Voice Of the Faithful
Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, Ph.D.
of the Victim
of Sexual Abuse:" A Reflection
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
June 14, 2002
Good Morning. I am honored to join the groups of
speakers we have heard so far today. It has been a morning filled with
great gifts and great grace. My own offering to you today is to contextualize
the characteristics of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse; to present
the experience of early sexual trauma through the lens of the victim;
to make accessible the most common after-effects of childhood sexual
abuse; and to suggest a few vital components of the healing process.
I do this based on fifteen years of clinical work with men and women
who were sexually violated as young people. To succeed, however, I need
your help and a brief story best conveys what I mean by that.
Several years ago, my stepson, Daniel Patrick O'Dea, recommended that
I read a fantasy trilogy authored by Terry Brooks. In the first book
of the series, the young hero sets out on a quest in search of the magIcal
Sword of Shannara (Brooks, 1978). A weapon of enormous power, the secret
of the sword is that, when lifted by the sword bearer, it reveals to
him every aspect of his being. All the good, unpleasant and truly hideous
facets of his personality are reflected back to him in the blade of
the sword. If the sword carrier can stand what he sees, he then can
wield the sworn to do great good and to fend off the worst evil. Most
who raise the Sword of Shannara, however, cannot bear to see themselves
so fully revealed and are destroyed.
Today, I ask each of you metaphorically lift a Sword of Shannara; to
open your hearts and souls to all that the Catholic Church has been,
is, and could be under your care. I ask you to stare courageously at
the full complement of great good and great harm enacted by you and
your, brethren and especially, to reflect on your role
in the devastation of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse perpetrated
Claude Levi-Strauss declared that, "the prohibition of incest stands
at the dawn of culture," and, if fact, represents culture itself.
Make no mistake about it. The violation of child or adolescent by a
priest IS incest. The sexual and relational transgression perpetrated
by the father of the child extended family; a man whom the child is
taught from birth to trust above everyone else in his life, to trust
second only to God. Priest abuse IS incest.
Despite the cultural universality of the incest taboo, violation of
sexual boundaries between adults and children is a universal phenomenon.
Data collected over the past two decades inform us that about one third
of all females and one fourth of all males are sexually abused in some
way prior to the age of 18. These numbers hold up worldwide. From Italy
to Ireland to India; from Thailand to Mexico, in Canada and the Middle
East, children's physical and psychic boundaries are violated sexually
with alarming frequency. Thus, the sexual victimization of minors is
not just an American problem nor is it just a priestly problem. Rather,
sexual exploitation of the young is a worldwide scandal in which Catholic
priest have participated as fully and as secretly as have other men
across the globe.
So far in these remarks. I have used the commonly accepted term, "sexual
abuse," to describe an adult's sexual traumatization of a child
or adolescent. In fact, however, "sexual abuse," is shorthand
terminology for what more accurately is named the relational betrayal
of a minor by an adult who is in a position of authority with the child
and who exploits his own and victim's sexuality to subjective empower
himself by utterly dominating the physical, psychological, and spiritual
experiences of the victim. No wonder we use shorthand. From the victim's
perspective, however, sexually executed relational abuse is the most
meaningful way of conceptualizing that which we call sexual abuse.
As we have read in the media and heard today, sexual abuse victims often
are young people for whom something or someone is missing. They yearn
for an adult who sees them, hears them, understands them, makes time
for them, and enjoys their company. Unfortunately, the sexual predator
is exquisitely attuned to the emotional and relational needs of the
potential victims. Like Fr. Geoghan seeking out fatherless children,
sexual abusers ingratiate themselves into the lives of their victims,
evoking respect trust and dependency long before the first touch takes
place. When the confused child or adolescent is frequently so emotionally
entwined with his victimizer so fearful of losing the abuser's affection
or simply so terrified that he readily and silently complies with the
sexual activities imposed upon him.
