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Synodal Submission by a Group who Experienced Abuse in a Church Context

Irish Synodal Pathway

This report

This report is the outcome of a process of consultation with a group of survivors who were asked to reflect on their experiences and what the Church might learn from these experiences. The consultation was organised by Towards Peace, at the request of those involved in the Irish Synodal Pathway. Towards Peace is a spiritual support service, jointly funded by the Irish Episcopal Conference and the Association of Missionaries and Religious in Ireland.

Towards Peace appointed an independent therapist with extensive experience of working with survivors of abuse to facilitate the process. A meeting was organised for 21 May 2022 and attended by six of the eight survivors who were invited to participate. All eight who were approached expressed interest in participation but, unfortunately, two were unable to attend the meeting, due to prior commitments. The eight came with a variety of experiences of abuse: abuse by members of religious orders, abuse by diocesan priests, and abuse perpetrated within, or associated with, Church run institutions. It is not asserted that this group represents all of those who were abused in a Church context in Ireland.

Representatives of Towards Peace sat in on the meeting as note takers and, later, worked with the facilitator on this report. A draft report of the meeting was circulated to those who attended for correction and amended accordingly.

This report is not a verbatim account of what was said at the meeting. Rather, the contributions of the participants are grouped under overarching themes. Though the participants had a variety of backgrounds and experiences, there was a remarkable degree of unanimity when it came to describing what the Church had done wrong and what is needed to put things right. This can be stated simply as adopting a gospel-based approach to dealing with abuse within the Church. That would involve setting aside considerations such as the reputation of the institution, money and financial assets, and status and power, in order to encounter survivors at a human level and respond to them as Jesus responded to those he met in the course of his ministry.
This report does not name the participants. This was a decision taken by the participants after careful consideration. The participants wish this document to be read and understood as their collective response to the issues they discussed. It is not to be understood as a repeat of the well known views of particular individuals, and dismissed as such.

The overarching themes arising from the consultation with survivors are:

  1. Secondary victimisation, sacrifice and betrayal
  2. Listening, but not hearing
  3. The Church’s preoccupation with money
  4. The personal cost of engaging with the Church
  5. A gospel-based response to abuse within the Church
Theme One: Secondary Victimisation, Sacrifice and Betrayal

The participants had all experienced abuse in its various forms: physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual and neglect. All agreed that this abuse is not just part of their past, it is part of their present. Abuse is an experience that endures. Some of those present spoke of how it has only been relatively recently that they have begun to process issues related to their abuse and have sought counselling in relation to it. One of those present spoke of how he thought that the trial, conviction and imprisonment of his abuser would bring him some closure. On the contrary, it precipitated a crisis and the work of recovery only really began after the trial. One of those who was unable to attend the meeting also highlighted the impact of a criminal trial and how the process of giving evidence, often in very gruelling detail, is akin to re-experiencing the abuse suffered. While there is little the Church can do about the conduct of criminal trials, some consideration needs to be given to support for people required to give evidence. Another participant, also now struggling to come to terms with a dark episode from her past, reflected that what is lost forever through abuse is the opportunity to meet the person you might have been if you had never been abused.

All those present agreed that the secondary victimisation was often as bad, and sometimes worse, than the initial abuse. The secondary victimisation resulted from the response of Church authorities to complaints and disclosures. In one extreme example, a survivor was manhandled out of the office of a religious superior when he asked why nothing had been done about the man who had abused him. Secondary victimisation generally came about in more insidious ways, like the parish priest who told a survivor that it was a pity that her abuser had been given a prison sentence, since he ‘had not done very much’.

Particularly objectionable is the way in which survivors of abuse are treated as ‘damaged people’. The damaged people are those who abuse children and those who deny, minimise and cover up abuse. Secondary victimisation, one survivor pointed out, is double abuse and impacts the family of the survivors, as well as the survivors themselves.

