Faith in Primary Colors: Hard-Won Wisdom and Faith Insights

The Lion of JudahBy Teresa Pitt Green, Founder

Survivors of abuse by clergy reflect the face of Christ as Victor over all evil, even evil rooted however transitorily in sacred space and dressed like a priest.

Our stories are about resilience sustained by a Savior searching tirelessly for each of us in every destitute and wounded state—even where a child was abandoned by the Church herself.  Saving grace may arrive in the mix of professional and personal support, but like all grace it requires our consent and cooperation.

What survivors reveal about the work of grace is a witness that serves nothing less than the Lord. Our witness is uniquely able to heal the divide, the wound, the gash where evil struck, simultaneously, the innocence of children and the holiness of priests. Integrating survivors and our witness into the Church helps survivors and victimized families heal but also helps heal and energize Catholics.

There is so much to heal, including naïvté in our encounters with evil. Yes, our identity in Christ is forged by showing His mercy to the world, yet at the core of the Catholic abuse scandal we find forgiveness was manipulated by predators, making complicit a circle of Catholics who were led terribly astray. Survivors’ witness is a reminder, albeit a discomforting one, to forgive without enabling.

There is so much to heal, particularly a persistent ignorance about child abuse. Consider the false notion that a priest is uniquely at risk to molest children. To hold that suspicion, Catholics must choose to ignore decades of research about child abuse[1] and child predators[2]. This is not a victimless ignorance. Ignorance about real child predators makes children and others more vulnerable in a world with abuse still occurring, now facilitated by social media and expanding in human trafficking.

There is so much to heal, like ministry for faith needs of mentally ill people—survivors among them. At best, people delegate care for the mentally ill to medical professionals, not all of whom believe faith is a sign of mental health. Or, fellow Catholics add to social shaming by pegging, even dismissing, persons as a diagnosis—bipolar, anxiety disorder or borderline. Christians were never meant to substitute a medical term for the fundamental identity as a child of God. Only the latter comes with a promise for a full and eternal life of abundance, and the former is limited without the grace from the Father.

Survivors unfortunately know quite a bit about finding identity in rubble, about asserting identity over diagnosis. We know well how to encourage others, regardless of diagnosis or grief from trauma, to boldly claim their identity as children of God. Consider the friend whose psyche splintered under the pressure of abuse into a mood disorder. A therapist will adeptly guide her toward awareness of all the pieces and then masterfully suggest ways to make connections among fragments. Only a Christian can suggest the divine invitation this same woman has to life reflected in the three Persons of the Trinity.

While we survivors are responsible for resolving past harm to be able to serve without harming, we have faith stories, and our faith stories have an important role in whatever corner of the world we find ourselves. These stories speak to the alienated, if only to help them depart from a Church where a part of them was destroyed, but perhaps, instead, to explore homecoming on terms they can endure.

These children of God lingering on the periphery of the Church are those who, not matching Catholics seen in church and media, doubt this is their home. They underestimate the love and mercy of God that graces their brief visit to a chapel or their heavy-hearted visit to a grotto where they despair of being heard—and loved. Our hard-won wisdom is a unique offering in our day-to-day lives, where many survivors are already instruments the Lord is using to free others like He has freed us, despite all the shunning and stigma, to speak of His might and victory. As Sooz highlights when she opens this Special Issue she designed, we move from victimhood not only into survivorship but also into service: Lord, make me a channel of Your peace.

I have been exceedingly fortunate, because through random chance (as I believe my abuse was) or blessing (as I believe my faith is) I landed in a diocese with a vibrant and fairly large community of abuse survivors (many but not all victimized by clergy). We gather for prayer services, discussions and retreats with the support and kind concern of our Bishop Paul Loverde, who has grown with us and so is fluent in survivor faith struggles. Our Victim Assistance Coordinators are very committed to their work as a ministry. Our Child Protection team is tireless in its work. What is particularly healing is the dialogue among us, together with loved ones, along with priests, sisters and deacons who are willing to be sensitized to survivor issues. My observation is that all sides help each other heal from a wound shared. It is a grace. It is faith in action on all accounts. I believe this is precisely the nexus at which the abusers struck, and precisely where healing efforts must return.

My sincere hope is that the Church finds more places where the salubrious role of survivors in the world may be integrated into the Church to serve, to inspire and to encourage through dialogue and reconciliation.

[1] The American Psychological Association, the United States Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization all have extensive annotated bibliographies on current research and understanding of child sexual abuse and its increasing incidence on social media and in human trafficking. One quick take on current statistics for incidence is offered here by the APA.
[2] From the United States Centers for Disease Control, here is one of the best one-page fact sheets on child abuse, including the generally accepted profile of the child abuser.

One thought on “Faith in Primary Colors: Hard-Won Wisdom and Faith Insights

  1. Those of us whose personalities are effected by childhood wounding from abuse, physical, emotional, spiritual, are in a unique position to be like St. Paul. When we are weak we are strong. Through the cracks between the splintered pieces shines Christ’s light. Our identity is in Christ and not the diagnosis of a disorder or disease that developed as a consequence of childhoods that caused us to have to develop certain survival skills and defenses that have long reaching consequences into adult relationships. Consequences that attract more abuse until we heal our wounds creates fractured relationships with other wounded souls.

    At age nine I thought I was the one who discovered the beautiful artistic depiction of the Passion of Christ in my adoptive parent’s large white covered Bible that rested on the love seat still encased in clear plastic factory wrap. I was sitting across the room watching cartoons when “something” pulled my attention away from the television to the Bible. I believe that “something” was the Holy Spirit pulling me to the Bible.

