Survivors of childhood sexual abuse advocating for Maryland legislation empower others | GUEST COMMENTARY
It is not a group anyone wants to join. The Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is made up of people who have experienced clergy sexual abuse during their childhoods. The group was first introduced to me as a support for my husband, who is a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest that occurred when he was 5-years-old. My husband participates in a peer group, and we have attended two national SNAP conferences.
People would stand up and say what happened to them — how old they were, how long the abuse continued, whether they were believed if they told others. They were tearful, they were angry, but they were not silent. I was just astonished. I also am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, though the crimes against me were not committed by a clergy member, and it never occurred to me that I could be in a room with hundreds of other survivors and feel empowered and proud.
To me, learning to deal with the abuse meant acknowledging it to myself years after it happened, then telling a few of my closest friends, and then disclosing it to my family. It started at age 5 and ended around age 12. I never told anyone earlier because I didn’t even know what it was or how to describe it, and I thought it was a special secret between me and my abuser, a trusted family member.
I first remember talking about it with a psychiatrist at age 19 when I was hospitalized for an out of control eating disorder. At the time I thought “well, I dealt with the abuse,” as if I could now cross it off a list. During my years of therapy for recurring depressive and anxious episodes, I discovered that trauma requires ongoing healing and recovery. Healing is not linear, and memories are often triggered by news and TV shows and other people and events.
I am now a clinical social worker myself, and I can understand how trauma impacts the brain and will have lifelong impacts on the survivor. It does not mean that you cannot be happy and have a good life, but it does mean that you will forever be affected by something that happened to you through no fault of your own.
In my involvement with SNAP, I have met the most amazing people you could ever want to meet. People who are broken and scarred just like me, but also funny and empathetic and kind. They understand things in a way that only another survivor can. There is a shorthand in the way they talk that I just “get.” Even though I’m not Catholic and never was abused by a priest, they accept me and welcome me to be a part of them. I have found it inspiring and healing to be included in this group.
That is why I am going to rallies and press conferences and the current Maryland Legislative Hearings in Annapolis for House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 686, known as the Child Victims Act of 2023. This bill would remove the statute of limitations to file a civil case against an abuser; it is sponsored by the amazing Sen. Will Smith, the Democratic chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a true advocate and friend of survivors.
I have watched in awe and gratitude as my husband and all of these survivors have stood before the legislature and told their deepest, darkest secrets from their childhoods. They have implored lawmakers to help sexually abused children and stop protecting predators. It seems like a no-brainer to want to protect and provide justice to children. However, it is those survivors who are the ones baring their souls and shedding their tears. The predators hide silently in plain sight behind institutions who have spent money, time and energy to protect them from being held accountable and responsible.
There is no SNAP group for childhood survivors of sexual abuse by family members, neighbors, friends, teachers, Youth Ministers, coaches, camp counselors, etc. There are support groups and organizations like Turnaround Inc. and RAINN, which provide wonderful support. But the benefits of being with a community of survivors is inestimable. We have openly talked about how to bring in more survivors: people whose abusers were not clergy, people of color, people who do not trust the police or judicial system or any of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. It is a huge endeavor, and an ongoing dialogue in SNAP.
Being a part of this group, even as a supporter and witness, has done amazing things for me. I started writing about sexual abuse in a very limited way during the Anita Hill Hearings. The first Baltimore Sun writing I did was in reference to the sexual abuse case against John Merzbacher, who targeted children at a Locust Point Catholic school, and it was the first time I openly wrote that I was a survivor. I have been encouraged by #MeToo and other efforts to acknowledge the damage done to me and other people by predators. I am more and more comfortable writing about my abusive experiences, an outlet that has been very healing for me, but I cannot stand up at a podium and say these words to a committee of politicians, hoping they will hear me and help me.
These clergy sexual abuse survivors are truly brave and inspiring, and I can only hug them and tell them what a good job they did while feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and empathy and support for them. They are changing the world, and they are changing my life by allowing me to stand with them and be heard. I am proud and grateful to call myself a supporter and member of SNAP. And I look forward to the passage of the Child Victims Act of 2023 this legislative session.
Betsy Schindler is a clinical social worker. Her email address is [email protected].