There are those who devalue survivors of childhood and, especially adolescent
sexual abuse for not disclosing their victimizations when they were
occurring. Secrecy, however, is the acknowledged cornerstone of sexual
abuse. Some perpetrators overtly extract secrecy by suggesting that
the victim will be blamed for the abuse, then taken from her home and
placed in an orphanage. They say that telling would destroy and even
kill the perpetrator, or they threaten that if the victim discloses,
the perpetrator will harm her or members of her family. Sexual abusers
may also blame the victim, accusing her of seducing the predator, thus
filling the victim with the sham and self-loathing more appropriately
experienced by the victimizer. In a more covert covenant of secrecy,
the abuser provides the victim with gifts and special privileges that
both silence and instill terrible and long lasting guilt.
Sin addition man abused minors maintain silence because they accurately
perceive that there is no one in their environment who will help them
if they disclose. It is more hopeful for a child to preserve a fantasy
that IF he told, someone would protect him than it is to reveal the
abuse to another who ignores, blames, or re-abuses him. Finally, children
and teenagers do not disclose the sexual abuse secret because they care
for the perpetrator. A central cruelty of sexual abuse, in fact, is
the perpetrator's trampling of the young person's generously and freely
bestowed affection or respect.
It is from this epicenter of betrayed trust that the mind splitting
impact of sexual abuse ripples outward. The victim, of early sexual
violation simply cannot reconcile the respected figure who may help
him with his homework, teach him how to throw a curve ball, or take
him to the local hockey game with the sexually overstimulated and overstimulating
man presenting an erect penis to suck. It is simply too much and the
resulting fracture of the victim's mind and experience often leads to
a debilitating post- traumatic stress disorder that affects every domain
of the victim's functioning and lasts for years and years after the
abuse has stopped.
Let me now guide you on a tour through the corridors of a psyche twisted
by sexual transgression. It is a trip through a traumatogenically constructed,
psychological House of Horrors in which experiences of self and other
are grotesquely distorted and terrifying images unexpectedly pop out
from seemingly safe places. The visitor lurches from one emotional shock
to another in an interior atmosphere of darkness, one punctuated only
by frightening flashing lights and nightmarish unreality. Our first
stop is the organization of the victim's images of self and others.
When a young person is being abused, the psychological shock is so great
that the normal self cannot absorb or make sense of what is happening
to it. In a valiant attempt to cope with the overwhelming overstimulation
and sense of betrayal literally embodied in sexual trauma, the self
splits using the psychic mechanism of dissociation. The normal operation
of dissociation allows, for example, each of us to drive ten miles and
then "come to" with no memory of the time just past. For the
victim of child or adolescent sexual violation, however, dissociation
is an exponentially more dramatic process, one that serves as both a
blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, by entering into an entirely different state of consciousness
while being abused, the victim preserves a functional and safe self
who is removed from the trauma and is therefore able learn, grow, play,
and work. Many a patient has reported for instance, that she--the self
recognized as "I" floated above the bed on which that
"other kid" the alienated victim self was being
abused. On the other hand, the curse of dissociation condemns the state
of self who experienced the abuse to a trapped existence in the inner
world of the survivor, a place dominated by terror, impotent but seething
rage, and grief for which there literally are no words. Because trauma
impels the brain to process events quickly and in a state of hyperarousal,
verbalizing pathways are bypassed. Instead, the sexual violations are
encoded by the child and retrieved by the survivor as non-verbal, often
highly disorganizing feelings, somatic states, anxieties, recurring
nightmares, flashbacks, and sometimes dangerous behaviors.
Often, the adult survivor's life is wracked by unexpected regressions
to his victimized self that are triggered by seemingly neutral stimuli.