The Church is very good at explaining away or minimising abuse. One participant referred to the ‘Bumper Book of Catholic Excuses’. There is, for example, a tendency to talk about what was intended, as though the intentions of those who ran institutions is somehow more important than the lived experience of those who were abused within them.

A particularly egregious form of secondary victimisation occurs in civil cases for compensation. Solicitors who take on such cases often warn their clients to prepare for an ordeal. The process is adversarial, not pastoral. Those who make disclosures of abuse generally do not wish to engage in a legal process but often feel forced to do so. It is measure of how far the Church has departed from its own original ethos that it subjects those it has hurt to further damaging experiences.

One participant spoke of his civil case, which took ten years to settle, and the pressure put on him during it. This included the threat that he could lose his family home if he did not settle the case. Eventually, even his own solicitor was pressurising him to settle. This participant argued that some sort of legal process may be necessary to settle some disputed cases but that it should be possible to have a code of conduct which would include, for example, agreement that cases would be settled within two years. Others argued for a non-adversarial approach to dealing with the issue of compensation. Some Church authorities have a ‘deny till they die’ approach, they said. Another commented that what you get at the end of a civil case is a cheque, not remorse.

Lying was described by many of the participants as part of the response by Church officials to their disclosures of abuse. Survivors are strongly motivated by a concern that other children are not subjected to the same abuse that they experienced and they need to know that steps are being taken to ensure their abuser is no longer in a position to abuse children. Two were given assurances on this matter that turned out to be false. One person recounted her decision to withdraw from a process that she believed was deeply flawed. A senior church official explained her withdrawal to a third party by claiming she was unwell, which was untrue. When it was discovered what the Church official had done, he did not deny it but rather explained that it was necessary for the good of the Church. These examples of lying were experienced as betrayal, as survivors were misled by people in whom they had placed their trust. Such lying illustrated the willingness of Church officials to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church.

Participants spoke of the hurt caused when they met Church officials who treated them as though their only interest was in financial compensation. This was an example, at a micro level, of that characteristic of the Church’s response to abuse: listening, but not hearing.

Theme Two: Listening but not Hearing

There were some differences in the approach of participants to the importance of financial compensation for abuse but agreement that treating people who disclose abuse as motivated only, or primarily, by a desire for such compensation is a form of secondary victimisation. In the first instance, people who disclose abuse want acknowledgement of what has happened, an apology and assurance that steps will be taken to prevent any further abuse. If those who are listening to disclosures of abuse would hear what is being said to them, they would ask something like: “What can I do to help?” Instead, the experience has been of people being asked whether they have spoken to a solicitor. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work in such situations. Many are driven to go the ‘legal route’ precisely because the Church has not heard and responded appropriately to them.

The Church claims credit for ‘listening to survivors’. One person spoke of an element of manipulation in processes such as this or the meeting of survivors with Pope Francis. The Church is claiming credit for doing the right thing but if the listening does not involve hearing and the hearing does not lead to action, it becomes an empty gesture. More than that, however, it becomes another form of secondary victimisation because people invest their hopes in the process, only to have them dashed.

Many survivors invested in a listening process that took place a number of years ago. They bared their souls to those they met, in the hope that it might bring about real change in the Church’s approach. However, nothing happened.

One participant spoke about how the Church’s initiatives in this area often respond more to the Church’s own needs rather than those of survivors. When the counselling service that evolved into Towards Healing – acknowledged by all as an excellent service – was set up, it was given the name ‘Faoiseamh’. Nobody, least of all survivors, could pronounce or spell it, which became an obstacle to accessing it. The name meant something to those who were providing the service, not to those hoping to avail of it.

There is little evidence that the Universal Church ‘hears’ what has been happening in countries such as Ireland and applies the lessons that have been learned. Participants spoke of very recent abuse they had heard about in other countries, the poor treatment of survivors there, of measures taken to silence them, and steps taken by Church authorities to suppress their stories.

