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Catholicism needs trauma-informed approaches to sexual abuse
Responding to a victim of sexual assault is a matter of either trauma disruption or trauma creation.
n February 2020, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis hosted an event on sexual abuse and trauma. It focused on the question: “Why can’t they [trauma survivors] just get over it?” Laura Harder, a compassion fatigue therapist, helped listeners understand the cycles of abuse and how to help survivors process and find healing. One thing she shared is the role that disbelief or dismissal can play in furthering the cycles of trauma. When a victim of sexual or other abuse shares their experience with a person in a position of trust and the response is to disbelieve, reject, or downplay, then that response can constitute its own trauma. At times, these responses have more long-lasting and significant effects than the original traumatic event. The dismissal can be a worse trauma. Even when that original event did not result in, for example, PTSD, the rejection can result in this.
Sexual assault victims often have to deal with cultural attitudes suggesting that they are the perpetrators of the harm they have suffered. Even if victims of rape and sexual assault may know intellectually that what they experienced was not their fault, they may be emotionally pressured and inclined to blame themselves, both as a way to try to understand how this could have happened, and as an internalization of messages of victim-blaming in their cultural milieu. (For example, some may suggest that something like rape or sexual assault, because it is so heinous, especially towards children, couldn’t really occur outside of the child helping to create the conditions under which it occurred.) Sexual assault victims are tempted to internalize this messaging and its related pressure to silence. Responses by others are critical here. Those responses can either contradict and disrupt those narratives, or further and deepen them. Responding to a victim of sexual assault, then, is often a matter of either trauma disruption or trauma creation.
This is partly why it is so important for those likely to work with trauma survivors (i.e., everyone) to have at least a base competency in trauma-informed responses. This includes an ability to recognize the limits of how one can help and when to encourage seeking professional assistance, such as the help of a licensed therapist. The costs of well-intentioned incompetence are high. But a response when it comes to the story of a survivor is unavoidable, as a “non-response” constitutes its own response that can have significant lasting effects.
The Archdiocesan event helped to underscore the necessity of having trauma-informed Catholics, especially when those Catholics work with vulnerable populations, as do parish priests. The event has also helped me to recognize when work is not trauma-informed.
One example came up in my work with addressing abuse in a local Catholic parish. The story was broadly covered yesterday in The Pillar. A friend of mine was abused as a child by a parish volunteer. She told the parish priest, who did nothing and encouraged silence. The diocese investigated for two years and landed on a “rehabilitative” solution.
During the conversation in which this “rehabilitative” solution was shared with my friend and me, the Archdiocese shared their characterization of the problem for the parish priest. They viewed the problem as one of “inadequacy of pastoral response.” My friend was incredulous. I shared with the Archdiocese that I found both this characterization of the problem and the proposed solution shocking and, to be frank, somewhat infuriating. But setting aside our feelings on the matter, Ms. Harder’s lessons on abuse and trauma can help us understand why the characterization of “inadequate pastoral response” is not just frustrating, but incorrect.
I communicated to the Archdiocese that I would characterize the matter very differently. Rather than the issue being one of “inadequate pastoral response,” if I took the lessons from Ms. Harder’s talk seriously, I would characterize the issue as: this priest dismissed and traumatized a child sexual abuse victim. According to that talk (which was sponsored by the Archdiocese), Father Dufner’s response is one that runs a risk of resulting in more lasting damage than the original abuse. It’s hard to overstate the seriousness with which we should take this fact. It does us no good to bring in psychologists for lectures on abuse if we don’t internalize the lessons they teach.
As I shared in the article, I do believe that the leaders in the Archdiocese with whom we spoke were well-intentioned. They mean well. But in this instance, they did not do well. Their response did not evidence serious consideration of the dynamics of trauma and the role that response plays in disrupting or furthering narratives of trauma and abuse. They approached and responded to a person who had suffered trauma in ways that did not appear to be trauma-informed.