Much as the Vietnam Vet who hits the floor during a thunderstorm is,
in a very real way, back in the Mekong Delta seconds before his buddy's
sckull is blown off, so too the sexual abuse survivor may be triggered
into a regression by something or someone reminiscent of his earlier
traumas. No longer firmly located in the present, the survivor thinks,
feels, experiences his body, and behaves as the victim he once was,
badly confusing himself and those around him. For victims of priest
abuse, a Roman collar, the scent of incense, light streaming through
stained glass at a certain time of day, organ music, or most certainly,
interacting with priests and bishops about their abuse may well evoke
the appearance of usually dissociated self states.
Coexisting with the violated, terrorized, grief stricken victim self,
the adult survivor of sexual abuse has within her a state of being that
is identified with the perpetrator. Through this unconscious ongoing
bond to the predator, the survivor preserves an attachment to the abuser
by becoming like him in some ways. When threatened by experiences of
helplessness, vulnerability or anticipated betrayal, the survivor unconsciously
accesses this self-state to gain a sense of empowerment. Subjectively
experiencing themselves as righteously indignant, survivors may enact
at times breathtaking boundary smashing, cold contempt, and red-hot
rage. Not surprisingly, survivors are sickened by the thought that they
resemble in any way their perpetrators and therefore avert their gaze
from their own Swords of Shannara for long periods of time lest they
fragment even further at the sight of their own abusive tendencies.
I want to be clear that, here, I do not mean that survivors become sexually
abusive. While that can happen, it is exceedingly rare. Rather, they
enact some aspect's of there abuser's lack of respect for others. It
is important for therapists and, in this case bishops, to recognize
that the clay of the survivor's abuser self was molded quite literally
by the hands of a master their own sexual and relational victimizer.
While those in relationship with survivors can model setting limits
on what they will tolerate in relationship with another, an empathic
understanding of the source of the survivor's sometimes outrageous behavior
is essential to hold in mind.
Finally, the sexual abuse survivor sometimes may enact an aspect of
self that is greedy, grandiose, and insatiably entitled, an element
of self that remains out of awareness for a long time. There comes a
day in every survivor's recovery upon which he fully comprehends what
was so cruelly taken from him. Further personal growth and healing requires
that the survivor then mourn the childhood or adolescence that never
was, the defensively idealized caretakers who never existed, and perhaps
most poignantly, the self that could have been had trust, hope, and
possibility not been so brutally shattered.
I cannot exaggerate nor can I adequately convey the soul searing pain
of this phase of recovery. One patient, at this point in treatment,
cried, "This is too much. I can't stand it I won't
you can't make me. I can deal with the abus maybe, perhaps. But
the idea that I can't go back, that my childhood is broken forever
I can't live with that. I won't know that I never was and never will
be just a kid."
Quite understandably, the sexual abuse survivor may act to avoid the
ultimate mourning necessary to move on from the abuse and all that was
stolen from him. Launching a lawsuit against the perpetrator or against
those who abetted the abuser may be one strategy employed to deny unrecoverable
loss, while instead pursuing an illusion of full restitution of that
which, tragically, never can be restored. No matter the amount of the
ensuing financial settlement, a residue of emptiness and lost hope persists.
At the core of the survivor's being, the worst has happened yet again;
he has been paid off to go away while life goes on relatively untouched
for the perpetrator and those who shielded him.
Now let me be absolutely clear. Money can be a little better than nothing
and is what the Church too often historically offered victims. Many
survivors, in fact, resorted to lawsuits only after being stonewalled
in their quest for more personal reparative gestures. Legal action,
in this situation, represents a last ditch effort by the survivor to
become an agent in his own life. Further, a lawsuit, when all else has
failed, puts into action an understandable demand that the truth be
told one way or another. In addition, many survivors need financial
assistance for therapy, substance abuse rehabilitation, and educational
or vocational training previously unattainable because of post-traumatic
stress symptoms plaguing the victims. But money is not nearly enough,
no mater how much it is, and lump sum payments that are not individualized
to meet the specific needs of each survivor fail to meet recovery needs.
Rather, what serves healing well it much more difficult, much more personal,
and much more humbling for clergy.
