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SNAP of Tennessee

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee 

Church's denial makes it hard for abused to heal
AddThis Social Bookmark Button Monday, Apr. 26, 2010

Church's denial makes it hard for abused to heal
At issue | April 8 commentary from the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Church at forefront to stop society's abuse of children"

By Steven Mangine

For even the slickest public-relations firm, The Vatican would certainly make a tough client. As a small minority of severely disturbed priests tortured children, a large majority of their managers in Rome tortured the truth.

Benedict XVI's official homilist selected Good Friday to compare criticism of the Vatican to the mistreatment of Jews. Then at the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Sodano observed that, like Jesus, Pope Benedict, "when he was reviled, reviled not in return." Later Sodano dismissed the shocking, thoroughly documented and persistent revelations of priest abuse and bishop enabling over three decades as "the gossip of the moment."

Recently, the Vatican's official newspaper tried to walk back some of its more egregious distortions. It admitted that earlier comments by Vatican officials dismissing the allegations had been "poor communication," and "not prudent.''

It concluded, most imprudently: ''Let's be clear. Everyone has communications problems.''

This sort of ham-handed diplomacy makes reliable fodder for late-night comics, and fuels the general cynicism against the church. But for victims of priest sexual abuse, who number in the thousands worldwide, it is no laughing matter.

Every therapist knows that in the context of a family, non-support and invalidation redoubles the emotional burden on a victimized child. Scientific research agrees. When children disclose sexual abuse to caregivers, the more support and validation they receive, the less depression and post-traumatic disturbance they experience later in childhood.

Even decades later, adults whose childhood disclosures of abuse had evoked denial or retaliation continued to show more post-traumatic symptoms than those who received validation and support. Correlation does not prove causation, and a caregiver who would dismiss a child's abuse allegation probably would prove toxic in many other ways.

Still, adult survivors nearly always recall the first moment after they disclosed abuse - the caregiver's first word, gesture, touch, phone call - as if a great deal were in the balance.

For the caregiver, this also is a moment of truth. If the alleged abuser is their spouse or sibling, family life will need critical examination and overhaul requiring great courage and carrying real costs - emotional and possibly monetary. For a responsible parent, this comes with the demanding territory. Love and truth are hard masters.

Of course the Roman Catholic Church is not a family; "Holy Father" is a figure of speech. But the hierarchy's response to its crisis reads like a case history of a family with child victims and a father deeply occupied by his service of another master. (This family has no mother in sight.)

Like an abusive family, the church minimized the import of the revelations, extracted promises of silence from the victims, and as Sister Joan Chittister has commented, "traded innocence for image." And, of course, blamed its victims.

Concerning the 200 boys who Father Lawrence Murphy molested at a school for the deaf starting in the 1950s, Catholic League president Bill Donohue offered this innuendo: "The victims' families never contacted the police until the mid-1970s."

In this crisis, Pope Benedict and the hierarchy see themselves as the victims - the persecuted Jews, the reviled Christ - the abused and their advocates are the persecutors. Many children, upon disclosing abuse to a caregiver, have encountered a similar response: "Look at all the trouble you're causing me!"

A colleague's adult client recently recalled disclosing her sexual victimization when she was a child. The therapist asked what her mother did in response. The client's terse answer: "Nothing. She blamed me."

Like that mother, the church has missed its moment of truth. It is under heavy fire and heavy litigation, but no foxhole conversion will do at this point. Peter's successor also must meet the eyes of the ones denied and crucified.

Then he must allow full public scrutiny of this tragedy, accepting all the just legal consequences to his highest officials and himself.

Nothing heals an abuse survivor like hearing: "Yes. It happened just as you say it did. I really get how grievously this hurt you. My neglect allowed it. I am sorry, and I am responsible."

Validation - however belated - is potent medicine.

Steven Mangine, a clinical psychologist practicing in Lexington, he has worked with victims of sexual abuse by priests. He has participated in the Newman Center Catholic community for 20 years.