Victim: Not Everyone Abused by Clergy Wants to Leave the Church

Symposium on Sex Abuse Looks at Psychological, Pastoral Elements

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By Ann Schneible 

ROME, FEB. 7, 2012 ( Today’s session of the international symposium Toward Healing and Renewal focused largely on the psychological and pastoral aspects of the sex abuse crisis in the Church.

The opening presentation, which was delivered by Marie Collins, a victim of child sex abuse, and Sheila Hollins, a professor of psychiatry, was largely directed toward understanding the sex abuse crisis from the victim’s perspective. In a press conference following the speech, both speakers answered questions regarding some of the issues discussed.

«It was difficult for me,» admitted Collins, when asked about her decision to share her story, «but I felt that it was very important that the leadership of the Church — we have so many bishops from around the world here — that they hear a victim’s experience, and I felt for that reason that I should do it, and I’m very glad I did and I think the response was very good. There was actually one African bishop who spoke after the presentation and he felt that — beforehand he had not really given the issue a great deal of importance, but having heard us both speak, he had changed his mind and felt that this was something he really had to give a lot more attention to. So, I think it was important that what we both said was heard.»

Collins also spoke about her frustration at a lack of pastoral care directed toward victims. «In my experience, there’s very little spiritual help given to survivors. It appears to me, from discussing it with members of the hierarchy in my own country, that they look on survivors as being outside the Church, as being angry and hurt, and wanting nothing to do with the Church. And the fact is, most survivors were Catholics, came from Catholic families; that’s why priests had access to them. And to think that we are all now outside the Church and want nothing to do [with it], and have no interest in regaining our Catholic faith — I said that I thought it was wrong. Spiritual help should be offered for survivors. And yes, many, many would reject it, and would say they want nothing to do with it, because they are angry at the Church. But for the percentage who would want the help, for family members as well as survivors, I feel it should be offered. And I think what I said was that maybe there’s a fear that if it’s offered it will be rejected. But I think the Church should take that risk for the sake of those who really would appreciate some spiritual help with their faith.»


Sheila Hollins brought Collins’ testimony into further perspective by addressing it from a psychological perspective.

One of the most important ways of caring for the victim, Hollins said, is through listening. «Listening isn’t something that just happens once,» she explained. «It’s quite hard to listen in a way which helps a victim, a survivor, to feel they’ve been heard. And that listening has to keep on because, particularly for somebody where the abuse happened a long time ago, their experience of not being able to speak about it, or perhaps having not been heard in the past, means that that listening, [is felt] just as a continuing need, and it requires a great deal of patience.» 

Hollins also emphasized the importance of understanding the mental health of victims. «There is an incredibly important relationship between childhood sexual abuse and mental health problems in adulthood,» she said: «depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidality, personality disorder. These are much more common, and indeed the risk of suicide is greatly increased in people who have been abused as a child. So the point that I [made in my speech] was that we have to recognize the mental health problems associated with and consequent of abuse.»


Participants of the symposium also heard from Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a professor at Catholic University of America and a licensed psychologist, who responded to questions from the press regarding his presentation.

He spoke about prevention as being the most important point of consideration when addressing the sex abuse crisis. «We have to help our victims first, but let’s stop it before it happens. That’s really where I think we should put most of our money, because the reality is that prevention programs do work. When you look at the countries where they’ve had prevention programs over the last 20 years, where they have mandatory reporting, you’ve seen just a plummeting of new cases.»

Monsignor Rossetti also spoke about the challenges of preventing potential abusers from entering the seminary. «Can we identify those who might become abusers? The bishops would love some sort of silver bullet to get rid of them all. And the reality is that there is no silver bullet. The reason why is because the more we learn about this issue, the more complex it is. There [are] just many different kinds of offenders, and one of the things I hope the media will do will help people understand how complex the issue is. There’s not one simple kind of offender.» 

When speaking about the global implementation — and enforcement — of Church guidelines designed to prevent child sexual abuse, the professor admitted that progress would not happen overnight. «Change around the world takes place slowly. I would like it to take place faster. It’s sad and unconscionable, frankly, that it does take place so slowly because children are going to be abused while we’re learning, which is a pretty sad state of affairs. But hopefully this conference will help people learn faster. The faster we can get the message out, the faster we can change the culture for the better. But it’s like pushing a mountain.»

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