Clergy abuse experts convene at local conference

CHESTNUT HILL — The Archdiocese of Boston committed itself to the long-term care of those who have been sexually abused by priests and to continuing education in the “best practices” for treating related after-effects at a conference dedicated to the topic. The Jan. 14 conference at Boston College was reportedly the first daylong conference to deal specifically with mental health issues resulting from sexual abuse by clergy.

Nearly 200 social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals attended the conference, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach in collaboration with BC’s Graduate School of Social Work. A training session to equip priests, deacons and religious to more effectively address the needs of abuse victims is also scheduled, along with plans to create an outreach model to help parishes and parishioners acutely affected by the scandal.

There is currently very little research in treating victims of clergy sex abuse, which psychologists say differs from other forms of sex abuse because it is both a physical and spiritual violation. The conference aimed to educate professionals on the impact of the abuse and its repercussions in order to better help abuse victims heal.

In his opening remarks, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley said that meeting with abuse victims helped him “begin to understand the damage and how long-range the effect of sex abuse is.” After meeting with dozens of victims in the archdiocese, he saw that the “common denominator” among them was that many were from extremely devout and active Catholic families.

"Priests occupied a very, very important place in their lives -- the priest was the icon of the transcendent, and hence the abuse had consequences that went beyond the damage in similar cases of abuse that did not involve clergy," said Archbishop O'Malley. "The wound which was left by the abuse was not only to one's psyche, but also to their spiritual life and identity, because their Catholic identity had been so important and so central in their existence, and now that had been seriously damaged."

Victims react differently to the abuse they suffered, he said. Some desire to meet with the bishop as part of the healing process, while others feel it is too painful and leave the Church permanently.

The archbishop pledged that the archdiocese would continue to fund therapy for survivors. The archdiocese currently funds therapy services for around 400 people.

Barbara Thorp, director of the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach, described the seminar as a “sign of hope” in the midst of an agonizing period in the Church. She went on to describe her office’s task of facilitating treatment under the “battlefield conditions” of litigation and arbitration.

Despite those difficulties, she, her staff and a number of social workers continue to meet with victims and have learned that “listening to their needs” is one of the most important tools to help them heal. Thorp said that each abuse survivor has different needs. Victims may wish to return to the site of the abuse, to relinquish religious objects they were given by the abusive priest, to talk at a neutral location or to speak with the archbishop, she said.

Thorpe acknowledged the opinion that counseling and therapy should be entrusted to secular organizations. She stated that it is, however, the responsibility of the archdiocese to respond to the harm done by priests, as mandated by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

"It would be easier to contract it out," she said. However, "it is essential that the Church not back away from hearing in excruciating detail the suffering of the abuse."

Victims and members of their families spoke about their experience with abuse in terms of a life-altering violation of trust. Bill and Mary Cratty spoke of how a priest, who became a close family friend, began abusing their daughter, Jeanne, when she was just six years old.

As a result of the abuse, Jeanne, who is now in her 40s, dropped out of college and currently suffers from a number of illnesses including attention deficit disorder, acute anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Her parents have remained faithful to their Church; however, Jeanne has had difficulty returning to the Church. Instead, her mother brings her the Eucharist every week.

Displaying the wide range of reactions to the abuse, another panel of victims spoke of how their spirituality has been an integral component in coming to terms with what happened to them. The consensus of the four-person panel was that, in cases of clergy abuse, therapists must at least address issues of faith.

"It needs to be approached because it's a part of who we are," said Olan Horne, a member of the panel.

Dr. Kenneth Pargament, professor of psychology at Bowling Green University, and other experts speaking at the conference agreed. Pargament said that many therapists do not discuss issues of God and religion with their clients; however, they must become more accustomed to speaking about spirituality when treating clergy abuse victims.

"We can't help survivors unless we know about where they come from spiritually," he said. "Mental health professionals may underestimate the power, significance and centrality of faith in healing."

However, there are times “when spirituality becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” he continued. Because abuse by clergy is a desecration of one of the most sacred aspects of their lives, victims of abuse may lose trust in God and in the Church, he said.

Therefore, therapists must be aware of the “spiritual character of clergy sexual abuse,” in order to facilitate proper healing, Pargament explained. To do this, he suggested that therapists question their clients about their spirituality to see how it factors into their lives.

Dr. Terence M. Keane, chief of psychology services at Boston VA Medical Center and director of The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, discussed current responses to the disorder, which can develop from a number of traumatic experiences including clergy abuse.

Because clergy sexual abuse is a relatively new area of study, Keane said that dealing with effects of the abuse crisis requires integrating what is known about other types of childhood sexual abuse.

Other workshops available to participants focused on assessing the impact of clergy abuse, the effects of the abuse on the victim’s sexual identity and relationships with family and its contribution to substance abuse and anxiety disorders.

An upcoming publication will focus on the topics discussed at the conference, particularly the spiritual aspects of treating victims of clergy abuse.

Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, attended and thanked the therapists for their work. She also thanked those victims who addressed the conference.

"Every sentence you uttered, somebody learned something from," she said.

McChesney also noted that the results of the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which analyzed the nature and scope of clergy sexual abuse, will be made public on Feb. 27.