Real healing for survivors requires that priests, bishops, and cardinals
conform to the template upon which rests the Sacrament of Reconciliation,
te ritual cleansing of the soul in which Catholic priests profoundly
believe. Real healing thus demands that Catholic clergy apologize personally
to each and every victim of priest abuse; not through eloquent public
letters but in face-to-face encounters. Bless me, my son or daughter,
for I have sinned. The Vatican recently cautioned that the administration
of group absolution is not an acceptable venue and that confessions
should be heard individually and in private. So, too, survivors deserve
to meet with those who have harmed them and to hear from clergy genuine
confessions of failings and remorse.
Real healing must draw from the Church a deeply meaningful commitment
that every priest, bishop, and cardinal will do everything in his power
to prevent further priest abuse, and that he will act swiftly, decisively,
and above all, publicly to remove abusers from his ranks. Finally, cardinals,
bishops and priest must do penance to restore each survivor's trust
in humanity as well as in the Church. Retreats and group processing
sessions that include survivors, clergy, and professionals are just
some possible approaches to restorative penance. Whatever penitential
road is chosen, it is essential that the clergy of the Catholic Church
put their mouths, souls, and physical beings where heretofore mostly
only their money has been. It is right and it is needed for survivors
of priest abuse to heal.
Leaving the realm of sexual abuse survivor's organization of self, we
enter a related corridor on our tour, one in which we explore typical
characteristics of the victim's interpersonal relationships.
A survivor's relationships with other people are hued and shaded by
expectations and anxieties forged during their traumatic experiences.
Approaching others from within the psychological confines of post-traumatic
stress disorder, the trauma survivor exhibits rapidly shifting relational
stances, painfully lurching from periods of extremely dependent clinging,
to those marked by vicious rage aimed at the same person. Stark terror
and tears can switch in an instant to cold aloofness, while warmth and
vivacity may turn kaleidoscopically to paranoid suspicion. All this,
of course, leads to many chaotically unstable relationships, often alternating
with stretches of the loneliest isolation.
Perhaps needless to say, normal sexual functioning is almost impossible
for most survivors until well into their recovery. Too often, sex, even
with a trusted other, triggers terrifyingly disorganizing flashbacks
during which survivors sometimes literally see the face of their abuser
superimposed on the visage of their sexual partner and experience dreadful
relivings of their sexual traumas. In addition, survivors frequently
are disgusted by and ashamed of their own bodies and sexual strivings.
Unreasonably blaming the abuse on their own sexuality, they often desperately
insist that it never would have happened were it not for their self-perceived
horribly seductive bodies and deplorable sexual desires. Heterosexual
boys abused by men additionally are tormented, wondering what it was
about them that attracted the perpetrator. Sexual abuse survivors of
all genders and sexual orientations are deprived of the right to grow
gradually into a mature sexuality and, instead, are forced or seduced
into premature sexual encounters they are emotionally ill equipped to
handle. As adults, therefore, these men and women often spin between
periods of promiscuous and self-destructive sexual acting out and times
of complete sexual shutdown during which, like burn victims, they experience
the gentlest physical contact as excruciatingly painful.
Finally, there is a characteristic relational stance assumed by many
sexual abuse survivors that is particularly germane to these proceedings.
It involves others who did not abuse them but also did not protect them.
If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community
to abuse one so that whenever a minor is sexually violated, someone's
eyes are closed. Throughout history and in every segment of society,
the most common response to the suspicion or even the disclosure of
childhood sexual abuse has been self-defensive denial and dissociation.
No one finds it easy to stand in the overwhelming and destabilizing
reality of sexual abuse. Thus, blindness, deafness, and elective mutism
are responses endemic to many confronted by a victimized child, an adult
survivor, or a perpetrating adult. To the extent, however, that the
sexual victimization of a minor depends upon the silence of adults who
knew, suspected, or should have known about the abuse, the burdens of
shame and reparation reach beyond the perpetrator. In the case of the
Church, it is not just abusing priests and abetting bishops who must
lift a symbolic Sword of Shannara and face what is reflected back to
them in its blade. Rather, every rectory housekeeper, every parish maintenance
man, every religious woman or lay teacher, every parishioner - any of
these individuals who once felt uneasy about a priest's relationship
with a young boy or girl and said nothing need ponder their inaction
and resolve to behave protectively in the future. Zero tolerance must
include the silent as well as the predatory.
