Victims of Abuse – Hear My Sorrow

Published on 1st May, 2019

James Lyons, Priest of the Archdiocese of Wellington

Lonely, isolated, numb, insecure, depressed.

Definitely not conditions helpful to healthy living, yet they are daily experiences for a particularly vulnerable group – the victims of abuse.

Since the announcement that the Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care has been extended to include Faith-Based Institutions, I have been listening to the stories of some male victims of abuse by clergy.

What I have heard is both troubling and sickening, and I cannot escape the feeling that, as a priest, I share responsibility for the horror.

Catholic men, in their 60s and 70s are now feeling empowered to speak – often for the very first time – of the effect on their personal lives of being physically and or sexually abused in their younger years by priests and others entrusted with their care.

Powerless in their vulnerability, they had no way of deflecting the abuse. Some, in their innocence, did not know at the time they were being abused, some feared the consequences for themselves and their future if they spoke up, some carried into adulthood a measure of guilt. All of them felt a deep and abiding shame which they found increasingly difficult to share.

As the Commission’s work unfolds, the Church in New Zealand needs to be prepared for a litany of shocking revelations.

We will hear of marriages destroyed through the inability of abuse victims to cope with intimacy; anger and disfunction that has turned a victim into an abuser; depression that has led to suicide.

None of this is the victim’s fault. It frightens me to realise where the responsibility really lies.

Speaking with victims, listening to their pain – years, even decades after the actual abuse – I am acutely aware of what they mean when they tell me of their ‘aloneness’. They feel they have been deprived of a vital part of their personal growth; that the natural connection they should have with others and with creation has been prematurely pruned and cannot be regained.

They would like to meet their abusers but know that is unlikely to happen. Some abusers have died; others are out of reach. Particularly hurtful is the apparent unwillingness, or perhaps the inability, of those in authority to accept the reality of what has happened. Re-locating the abuser or offering financial compensation, though well-intentioned, are not ways of healing the hurt or restoring peace of mind.

I ask them to pray for their abusers, but that’s a difficult request, especially if there is an impression that the abuse might be continuing in another place. Forgiving the abuser is another avenue to peace; how wonderful if that could be matched with a personal apology.

Victims do not ask to be abused. They do ask to be taken seriously when they find the courage to speak out.

Nor do they want to be known as ‘survivors’. A survivor is one who has made it through a great danger. Victims of abuse are still caught in its grip.

I have spoken with victims of abuse. I have heard the anger and even despair in their voices and have seen the pain in their eyes.

I tremble in the knowledge that, as a priest sharing the privilege with all others in priesthood, I share in the guilt of this crime. Instead of preying we should have been praying; instead of enslaving we should have been saving. St Paul puts it so well when he tells us that when one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers; when one part is honoured all members are honoured. We can add, when one part fails the entire body malfunctions. (cf 1 Corrinthians 12:26)

We must all step swiftly and resolutely onto the path of healing.

Personal and sincere sorrow is the first step on this necessary journey.

Published in WelCom May 2019

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