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The Long Road to Healing: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

Pope Francis’s meeting this week with six men and women who had been abused when they were children by Catholic priests inevitably stirred emotional reactions ranging from gushing praise to outright cynicism. My reaction was a well-practiced “wait and see.” 

Over time, and after many disappointments, I’ve adopted the long view. 

More than 25 years has passed since my first conversations with a member of the Catholic hierarchy about stopping sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. As might be expected, I wasn’t happy when they told me they believed the priest who had sexually abused me, who said he was “just horsing around,” and that they intended to leave him in ministry.

Seven years later, the Archdiocese of Boston contacted me to say they’d “made a mistake,” and that the priest was now suspended. More than 10 years after that, he was defrocked, permanently removed from the priesthood. That leaves me in a small minority of those who were abused by clerics of any faith, who have seen the person who abused them held to some measure of accountability. 

Although I definitely benefited from the validation I experienced by his removal, I realized that the punishment itself – the sense of “getting even” – was not what brought me comfort. Instead, it was the sense that finally, I’d been believed and that the priest, in some small way, was now less able to hurt another child. That covered two of the three things I’d demanded from the Archdiocese back in 1987. As far as I know, my third demand, that the priest be given treatment to address his abusive impulses, remains unfulfilled. 

There is little comfort for those children who are being sexually abused today in my story of validation or in the emotional words of apology from Pope Francis. All of us adults, the Pope, myself, anyone with the slightest bit of power or influence, are responsible for protecting those who are at risk from abuse, and also for supporting those who have already survived abuse to heal. Both protection and support requires positive action, positive change – not words or good intentions alone. 

“Both protection and support requires positive action, positive change – not words or good intentions alone.”

I work every week with a group of men, who have been violent with an intimate partner. My goal each meeting is to help them understand that the fact that, they may have been punished with time in jail, or that they’ve  apologized for their abusive actions, does not re-establish safety for the person they hurt; does not undo the feelings of betrayal inherent in abuse; does not automatically restore a sense of trust

We encourage the men to believe that their violence is something they’ve done, not who they are; and that their harmful behavior is something they have the power to change. 

We help them see that if they can move past their defensive shame, they can begin to understand and validate the hurt they inflicted in a meaningful way; that they can empathize deeply with the person they harmed and appreciate what will be necessary to restore a sense of safety; and that trust can only come over time, through repeated demonstration of different, more healthy responses. 

In the past, some members of the Catholic hierarchy, like some of the men in my group, have at times expressed surprise and confusion that a sincere expression of regret and sorrow, and a declaration of future good intentions doesn’t close the book on their previous mistakes. 

I’ve always believed the Catholic Church was in a unique position to become a model for all institutions, and even families, for how individuals can hold themselves accountable for past failings involving sexual abuse and embrace actions that will assure a safer world for children and those who are suffering from past abuse. 

For years, various advocacy groups have offered steps that the Catholic Church and other faith communities might take to better protect children. 

Pope Francis made some significant pronouncements this week about confronting a culture that allowed sexual abuse to run rampant in the Church.

I and billions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike will “wait and see” if he actually seizes the opportunity to create a safer world for kids in a meaningful way.  

– By Peter Pollard

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peter1-500x672 (1)Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.