This, I believe, is the next step for Catholic institutions. In my Archdiocese, professionals with investigations and criminal justice experience have been hired to investigate cases of sexual abuse. This, I believe, is a good thing. Ministerial misconduct cases are not solely run by inexperienced and unavoidably biased clergy anymore. They increasingly involve professionals invested and experienced in ending crime. But this is not enough. Criminality should not be the standard by which we determine fitness for ministry at a large parish. In addition, the criminal justice system has not done a very good job in training its professionals to respond to trauma-saturated situations in ways that are trauma-informed. Dispositions need to be redeveloped, perspectives need to be reframed, and priorities need to be reimagined.
When I reflect back on our efforts to address my friend’s abuse with the Archdiocese, there are a few other experiences that evidence a need to seek training on trauma-informed engagement:
1. She had to share her story many, many times.
It is traumatizing for a trauma victim to have to relive their trauma. Trauma-informed processes include minimizing the number of times trauma will have to be relived through re-telling.
2. We were told about the Archdiocese’s plan for resolution, with what seemed to be an expectation we would happily accept it.
She was not given a proposed plan and asked for feedback. Instead, she was told the course of action, and then put in a position to feel helpless in the face of the fact that it was entirely unacceptable to her. Because I was part of the meeting where this was communicated, I was able to speak up and provide space for her to share as well. Even if her opinion may not be able to change the outcome, she should proactively be asked for feedback about outcomes and proposed solutions. Failing to do so reinforces the sense of powerlessness many trauma victims feel regarding their abuse. As far as possible, these processes should be treated as collaborative with the victim-survivor. Things should be done with, rather than for, them.
3. We were told that this seemed to be a “he said, she said” situation.
The addressing of abuse should never be framed this way to a victim-survivor. The term “he said, she said” should be avoided as far as possible. It makes it appear as if the real experience of the victim-survivor and the evasive responses of the perpetrator are of equal value. Even if it may appear to be a “he said, she said” situation from the perspective of due process or the likelihood of legal success, it should not be put this way to the victim-survivor. (In any event, this wasn’t such a situation, as the priest’s story contradicted conversations had with both my friend and with my friend’s father. And the priest seemed to contradict himself, saying repeatedly that he did nothing wrong, and then agreeing to a rehabilitative process because he apparently recognized he did something wrong.)
4. She was not encouraged to bring a trusted friend or advisor to meetings.
When I joined my friend for one of the meetings, it was framed afterwards as a sort of courtesy on the part of the Archdiocese. But peer support can be essential for victim-survivors. They should be encouraged to bring someone they trust to meetings. That person can help the victim-survivor to speak up when they feel too scared to do so, can help verify facts, can help re-center conversations, and can confirm what was said and done. (I took it upon myself to write up a thorough summary after the meeting, so we could have an accurate record of it.) In investigative processes, victim-survivors of trauma can often wonder if their perspectives, frustrations, and concerns are incorrect, overblown, overdramatic, oversensitive, etc. A trusted friend who has been a part of the whole process can help confirm, “No, you are not crazy. Yes, I can’t believe they said that. No, this is no acceptable.” They can also help the victim-survivor manage expectations. Victim-survivors should not have to go alone into meetings with persons holding power and authority over the process. And if the victim-survivor is retraumatized by being let down or dismissed again by Church leaders in this process, then at the very least they will have someone else on their side who has gone through this with them.
This is not at all to say that this process was entirely negative. It wasn’t. And the Archdiocese did seem well-intentioned throughout the process. As The Pillar article outlines, there were apologies when the process was delayed, and my friend was thanked for her candor and persistence. She was given opportunities to sit down with Church leaders. These were all positive aspects of this experience. But more could be done. More must be done. I hope the next step for Catholic dioceses is to seek out ways that their professionals, clergy, and others can become trained in trauma-informed care and approaches to their roles. We could learn much from, for example, the ways in which the medical field has developed trauma-informed care.