Survivor Support Without Survivors?

In 2008 and again in 2010, members of VOTFI —including on both occasions survivors of clerical sexual abuse—met with members of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference (ICBC) to speak about the pastoral needs of survivors of clerical sexual abuse. On both occasions we outlined the need for survivors to be fully included in the development and delivery of such services, on the basis of a principle emphasised by Margaret Kennedy, (drawn originally from the experience of the disabled community): “Nothing about us without us.”

At the first meeting in 2008 we stressed the need for a continuing forum for survivors, to facilitate their meeting with one another, and their ongoing joint deliberation on their pastoral needs. At the second meeting in 2010 we stressed the need to have a retreat centre for survivors that would allow them to rest and receive a healing ministry that would be fully sensitive to their experience of abuse by men ordained to lead them to God.

On both occasions we felt sure that the bishops attending had heard this central message of the need to involve survivors in the development of pastoral support for themselves. We were therefore sure on both occasions that these meetings would necessarily lead to others on the same theme, keeping especially our survivor members “in the loop.”

On both occasions we were soon emphatically disappointed. We did not on either occasion even receive subsequently from the attending bishops a summary account of what impressions or conclusions they themselves had taken away from those meetings, or even the basic courtesy of an acknowledgement that they had benefited in any way, and were continuing to think about what they had heard.

Subsequently, in 2012, we learned of other meetings organized more generally by the ICBC for abuse survivors, to discuss the issue of pastoral spiritual support for survivors. Nothing more was then heard by any of us until December 2013, when the ICBC issued the following statement after its winter conference at Maynooth:

“Ms. Una Allen and Sister Mary Whyte presented a progress report to the bishops on the establishment of a new service called Towards Peace. Towards Peace will offer spiritual support for those whose faith in God and in the Church has been affected by their experience of sexual abuse. In 2009 the bishops published their response to the victims of abuse in the Catholic Church in their document Towards Healing and Renewal. Three priorities were established by them: the provision of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church; Towards Healing, as a counselling service for victims and their families; and, Towards Peace, as a spiritual support service for those whose faith has been damaged. It is planned to launch Towards Peace in 2014.”

We know of no survivor who heard of, or who attended any of the early meetings on this theme of spiritual support for survivors, who was subsequently fully involved in the development of a “spiritual support service” for survivors, or who has any idea of what this now forecast service “Towards Peace” will provide – despite recent requests for that information.

Critically, we have received no assurance that survivors are seen by the developers of “Towards Peace” as anything other than potential passive receivers of pastoral care, to be dealt with as individuals in isolation, rather than as a community whose own gifts of understanding, prayer and ministry will be fully respected, developed and utilized in the spiritual healing of its members.

Most importantly, we know of no survivor who is awaiting this soon-to-be launched “Toward Peace” service with any trust or confidence—given the lack of transparency, the exclusion, the discourtesy and the condescension implicit in their experience of its development. These characteristics are diagnostic of the Catholic clericalism that has continued to delay their healing since their initial experiences of clerical sexual abuse—and are entirely incompatible with properly respectful and sensitive pastoral care as well as with an understanding of the church as the people of God.

There can be no “peace” in the relationship between survivors and ordained members of the Catholic Church without trust, and there can be no trust without inclusion, courtesy, equality and transparency. In the absence of these we wonder if the Irish bishops have learned anything at all from the ICBC’s contact with survivors.

A recent article in the Irish Independent poses the question: to what extent has “Towards Peace” been guided in its gestation by survivors of clerical sex abuse? The survivors named in this article are in contact with survivor members of VOTFI. We will be watching closely to see what response (if any) emerges from the ICBC.