Theme Three: The Church’s Preoccupation with Money

The theme of money runs through all the discussions about the Church’s response to abuse and is intermingled with all the other themes. It comes up in different contexts. It relates to that form of secondary victimisation that consists of treating those who disclose abuse as only or primarily interested in financial compensation. It also relates to the concern of the Church about its own assets.

Survivor groups are told that the religious orders have no more money to pay out in compensation. However, it is known that many orders have very substantial sums of money in investments. This is needed, the orders say, to ensure that they can provide for their older members. There was consensus within the group that older and infirm members of religious orders should be cared for and not live in abject poverty. Yet, many survivors of abuse live in abject poverty. The members of religious orders have private medical insurance. Many survivors do not.

In a more general way, participants spoke of the difficulty of accepting the idea that the Church is poor when there is so much evidence to the contrary, both here in Ireland and in other countries. As discussed further under theme five, there was a sense that a humbler Church, and one less preoccupied with its financial assets, might be better placed to respond appropriately to those who disclose abuse.

Despite all the concern about allegedly diminishing assets, Church bodies always seem to have enough money to obtain the best legal advice and to pay the costs associated with long drawn out civil cases.

Theme Four: The Personal Cost of Engaging with the Church

All of those attending the meeting are involved, in one way or another, in helping others who were abused in a Church context. Participants spoke of their wish to bear witness to the pain and sense of betrayal of other survivors. This has taken a variety of forms, such as, speaking out publicly and advocating for people in dispute with Church authorities. It has also involved engaging with the Church, as evidenced by their participation in this process. This has come at a cost.

The element of manipulation and secondary victimisation that goes with inviting survivors to participate in listening exercises that lead nowhere has been referred to already. The damage done has not simply been to emotional and psychological health and well-being. Souls have been damaged too. Some people spoke of their estrangement from the Church.

Those who have agreed to engage with the Church in exercises such as this one are often seen by peers in a negative light. One participant spoke of the acute pain and hurt that goes with being accused by your peers of disloyalty. Another spoke of receiving very abusive messages and even death threats when it became publicly known that she had engaged in such a process a number of years ago.

Despite their experiences, and without much hope of seeing the kind of fundamental change understood as necessary, all of the participants had willingly agreed to participate in this exercise. One said he did so only as a means of bearing witness to the treatment of survivors. Another said she hopes that bishops can learn from survivors what a proper response to abuse within the Church would be.

Two participants had engaged directly with bishops on this matter on a training and awareness raising level, as distinct from the level of dealing with individual complaints. They both found resistance born of fear and shame. When it was possible to get past the fear and shame to an encounter between people, communication was possible. This led to a discussion about a gospel-based response to abuse within the Church.

Theme Five: A Gospel-based response to abuse within the Church

There was a consensus that bishops and other church officials do not know how to respond to people who disclose abuse and need to be trained for it. Training is not the complete answer. Only those with a capacity to empathise with survivors, and a willingness to do so, should undertake this work. Training can build on this capacity for empathy, if it is the right kind of training.

When a person discloses abuse, they typically regress to that point in their life when the abuse occurred. So, when a bishop or other church official meets with a person in this context he needs to be aware that the person present is not the adult who appears before him, but the hurt child concealed within. Those who are ill prepared for meetings with survivors can inflict a lot of damage. A badly phrased question might convey an unintended message of scepticism or disbelief, which could be devastating for the person concerned.

Those involved in training of bishops spoke of the layers of fear and shame that have to be worked through before any real communication and, therefore, learning, can take place. The fear has to do with the possibility of being overwhelmed by the emotions of the survivor, or of being in a situation they cannot control. The shame is the knowledge that something appalling has occurred in an institution to which the bishop has devoted his life. These experiences of fear and shame are precisely what survivors experienced and helping people to recognise the commonality of their experiences can help to open up channels of communication. The danger is that the bishop stays ‘in role’ and clings to his status as a means of resisting an encounter with another human being.

