Abuse, Therapy and Spirituality: Reconciling the Three

By Quinn R. Conners, O.Carm., Ph.D.

The mission statement of Healing Voices is powerful:  “…to reconcile our faith with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm done to us.”  Such a vision is a challenge, and engaging in that process is a lifelong task.  One facet of that task is dealing with the impact that the trauma of sexual abuse by clergy has had on the survivor’s relationship with God.  Trauma of all kinds—but especially of the types that shatter or obstruct the concept of a merciful, just, and loving God and that call into question the goodness and trustworthiness of other humans—have special capacities to interfere with foundational ways we have of understanding ourselves and God.  This interference in one’s spiritual life can show up in individuals in a couple of different ways.

One of the responses to this trauma can be to simply stop being involved in organized religion.  Sometimes that may in fact be necessary at least for a time.  Going to Church or celebrating rituals might be a re-traumatizing experience for some.  Reading about how some church leadership deals with survivors or clergy abusers can touch off intense anger that survivors’ experiences are not treated seriously or that abusers are somehow better cared for.  So, distancing from religion and spirituality may be one of the ways to cope with the trauma.

Another response might be more mixed.  A survivor might find that spirituality and religion can be a simultaneous source of comfort and stress following traumatic events.  On the one hand, religious beliefs and practices may be comforting by providing sustenance, explanation, and organization following the upheaval of the abuse.  Victor Frankl [1] discusses the role of “making meaning” in coping with traumatic events as a source of comfort.  He found meaning in acts of kindness among inmates in Auschwitz while he was incarcerated there—being able to witness resistance to his Nazi captors’ attempts to dehumanize the inmates created meaning and purpose for him, supporting Frankl’s will to survive.  On the other hand, a person’s foundational beliefs can be shattered by the trauma of sexual abuse, especially if religious language or belief was used to justify or excuse the abusive actions of a religious leader.  Such stress is difficult to manage.

When abuse or trauma occurs in the name of God or is carried out by religious leaders, religious beliefs and impact are crucial factors to consider in the healing process.  So, it is important to address them in psychotherapy as well as in spiritual direction or spiritual accompaniment.  What do you look for in a therapist that helps you to determine how best to use psychotherapy as part of one’s healing process?

Does the therapist respect your faith life and faith-seeking as an important part of your psychological and spiritual person? Laura Brown [2] recognized many factors, including age, gender, culture/phenotype, religious beliefs and faith tradition, ethnicity, disabilities, social class, etc., that affect both the experience of and response to trauma. She proposed using spirituality and religion as factors in coming to understand and treat trauma victims. So, it is valuable to bring these issues to psychotherapy/counseling because addressing these issues can be an important part of the healing process.

In that process, individuals often ask questions such as “What was God thinking?” or “Why did God let this happen?”  A culturally competent psychotherapist will refrain from answering those kinds of questions and instead empower the trauma survivor to struggle with answering them himself or herself.  Often this involves survivors struggling with their own spiritual beliefs in the context of and apart from their religious tradition and determining what makes sense or is meaningful to them.  As you might imagine, this is a highly personal process for which there is no right or wrong answer.  It is important that your therapist address questions such as these within and as part of the treatment.  Responding in this way to spiritual questions involves, hearing them as not about God per se or God alone, but as a faith-informed version of the question:  “Why me?”

Sometimes therapists refer survivors who are struggling with their spiritual beliefs to clergy.  If those clergy have little or no training in or understanding of trauma, it usually is not very helpful.  Being ordained does not necessarily give the person the skills to handle such faith questions in the context of trauma.  However, if the situation involves particular points of doctrine or belief or when a clergy member has the capacity and training to offer spiritual counsel or solace or a spiritual ritual or practice that can alleviate the abused client’s distress in an informed and nuanced way, it can be quite helpful in the healing process.

Other therapeutic modalities, like biofeedback, meditation, and relaxation techniques are important to consider and utilize as appropriate in the healing process. However, so is one’s faith life and spirituality.  Survivors of abuse are called to wholeness and holiness. The process is multifaceted. The trauma of abuse has a particular impact on a person’s faith life and spirituality. The trauma does not define who one is as a person and as a believing person.  But it can ravage one’s experience of God in one’s life and giving time and attention to re-integrating it is an important part of the healing process.

Rev. Quinn Conners, O.Carm., Ph.D., is a Carmelite of the Chicago Province  and a clinical psychologist. He serves on the leadership team at Saint Luke Institute, is prior and director of formation at the Carmelites’ Whitefriars Hall in Washington, DC, teaches part-time in the School of Theology & Religious Studies at Catholic University, and has been director of novices and provincial.Additional ministries included principal of Mt. Carmel High School in Los Angeles and as psychotherapist, spiritual director and part-time faculty member at Washington Theological Union. He has led workshops internationally in the areas of psychology and spirituality, sexuality, vocational discernment and the first five years of ministry.

[1] Frankl, V. (1968).  Man’s Search for Meaning.  New York, NY:  Pocket Books.
[2] Brown, L.S. (2008).  Cultural Competence in Trauma Psychotherapy:  Beyond the Flashback.  Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association.

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