    No one was around. I got up and walked over to the protected piece of furniture and plopped myself down beside the Bible. Carefully, I lifted the Bible and placed it on my lap. Making sure my hands were clean so I would not leave hand prints on the pure white binding, I proceeded to enter in the life of Christ through pictures.

    When I got to the Passion of Christ I knew I found a friend who understood my pain. I touched His face with my little hand wishing I could remove the crown of thorns from His head. Christ’s eyes were looking upward toward His father. My father walked away from me and my two siblings when I was a little over five and a half after our mother passed away. I was left under the care of his parents for a short time where once when left alone with his father I was molested.

    Because I reported it to my grandmother things changed. I was brought to a Catholic Orphanage for possible placement. An aunt and uncle offered to adopt me. However, my uncle was a bully and emotionally abusive. I had a choice. Either I went to the unknown of an institution or went with the familiar of my aunt and uncle even though I was afraid of him. Children choose the familiar.

    As I studied Christ’s agonized expression on His face I knew He understood me. I felt I understood Him. We both were looking for our father. At the time He took on the sins of the world while hanging on the cross He couldn’t feel the presence of His father. He asked if He was abandoned. My father abandoned me. My uncle was an abuser not a father. Abuse separated me from having a father.

    At that moment staring silently at Christ’s Passion I wanted to ease His pain.

    I ended up in medicine at the age of eighteen. By that time I aquired enough pain to qualify me to walk into everyone else’s pain trying to ease it. I was the “wounded healer”.

    After forty-two years of bedside nursing as well as accumulated trauma from not only my unprocessed childhood losses and abuse but the effects of abusive relationships with men in positions of power and authority over my adult life, it was the last abusive situation that caused me to walk away from my career and my life as I knew it.

    The church was my fortress. It was the family I longed for as a child. It was my community. The Catholic Church was the place my mother used to bring us before she passed away. One of her sisters and my first cousin were nuns. It seemed like Catholicism was in my DNA. I only feel at home in a church.

    I was struggling under the weight of the cross of complex post traumatic stress exacerbated by ongoing abusive situations outside the church. I clung to the church and served in the music ministry. That meant I spent about seven hours a week in the church setting between singing at Masses and rehearsals. When clergy abuse happened in my church it was more than I could handle.

    Reporting it led to his removal. I was banned from all ministry out of retaliation by the pastor who was angry because he lost his friend. I reported it because of love. Love for myself, for other people who would be exposed to the priest who was struggling enough to hurt me, for the church and for this priest who clearly needed help. My silence would have allowed me to stay in ministry. I wouldn’t have suffered the pain of being ostracized. My voice would have remained within the walls of the church as I led worship through song.

    But, I would have continued limping through life and hemorrhaging inside from uncontrolled internal bleeding like the woman in the Gospel story with the hemorrhage that no doctor was able to stop.

    Syrong codependency issues caused me to not feel worthy of love or to need anything. I was self-sufficient. My trust deficit of parental figures translated onto my relationship with God. I had to be strong to survive my childhood. However, that strength built an impermeable wall inside of me making it difficult for to receive love. The wall was meant to keep pain away. It locked out love and kept pain inside.

    Little did I know that while my action of love contributed to walking away from my life of service because I came face to face with my powerlessness that God was using this to reach me too. Old systems of defense mechanisms and thought patterns needed to be exposed and torn down in order for the new wine of Christ to be poured into me. Reporting the priest and the action I was led to take since then is also exposing me to powerful people.

    Everything that made me vulnerable, what is related to emotional issues and things that I could be embarrassed about because in the eyes of the world that doesn’t understand what abuse causes, exposes my weakness. It is the very things that St. Paul speaks about.

    Nothing is wasted in the hands of God. Everything I have been through since I was a child is what qualified me to stand up at this time in my life to abuse of power. It is Christ in me saying, “ Little girl, rise.” He is pulling me up like the cross was pulled up with Christ hanging on it.

    Scandal. Yes. But sometimes a scandal is just where the healing will come from. Christ was ostracized and beaten. He was abandoned and rejected. Death on the cross was absolutely scandalous. Yet, the cross hangs on the wall in every church behind and above the alter. We stare at scandal everytime we go to Mass.

    Transparency? Christ was fully exposed. His flesh was torn and His blood flowed onto the ground. He was just about naked.

    The truth is usually initially painful but it is the only thing that can bring healing. The devil does its work in the cloak of silence and in a shroud of darkness. Christ is light that exposed what was hidden in the dark places.

    Does love work in a scandal? Absolutely. Love conquers evil. It is the greatest power, and love is what ultimately brings healing. Meanwhile what is exposed is like the surgeons scalpel probing each of us to check inside to see what needs to be cleaned up inside of us.

    Wounds need to be healed or we pass them on just like they were passed onto us. The abused can also inadvertently abuse. Abuse is at the root and needs to be addressed.

    Christ is working through me, but first He had to work in me. I ran right into Christ through what happened in His Church. I came up against my absolute powerlessness, (and I was so strong, but my own strength) and Christ’s power. Emptied out, feeling like Christ looked when He was removed from the cross after His death, I had no strength left but to surrender, to let go of the old familiar to which I clung but was killing me, and to enter into a deeper level of the trust that years ago through the still, small voice I heard He would bring me. There is peace in that level of trust. I thought if I surrendered it would lead to annihilation. It did. But the old self is dying to make way for the new. There is joy, peace and freedom in the kingdom of God that He wants all of us to experience. Although the process is not easy, it’s worth the journey.

    God is still in control. He never abandoned us. He never will. We can trust in that promise especially when everything we know that was familiar is being torn apart to make way for healing and restoration.


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