One participant was part of a team of trainers, from a variety of backgrounds, who delivered training to bishops in another country. Survivors were equal members of the training team. It was residential, over three days. Trainers and trainees were together for meals and leisure time as well as the training sessions. Attendance was mandatory for the bishops. There were no titles and everyone was addressed by their first name only. There was a lot of tension at first but then people met each other as people. There was no ‘them and us’. At the end, there was an open forum. The questions asked revealed the depth of the bishops’ lack of knowledge. The programme was a success. It helped the bishops and the survivors involved. It worked because it was training and awareness raising, but also a human encounter.

Other examples of good practice were given at the meeting. Diarmuid Martin was experienced by participants as someone who listened, heard and acted on what survivors told him. Pope Francis, when he was in Dublin, was asked specifically to say that it is not a mortal sin for mothers who were separated from their babies in mother and baby homes to look for them later. He did so at the mass in the Phoenix Park. It was a transformative and healing moment for many people. It lifted a cloud of shame from many of the mothers. It had a practical and immediate impact. There was an 800% increase in tracing enquiries.

Outlined below are steps for a reparative process of response to a disclosure of abuse in a Church context. The practical measures are important but their implementation is as much about hearts and minds as it is about strategies and practices. One participant referred to Church leaders who are very good Catholics but not such good Christians. Something has to die within in the Church as it is now, so that something new can be born. Lying to survivors, manipulating them and sacrificing them to the greater good of the Church must cease. In its place must come humility and recognition of survivors as people who are precious in the eyes of God.

Steps in a reparative process :

  • Meetings with survivors have to be planned carefully and carried out by those with appropriate attitudes and training. In the first instance, lay professionals should conduct such meets, though, at a later point, a meeting with a bishop or other Church leader may be appropriate;
  • The survivor should be asked what assistance he or she requires;
  • A person should be appointed to act as the survivor’s contact person. This person should provide accurate information and ensure the process of dealing with the person’s complaint is transparent at every stage in the process, including the canonical process. The contact person should ensure that the survivor is aware of anything said about them by the respondent (person said to have abused them) and given a right of reply;
  • There should be an acknowledgement that abuse has occurred;
  • There should an apology that contains an acknowledgment of responsibility . Apologies should not be written by lawyers. Such apologies are easily recognisable and add insult to injury;
  • The safety of other potential victims should be assured and the steps taken to do so explained to the survivor;
  • Canonical processes need to be speeded up. ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’;
  • The Church body (diocese or order) should make restitution. This could be compensation and compensation should be available, if sought, through a non-adversarial process with a limit of two years for settlement. At the very least, restitution should include payment for counselling/ therapy and medical expenses.
  • NB: all of the above refers to the Church’s response to a disclosure of abuse. It presupposes that the Church follows national child protection guidelines and cooperates with the civil authorities.

Jesus reached out to those on the margins. The Church must do the same and invite those who have been abused to come forward and tell their stories.

Church leaders have to make different choices. When faced with an allegation, they must refer, in the first instance, to the gospel, not to the lawyers.

The Church has to atone for the sins of abuse and all the wrongs that were done to survivors, as they sought to address the issue with Church authorities. Words that are carefully chosen and spoken with humility and sincerity help, but they are not enough. They have to be accompanied by actions to repair the damage done and to prevent further abuse. There must be a commitment to truth, accountability and transparency in relation to the issue of abuse and how it is dealt with within the Church. All attempts to supress or undermine the voices of survivors must cease, including, for example, the use of non-disclosure agreements in settling claims for compensation. The Church must commit to applying the lessons, learned in countries like Ireland, to the rest of the world.

Abuse is part of the story of the Church. If we are truly to come to terms with it, we must acknowledge it and teach people about it, including children, so the next generation of Catholics will be better equipped to ensure it does not happen again.