Mariana Hernandez prays during a prayer service for repentance and healing for clergy sexual abuse which included prayers for victims, abusers and the Church on Aug. 22 at Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook, Ill. CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic

Ministering to Victims

Accompany, respect boundaries of those who have been abused

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In the current climate, there is a chance that, in the course of your ministry, you will be contacted by a parishioner who experienced clerical sexual abuse. Whether the person reaching out to you is making a new allegation or asking for help because news reports are opening old wounds, you have a unique opportunity to bring Christ’s love to those who have been hurt and start them down the road to spiritual and emotional healing. Here are some things to keep in mind in your efforts to accompany these hurting souls.
 

Thank Them

Your first job as a pastor of someone who is suffering from the trauma of clerical abuse is to thank the person for trusting you with their story. Take it as a compliment that, after having been traumatized physically, emotionally and spiritually, this person felt that you would be willing to hear them. Don’t hesitate to say: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this. I promise to do everything I can to be worthy of your trust.”
 

Empathize

This should go without saying, but sometimes the shock of hearing someone report abuse — much more so abuse by a fellow member of the clergy — brings out our inner judge. We don’t want it to be true, so instead of empathizing with the victim, we can fall into interrogating them. Even if our intentions truly are to understand what the victim went through, someone who is first seeking your help in recovering from trauma isn’t in a place where they can answer too many direct questions about who, what, where, why and, especially, “Are you sure?” Because their boundaries have been violated so severely, abuse victims often have a hard time being clear, even for themselves, what constitutes abuse.

With help, they will be able to provide solid information to the proper authorities or to professional counselors. But initially, the most important thing is not to quiz the person, but empathize. Tell them, again, how grateful you are that they trusted you with this. Let them know that you share their anger, pain, frustration and confusion about how someone who was supposed to represent Christ could abuse their authority so horribly. Acknowledge the courage it took to come forward and open up to you. Tell them — even if they find it hard to accept — that you admire the strength they have shown in persevering in the face of what they have suffered. Promise them that, with their permission, you would be honored to accompany them in whatever way you can on their healing journey.
 

Respect Their Limits

Abusers have no respect for their victims’ boundaries. One of the most healing things you can do is go out of your way to seek permission before asking questions, inviting the person to share more, or taking any practical steps to assist them. For instance, you might say, “I want you to know that it is perfectly OK if you aren’t ready to talk with me about this, but would it be OK if I asked you …?” “Would it be alright if I made a call to a counselor I know on your behalf?” “Would you like me to give you the number of a local abuse support group?” Let the victim know that, as far as you are concerned, they are in charge. Yes, you are willing to accompany them, but you will let them set the pace and the course. I cannot overestimate how healing it is for a victim of abuse to be around people who take their boundaries seriously.

Another way to respect their limits is to ask, “What could I do for you that you think would be most helpful?” Don’t rush in with your 10-point plan for healing. By all means, be ready to offer some suggestions and options, but always elicit their ideas first. At first, many people will simply say, “I don’t know what I need.” If that is the case, the best response is to make a few suggestions, all the while asking their permission. “Would you like me to pray over you?” “Would you like me to give you the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (to seek God’s grace for their spiritual and emotional healing)?” “Do you need my help in contacting a good counselor (or the authorities)?”

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Prayer for Victims

God of endless love, ever caring, ever strong, always present, always just: You gave your only Son to save us by the blood of his cross.

Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace, join to your own suffering the pain of all who have been hurt in body, mind, and spirit by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.

Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our brothers and sisters. Breathe wisdom into our prayers, soothe restless hearts with hope, steady shaken spirits with faith: Show us the way to justice and wholeness, enlightened by truth and enfolded in your mercy.

Holy Spirit, comforter of hearts, heal your people’s wounds and transform our brokenness. Grant us courage and wisdom, humility and grace, so that we may act with justice and find peace in you.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Source: USCCB.org

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Know Your Limits

As many tools as you may have in your pastoral care toolbox, you aren’t a counselor, and it isn’t your job to fix this. There are no easy answers or short-term solutions to recovering from abuse and trauma. Focus on accompaniment, not a cure. Accompaniment involves two steps, repeated over the life of the problem. The first is the ministry of presence, which we discussed above. It is characterized by the effort to empathize with the person’s experience. The second step is to clarify a few possible faithful next steps forward. How can you help them experience God’s love in a meaningful way right now? What is one small thing they can do today to experience God’s loving presence in their lives? What is one small thing they could do today to reach out for healing or find their footing? Accompaniment is a subtle but powerful art. Be present. Give options. Let them take the lead. Support. But if someone tries to go deeper than you feel is appropriate or tries to make you responsible for “fixing” them or their pain, the most loving thing to do is to say: “I’m so glad you told me about this, but this is something that you should speak with a (your) counselor about. Do you need me to help you get in touch with him/her?”
 

Connect Them to Resources

You probably have a list of therapists, physicians and other referral sources to distribute to your parishioners. But don’t just give them a list of providers. Actually offer to make the initial call for them while they are with you. Doctors’ offices do this all the time when they refer to subspecialties. A patient is much more likely to follow up with a referral that is made in their primary care physicians office. The same is true in pastoral care. Of course, you’ll need to respect their “no” if they aren’t ready to seek professional help, but if the person is open, don’t let them leave your office before you have called a counselor and either have left a message to expect a call from your parishioner or actually have given your parishioner an opportunity to speak with the counselor. Your willingness to take this extra step exponentially increases the likelihood that your parishioner will follow through with any referrals you make.
 

Keep Checking In

Even after you have referred your parishioner for longer-term professional support, make a point of checking in. Look for opportunities to say, “I’m praying for you.” Invite them to speak with you again. Let them know that you care enough to remember their need for ongoing support.
 

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These simple steps will help you find the confidence you need to be a supportive, healing presence in the lives of those who have been hurt by those within the Church.

DR. GREG POPCAK is the director of Catholic Counselors.com and the author of many books, including “Unworried: A Life without Anxiety” (OSV, $16.95).