Compiled by Barbara A. Blaine, Founder of SNAP
- Acknowledge your courage.It takes courage to acknowledge that we’ve been abused, and it is not easy to even admit it to ourselves. Just looking at this web site is a big step.
- Know that you are not alone.There are many more survivors of abuse by priests, and other clergy members, than any of us wants to believe. One study from University of Chicago estimates that there are probably about 100,000 survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the U.S. Most of us believed that we were the only victim of the priest that abused us. Over time we have learned that there is rarely, if ever, only one victim. While we were being abused we were isolated and felt extremely alone. Now it is possible to join with other survivors to find healing. We do not have to be alone anymore. If you want to attend SNAP meetings, check other places on this web site to learn of meeting dates and times. If there isn’t a SNAP group meeting in your city, would you like to start one? (If yes, call the SNAP office, 312-409-2720, leave a call back number, and we’ll tell you how to do it.) If there is no SNAP group in your, area consider attending a self-help group for survivors of sexual abuse. Your local rape crisis center may offer group therapy sessions that are free-of-charge. You might also find it helpful to go to counseling. Whatever you decide, just know that others also suffer like you.
Don't go to the Church.Many survivors have gone to church officials to look for help, guidance and/or healing. Many of us went to the church leaders after building up loads of courage and strength to face them because we wanted to make sure that our perpetrators didn’t abuse anyone else. We mistakenly thought that the church leaders would want to ensure others’ safety too and that the perpetrators would be removed from ministry. So many of us did this without ever telling anyone else. Then we found out we were wrong. The church leaders did not care about protecting others, and they did not care about us. Most of us found the experience of going to church leaders just awful. The church leaders were insensitive and acted like they did not know how to respond to us. We were looking for healing and consolation but found further victimization. Most of us left feeling devastated, and the entire experience of talking to church leaders left us hurting more than ever. Here are some of the responses received by church leaders across the country:
- Sometimes they acted kind and then ignored the promises they made to “investigate” our allegations.
- Usually they said that we were the first person to ever come forward to allege that Father So-and-so is a sexual molester. Many of us found out later that we weren’t the first to come forward and that church leaders had known about our perpetrators for years.
- Others had the Chancellor, Provincial or even Bishop tell us that they are sure that Father So-and-so would never do such a thing. We must have misunderstood or misinterpreted Father’s affection.
- Sometimes it was suggested by church leaders that we were bad for even saying such a thing. A few of us were offered the opportunity to go to confession.
- More recently, the Church leaders offer to pay for counseling for us. But sometimes this comes with strings attached. Some survivors were told they had to attend counseling at Catholic Charities. We strongly recommend that you think twice before agreeing to this arrangement; in at least one case a court of law determined that the Catholic Charities counselor had to turn over records about the counseling to the church attorneys. There was no confidentiality.
- Sometimes survivors have learned later that their first encounter with a church leader was recorded without their knowledge or permission.
- Frequently, church leaders wanted us to tell all the “details” and in some cases became angry at us for telling those details. The experience left survivors feeling both invaded and blamed for the abuse while they were only telling what happened and what they had been asked to tell.
- Here are some reasons why you could be hurt by going to church leaders:
- When first beginning to deal with the abuse, we might not have all the facts straight regarding places, dates, times, etc. Frequently our memories become refreshed with lots of details only as we engage in the healing process, taking days, months, even years to uncover fully. If we’ve disclosed some details one day and recall more later, we will be discredited for being inconsistent about the details.
- Growing up Catholic has taught us to trust our priests and bishops implicitly so we approach the church leaders with full trust and disclosure. We look up to them, and they are in positions of authority and power over us. They, on the other hand, do not trust survivors. They may even view you as “the enemy.” While we think they are trying to help us, they are in fact building a case against us without our knowledge. Things said during initial meetings with church leaders can easily be twisted to be used against you and have been used against a number of survivors.
- Other survivors have gone to the Church leaders and have been hurt by doing so. Some of us were strung along for months while the church leaders waited for our statute of limitations to run on any legal action we had while we didn’t even know we had a right to any legal claim.
