Abuse survivors find support and healing

A safe place to tell her story.

That’s how a survivor of clergy sexual abuse described her interactions with the archdiocese’s Victim Outreach and Prevention Office.

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“I can’t express in words what it has meant to be heard and acknowledged, especially within the Catholic Church community,” said Diane (name changed for privacy).

Her contact with Mary Beth Hanus, victim advocate and manager of the office, has helped her heal and eventually return to the church.

Between the ages of 5 and 6 Diane was sexually abused by a priest. He told her that if she ever told anyone, she would be possessed by the devil and no one would ever believe her, she said.

After years of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, mistrust, depression and alcoholism, she now knows she is believed, and is healing.

But the recent news of sexual abuse scandals affects her, “like reopening an old scar,” she said.

That’s a common reaction, Hanus said.

Since the revelations of sexual misconduct by Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick and clergy in Pennsylvania, Hanus’ office is seeing an uptick in calls.

They involve a range of concerns, mostly regarding historical abuse of minors, boundary violations, and misconduct with adults, she said.

Some calls are from people living in the archdiocese wanting to talk about abuse that happened elsewhere, she said, and some are from people needing help processing what’s in the news, knowing what to tell their children about the scandals, or seeking advice about family abuse.

“It’s my holy task … and every call is important,” Hanus said. “If someone’s calling, it means their faith has been shaken.” 

The victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the one primarily affected, but it can have a ripple effect on faith, even lasting for generations, she said.

For Diane, memories of her abuse drove her away from the church.

“It took about 20 years or so to make my way back,” she said. “I remember telling someone I would never go back, yet here I am.

“It took me quite a bit of time to even be in a church without overwhelming anxiety and panic. I’d sit in the back so I could leave early.”

After exploring different religions, she began her “turbulent journey” back to the church.

“Early in my recovery from alcoholism, I would sit in church at Mass before I went to an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting,” Diane said. “I became aware that it felt like a safe haven in which to be. This was a graced moment. It started the slow, gradual process of my return to the church.”

Hanus said victims need to know they’re heard, believed and taken seriously.

And she offers help to the victims in the form of counseling and letters of apology. Some ask for a personal note from the archbishop or for Masses to be offered for them, she said.

“We talk about what would help them heal,” Hanus said. “I can’t make guarantees, but I can guarantee that I will bring those requests forward.”

Diane said contacting Hanus was a critical step in her healing.

“It really was an important step for me to start to trust the Catholic community,” she said. “It was an enormously terrifying thing to do, and yet, in hindsight, a vital one.”

Diane said she returned because she longed for the Mass and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

“I stay a member of the church because I believe in Jesus’ bigger message to us of love and forgiveness,” she said.

She credits her husband, therapists, friends and Hanus for their support through her difficult journey.

“I believe that as abuse victims are empowered to tell their story, that healing will happen,” she said. “It creates hope.”

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