped the rise and help others.

“We all love the Church and desire to heal her of this great wound. We desire to help our fellow Catholics (the secondary victims) to receive healing and to help our priests and Bishops to better understand how to seek out and offer healing to all victims of sexual abuse; especially those harmed by a leader of the Church.”

Allen Hebert is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and an active, faithful and devout Catholic. He speaks our language and can explain this to us from the inside. This is a good Catholic book from a good Catholic man.

I appreciated the sections of the book written by experts to help us understand abuse and trauma as well as a way not only realize the problem and recognize abuse and potential abuse, but how to respond to it.

We all want to know how we can protect children and adults from abuse. According to contributor Elizabeth Terrel, the number one thing the church can do is to shine the light of truth on all that has happened. We have to understand something before we effectively can fight it.

As Herbert says, “The goal of this book is healing, and in order to begin the healing process, honesty is needed.”

Some practical steps toward healing — not only for victims of abuse, but for the church — are provided. This is where I started to get excited. I can see how much these ideas could help everyone not only understand this problem better, but to take courage and rise to the occasion. We all can learn how to understand an abuse survivor, how to receive their stories, should we be so honored, listen to them, validate them, empower them and offer what healing we can as a brother or sister in Christ, and as church.

I read about “trauma informed ministries,” with interest and growing hope.

There are practical ways that church leaders can reach out to find the people who have been harmed and offer them compassion, help and healing, why we should invest in that.

I know this is a hard thing for church leaders to feel they can risk right now. But don’t we trust God? Don’t we trust that when we do the right thing, God will provide what we need? Don’t we believe that? Or do we think we have to fend for ourself? Does the Good Shepherd not go out and find His injured sheep? He does, leaving behind his other concerns to do so.

If we fail, how can we not be impaired in preaching the Gospel to the whole world, which is our mission? We can’t. We must and we can reach out to heal the broken-hearted. We have everything we need to do so.

Each of us — most especially our pastors and church leaders — can learn to receive the stories of survivors; to listen to them, validate them, empower them and offer them what healing we can. It is a skill we can learn. People involved in ministry should be trained to be able to do this. All of us should learn. We don’t have to be afraid. We can be a pivotal part of healing for a survivor at a critical point in his or her journey.

There are so many people suffering from sexual abuse either from clergy or someone else. It is estimated that every other person in the pew either knows a survivor very well or is one based on statistics from the CDC. That is a lot of hurting people. We need to learn to serve them. We have so much to offer.

The Catholic faith has a unique understanding of suffering and of the suffering church, and the way God can use our suffering to assist in redeeming others. In my own recovery from abuse, this spiritual concept of being a small co-redeemer — uniting my suffering with Christ’s — has been deeply meaningful to me. It can be meaningful for us as church to remember this, too. We don’t have to fear that the church will not survive this. That would be impossible. But we can face what has happened, accept the consequences, take up our cross and follow Jesus with new eyes and new hearts for those who suffer and have been harmed. This idea is baked in, so to speak, to Catholic thinking.

One of the tremendous gifts the church has to offer is the the Theology of the Body by St. John Paul II. For Herbert, the truth of the teachings of the church about human sexuality and what is supposed to be and can be undid the twisted lies his abuser fed him in order to justify the abuse. I had a similar experience as a convert with a background of childhood sexual abuse (not by clergy but by other people.) I was delighted to see that this book includes a chapter by Christopher West, who has been instrumental in explaining, promoting and popularizing the beauty of Theology of the Body. This is also a hopeful chapter, reminding us of what we are about and how beautiful is our church teaching and God’s plan for us manifested in our bodies, in our being, of God’s plan from the beginning.

I was so excited about the ideas in this book I had forgotten I was quoted in the section on the church as a dysfunctional family. (Full disclosure: I am quoted a little bit in this book from my blog post #Wearblacktomass.) Not only do Allen and Denae Hebert show how the church is a dysfunctional family, they have ideas for how to heal it.

Then they look at the church as a parent and what a good parent does, and how our leaders can reclaim spiritual fatherhood and regain the trust of the people. Some of this is hard to do, but a father has to protect his children and put them first. We need to see abuse prosecuted. If the statute of limitations has run out, we need the abuser publicly identified and for civil charges to be pursued by our leaders. We will trust leaders such as that. We will follow leaders such as that. We need to be putting victims first, and when the bishops release statements they should not sound as if a lawyer composed them. They should sound as if victims are first in their minds and it should be true. Survivors are going to have authority issues. A disfigured image of Church fatherhood causes further harm.

The church is our mother. Everyone should feel safe in her arms, nurtured and fed. It makes all the difference for someone harmed by abuse if he or she feels safe and understood. It has often been a turning point for people when a religious leader or even just a church member could listen to them kindly and without judgement, offering compassion.

We all need to be careful about re-traumatizing victims. This causes severe suffering and it is not that hard to avoid.

Often the church’s response to abuse allegations needlessly further triggers victims in the public who hear and do little to seek out and offer healing to those who are so damaged by their abuse they cannot bear to enter a church or attend mass. We need to reach out to those people and offer to help to them and their families. There are several suggested ways this could be done.

Allen and Denae Herbert show us ways to educate more effectively the Catholic community about abuse, prevention and healing. They show us ways to strengthen the family, the domestic church, and ways to educate children to give them a better chance of avoiding abuse or being able to tell about it that come from the heart of our faith. These all seem to be keys the church already has to these things. It’s just that they have not been utilized in this way or applied to the problem of sexual abuse and the church’s response.

In this book there are concrete steps and plans that I can see would be doable to take us the rest of the way that we must go.

I was happy to see a set of Gospel meditations for the mysteries of the rosary that we can use to become part of the solution through prayer.

This book is accessible, easy to read and understand, engaging and absorbing. There is a refreshing mix of expert advice and education, concrete actions to be taken, information and how our faith can be applied to this situation. Abuse of trust reaffirms our Catholic faith even though the church is polluted by abuse. We have glorious inner beauty in our faith that we can tap to begin the healing process in every way. We don’t have to feel helpless. We don’t have to feel wounded and ashamed. We can realize that God has already provided for the journey we have to make.

“God has not given us a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self control.” Hebert and the other contributors to this book help us to remember that and inspire us to set out to be a part of solutions and healing of the church we love.

Abuse of trust is a product of tremendous courage and great faith.

A Kindle version of the book will be available on Thursday. The physical book will be out Aug. 15. I urge every Catholic to read it, especially pastors and bishops. Take courage, there is hope.

“We will again enable the Church to once again evangelize the world.” — Hebert


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