- Most survivors do not want to receive money from the church as compensation for what was done to us. Most of us merely want to ensure that our perpetrators are removed from being able to abuse others in their position as trusted priests. We’d like some apology for what we’ve endured. Sometimes we want an apology or acknowledgment given to our parents. Sometimes we want the church to pay for our counseling or other expenses we may have. None of us wants to sue the church for millions of dollars. But one thing we have learned over the years is that when we do file law suits the church becomes accountable. Unfortunately, without any legal obligation to promises made by the church to you, there is little chance that you will actually get what you bargain for. The church is not bound to do anything for you unless there is a legal contract or court order mandating that it happen. I’d like to tell you that you can trust what the church leaders tell you, but so many survivors have received nothing but empty promises after being assured that certain things would occur (or not occur). So I feel obligated to warn you that it is probably best not to trust any one in a church position. I must go further to say that this remains true, even when you personally know the church leader. Many survivors have found themselves being employed by the church as Catholic school employees, DRE’s, parish workers, campus ministers, youth minister’s, etc. These church employees have not been treated any better than everyone else. In fact, the mistreatment by the church leaders has hurt some of these folks even more because they were friends of the church leaders. The betrayal is extremely painful. For many survivors, this is much worse than the pain from our actual abuse. We can understand that there is a “bad apple” in the bunch of priests of each Diocese but what we fail to understand is why the Church leaders leave these individuals in ministry when they know they have abused others. We also fail to understand why the church leaders are so inconsiderate to survivors.
- Don't go alone!If you still decide to go to church leaders, don’t go alone. Taking someone with you provides a witness to the event and gives you someone to “debrief” with when its over. Write down what is said. Don’t believe what you hear just because they said it. Check it out with other sources before relying on what they tell you. Have a prepared time limit on how long you will meet with them and stick to it. Prepare ahead of time what you will and won’t tell and stick to your prepared plan. Protect yourself. Take time after any meeting with church leaders to “debrief” and go over what occurred. Keep track of all info you give them and exact details of what you tell. They are keeping track, so you should too.
- Seek alternative Help!As an alternative to going to church leaders, we recommend that you go to a trusted family member or friend, or seek professional help from a counselor. Many others have gone through a process of healing from sexual abuse. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. We may as well learn from others, and for many SNAP members a professional counselor is very helpful.
Learn your legal rights.The church leaders have lots more information about our abuse than we do. They know our legal rights, but most of us don’t know. We can choose to exercise our legal rights or not, but it is empowering to make the choice. Without knowing, we don’t make the choice.
Many SNAP members ignored learning about our legal rights because we assumed we didn’t need to learn them because the church leaders would do the right thing. By the time we figured out that the church leaders were not going to do the right thing it was too late for many of us to exercise our legal rights. We have noticed that frequently the church leaders string victims along until the statute of limitations has run, or in layman’s terms, the opportunity we had to file a claim was over. By the time many of us realized, it was too late to do anything. That experience was so painful to many survivors because it was another moment of helplessness and powerlessness at the hands of our perpetrator or his supervisors.
Healthy Survivors: Many survivors have developed addictions or health problems. The pain and betrayal we felt while being abused was intense. We had no knowledge of how to cope with the experience of being abused as well as the feelings that came as a result of the abuse. All of us found a way to survive or we would not be here today. The problem is that many of the coping mechanisms we used to survive the abuse are not healthy. Here are some of the types of problems we have: Alcoholism; drug addiction; over-eating, under-eating or other eating disorders; co-dependency, finger-nail biting; promiscuity; detachment from intimacy; sleep disorders; religious fanaticism; stomach or intestinal problems; or an overall attitude of anger.
If any of the above are a problem for you, SNAP recommends that you seek help. Now we are not being abused, so we don’t need to rely on the unhealthy coping mechanisms we used in the past. Help for these types of problems will liberate and allow us to face the real issues of our abuse. In SNAP meetings, we do not address addiction issues and recommend that survivors seek help for these from other sources.
Facing the issues: Acknowledging and facing the issues of our abuse can be extremely time consuming and require lots of energy and emotions. As a result, many of us have felt completely drained and had months of feeling tired and overwhelmed. When we feel this way, it is easy to become irritable and short-tempered. Many survivors have found it helpful to:
- Keep our significant others (spouses, parents, room-mates, bosses, anyone who is in close proximity to us) aware of what we are going through. While they will never know what it feels like to be us, they may find it helpful to deal with us (our mood swings, tears, tempers, etc) if they know what we are coping with and that we are in pain. Some of our significant others have found it helpful to get their own counselor to learn how to help us get through the healing. Being a significant other to a survivor is not easy, and we survivors need to be aware of how difficult it can be for those around us. However, we must keep clear that it is not our job to take care of them.
- Take time off to “feel the pain”. If we attend counseling or a support group on Monday nights, we find a babysitter for the rest of the evening, or take off work on Tuesday mornings. Frequently when we are dealing with our abuse, new thoughts, emotions, memories, etc., come up, at any moment, with any trigger. Sometimes it is easier to deal with it knowing that there is a specific time that we will have to deal with the issue.
Doing the every day habits of life, like getting dressed, going to work, feeding the kids, caring for spouses and housework, etc. must go on.
Life cannot stop while we decide to heal from our abuse. Planning ahead can help us juggle our emotions with our responsibilities.