What is important to recognize at this conference is that adult survivors
of sexual abuse frequently are, at least initially, even angrier with
adults who failed to protect them than they are with the perpetrator
himself. Because the survivor's internal relationship with his abuser
often is organized around competing feelings of attachment and hate,
he often feels freer to turn the full blast of his long pent-up rage
and bitterness on those who did not protect him and who, in addition,
failed to provide for him in ways the perpetrator seemed to, albeit
at an unholy cost to the exploited child or adolescent.
How turning down another corridor on our tour of a psyche ravaged by
early sexual trauma, we examine the impact of sexual abuse on the cognitive
functioning of the victim and survivor. Part of what is overwhelmed
during sexual abuse is the young person's ability cognitively to contain,
process, and put into words the enormity of the relational betrayal
and physical impingement with which he is faced. It is striking and
often bewildering to observe in adult survivors completely contradictory
thought processes that ebb and flow with little predictability. One
moment, you are speaking with an intelligent adult, capable of complex,
flexible, abstract, and self decentered thinking. Under sufficient internal
or external stress, however, or in situations somehow reminiscent of
past abuse, the cognitive integrity of the survivor shatters and becomes
locked in rigidly inflexible, self-centered thought patterns, simplistic
black and white opinions devoid of nuance and an immutable conviction
that the future is destined to be both short and unalterably empty.
For example, one survivor patient who worked as an investment banker
was so intellectually gifted that she was considered a brilliant whiz
kid in the competitive New York world of finance. When beset by psychological
or interpersonal stimuli linked to her uncle's sexual abuse, however,
she became in her own words, "stupid minded." At those times,
she literally could not think at all or could access only immature,
disorganizing and panicky ways of thinking.
If a survivor's cognitive functioning is severely ruptured by sexual
abuse, his affective life, the next stop on our tour, is even more impaired.
When a young person is sexually traumatized, the hyperarousal of the
autonomic nervous system and the body's subsequent attempt to restore
order disrupt the brain's neurochemical regulation of emotion. In addition,
we are now learning that attachment relationships also impact upon the
brain's ability to modulate feelings, with traumatic attachment experiences
interfering with effective neuropsychological regulation of affect.
The brain of the sexually abused minor thus suffers a double assault.
Both the sexual traumas themselves and the betrayal of an attachment
relationship assail the flow of affect modulating neurochemicals.
As an adult, the survivor shifts--sometimes quite rapidly--between states
of chaotically intense hyperarousal and deadened states of psychic numbing.
This inability to modulate emotional arousal often leads to interpersonally
inappropriate verbal or motoric actions when the survivor is hyperstimulated,
and to similarly inappropriate emotional and psychomotor constriction
as the individual moves into psychic numbing. Further, autonomic arousal
becomes a generalized reaction to stress in the midst of which the sexual
abuse survivor is unable to discern realistically the severity of a
perceived threat. Instead of reacting at the actual level of psychological
danger, the survivor may engage in seemingly irrational behaviors like
temper tantrums or terrified withdrawal. These behaviors do no fit the
present day situation but are perfectly complimentary to the now affectively
revived earlier trauma.
Because of the damage done by sexual abuse to affective brain functioning,
adult survivors often need psychotropic medications for periods of time
during recovery. For some, their impairments are sufficiently intractable
to require lifelong medication. These drugs are expensive and it would
be a specific and reparative use of Church funds to provide survivors
who are under the care of psychiatric professionals with the medications
they need to function more adaptively.