- Exercise. Of course dealing with our emotions can make us want to curl up into a ball and craw under our desks rather than getting up and moving. But in the long run, we will feel better if we get up and take a long vigorous walk, go for a bike ride, or whatever we can do to move our bodies. Getting our hearts to beat faster gives us an emotional lift too and makes it easier to cope with the painful emotions. Extending ourselves physically also can become a way to release pent up anger, guilt and shame.
- Do something soothing. Take a long hot bath. Drink some herbal tea. Eat a dark chocolate candy bar.
- Many survivors have found getting a massage helpful. As our bodies are touched by safe, healing hands, the touch releases some of the pent up pain, shame and guilt that we may be holding. Sometimes survivors find they have had backaches, shoulder aches for years that go away after being touched in a massage. This can also becomes a time of our bodies remembering touches that were hurtful and wrong by our perpetrators triggering an onslaught of emotions. But all the survivors who have experienced massages, that I know of, have found it helpful. At many SNAP conferences, massages were offered and were healing for those who experienced them. You know yourself and your tolerance level for being touched. If it feels like it might be helpful, go for it. If it feels invasive to have a stranger touch you, then a massage is not for you. Trust your instincts.
- Set boundaries and keep them. The boundaries may be that we only talk about our abuse to certain people at certain times. Or it could mean that we set aside 30 minutes every day to care for our own needs. Setting limits protects us from sharing too much or from ignoring our needs.
- Setting limits and keeping them empowers us to take control of some aspects of our lives. While we were being abused, we were helpless and powerless. Taking charge of our lives is empowering. Claiming power is a significant experience of healing. It enable us to take back what was taken from us when we were abused.
- Do something artistic or write in a journal. Many survivors have found this helpful; you might too. Writing and drawing has allowed our emotions to take over which released painful emotions. We sat down and began to draw our emotions from the abuse. Both drawing and writing released emotions and allowed our story to be told. It seems that so much of the pain we feel is in keeping the secret. By telling the story in our journals or drawing it in our sketch pads, we broke the silence and told the secret. Breaking the secrecy becomes healing and helps us face more of the truth. When we can use our discretion, following the boundaries we previously set, to determine who, if any one else, gets to see our drawings or read our journals, we continue to heal. Even if no one ever reads what we write or sees what we draw, the experience is still very helpful.
- Take time to rest. Dealing with our abuse is exhausting. Acknowledge that and give yourself a break. Don’t feel guilty when you take time to rest. The intense healing process will not last forever, and when you are through it, you might find that you don’t need as much rest. Then you can resume your normal level of commitments. But if you feel like you need it now, give yourself the time and space.
- No matter how bad it feels now, it will improve and you will feel better. Many survivors take years to work through the pain of their abuse. Be patient. The end will come, even if you don’t recognize it all at once. Happier days will be there for you. Many survivors have felt that they would never be happy again, but eventually we do end up feeling better.
- Create an opportunity to laugh. Many of us survivors noticed that we just did not find many things funny and had stopped laughing. So to make us laugh, we found it helpful to rent funny movies. The mindless experience of becoming immersed in an otherwise stupid story, with funny actors or plots for an hour and a half can be a great release of emotions. Lots of us started doing that, and we found it helpful. We even laughed a lot just telling about the stupid movies we had watched. Some included: Charlie Chaplin movies, “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Animal House,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
- Everybody is unique! Everyone’s experience of healing from abuse is unique. While many of our experiences of abuse were similar, everyone heals in their own way. There are no rights or wrongs. Mostly, we have learned that it's best to trust our own judgements and those of the people who know us best and love us most. By sharing our experiences in SNAP, we have learned from each other and continue to do so. We try not to tell each other what to do or what is right because what is right for one person might not be for another. We don’t give advice to each other, but rather learn from others’ experiences and then apply what fits to our own experiences.
- We are the victims (survivors)! The abuse was not our fault, no matter what we did or didn’t do to stop it or prevent it. No matter whether it felt good or bad. No matter whether he bought us gifts, took us out to eat, or to fun places. No matter if we enjoyed his company. No matter if someone else had warned us to stay away from him. No matter what, the responsibility for a priest molesting us rests squarely on the priest. He was in a position of authority. We looked up to the priest. We trusted the priest, and we believed what he told us. We thought he was close to God and we might get close to God if we stuck close to him. He should not have touched us. He abused his position of authority. He used his position of being a priest to victimize us. He had no right to do this. He is a criminal, and what he did was a criminal act. We are victims of his crime. He and his bosses who trained him and supervised him were wrong. His bosses, the Bishops, Pastors, and teachers at his Seminary made a mistake in putting him into his position of priest. They did not do their job properly. If they had, he would not have become a priest and been in that position to hurt us. The church leaders and the priests are guilty. We are victims. We are innocent. We have been wronged. We deserve to have the wrong made right. That will mean different things to each of us, but we all deserve to be made whole, as much as that is possible.