We now are almost finished with our psychological tour and are about
to enter what can be the most shocking corridor of all. Also partly
due to disrupted brain functioning, sexual abuse survivors often display
a truly spectacular array of self-destructive behaviors. They slice
their arms, thighs, and genitalia with knives, razors, or shards of
broken glass. They burn themselves with cigarettes, pull hair from their
heads and pubic areas, walk through
dark parks alone at night, play chicken with trains at railroad crossings,
pick up strangers in bars to have unprotected and anonymous sex, drive
recklessly at high speeds, gamble compulsively, and/or further destroy
their minds and bodies with alcohol and the whole range of street drugs.
Both male and female prostitutes tend to have backgrounds of early sexual
abuse. Survivors also are two to three times more likely than adults
without abuse histories to make at least one suicide attempt in their
lives (Briere & Runtz, 1986). Sometimes they die.
Survivor self-abuse performs a myriad of functions too complex to address
adequately today. A quick inventory of a survivor's motivations to act
self-destructively includes: punishment for the abuse he blames himself
for; mastering victimization by taking charge of the timing and execution
of harm; self-medication of turbulent affective storms; and unconsciously
seeking states of hyperarousal that then trigger the release of brain
opiods, providing the survivor with a temporary sense of calm. At an
even more deeply unconscious level, frighteningly self-destructive sexual
abuse survivors want to turn the table on present day stand-ins for
those who violated and neglected them. Unconsciously, they long to see
their own terror, helplessness, impotent rage, and shocked recognition
of utter betrayal reflected now on the face of someone in their lives.
Who can blame them?
As we exit now from our tour of the terrifyingly disorienting psychological
House of Horrors, constructed amidst sexual abuse, and maintained by
its aftermath, it should be clear that a survivor's recovery is a long,
complicated, sometimes treacherous process. There is a cohort in this
country of professional men and women who have labored long and hard
in the clinical trenches of trauma since the sexual abuse of children
was dragged out of society's skeleton closet in the early 1980's. The
bishops and priests of the Catholic Church need the expertise of professionals
to effect healing both within the Church and in relationship with survivors.
Please call on us to help you.
Psychoanalyst Le.onard Shengold entitled his book on the effects of
childhood sexual abuse, Soul Murder (Shengold, 1989). I do not
think that early sexual trauma necessarily has to result in soul murder
but it most surely batters and deadens the soul of the young victim
and the adult survivor. That this ravaging of souls has been administered
by priests entrusted with a sacred covenant to protect and enliven souls
is despicable; it is evil itself.
The Catholic Church and you, its American shepherds, are at a crossroads.
Like the recovering victim of sexual abuse, you can choose to defend,
deny, retrench, and rigidify. You can refuse the reflection of a Sword
of Shannara and turn away from all your decency, all your love and generosity,
all your arrogance and indifference. When a survivor takes that familiar
and well-worn road, further fragmentation and diminished integrity of
mind and soul ensues. But, as is the case for so many sexual abuse survivors,
another road can be chosen. Collectively wielding a blade shining with
truth and courageous determination, you can decide to lead the American
Church on a path of recovery, growth, and restored faith. This conference
could become a new epicenter from which ripples the revitalization and
restoration of souls. It is a matter of your will which road is taken.
May great grace walk with you and guide you in the days to come. It
has been a great grace to me to address you today.
Find a Parish
Voice affiliate in your area.
here to get your copy of Keep the Faith, Change the
Voice of the Faithful is recognized as one of the
most promising lay organizations to evolve in the Catholic Church. Your
support is absolutely necessary for us to continue. The online
donation form and the mail
in donation form are both quick and easy ways for you to participate,
and we are most grateful. (VOTF
is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. )
To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit,
through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance
and guidance of the Catholic Church.
1. To support survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
2. To support priests of integrity
3.To shape structural change within the Catholic Church.
Pray Each Day
Jesus, Lord and Brother, help us with our faithfulness.
Please hear our voice, and let our voice be heard. Amen. More