By T. Pitt Green
It all began when I was planted in front of the television in vigil with millions around the globe as Pope Saint John Paul II passed through his transitus. With fractured ankle propped up, I was surfing the web about the event when I happened upon the Office of Victim Assistance.
I’d seen something about this office before on posters, but had shrugged it off as classic public relations in damage control. Seeing it that day, I dismissed it again. Yet, the following Monday, for some strange reason, I dialed the number. The Victim Assistance Coordinator answered, “Hello.” I barked, “So, is this window dressing?”
Pat Mudd wasn’t put off by my effort to put her off. We spoke a while. I was unfriendly. I said I’d call back soon. I didn’t. When I eventually called back, I agreed to attend a prayer service, but I didn’t. And so forth. I did what survivors do: I kept disappearing.
Pat’s first response disarmed me because it was as if she had been waiting for me. She was ready to rattle off options – prayer services, healing Masses, discussion groups, therapy referrals and spiritual directors, meetings with the bishop or others. Somebody had already thought all this out. It was hard to dismiss.
Pat remained patient. During phone calls, I scrutinized her for signs of judgment. There were none. Incognito in my car, I rolled past an event to size up attendees. They looked normal. Eventually I crept into the back of a prayer service. Later I sat through half of a discussion group. And so forth. Today, Pat and I are friends, working together in the same program that gave me safe haven over a decade ago.
Pat’s role in my life began the day of that first call. Although a highly seasoned social worker, she really was to be a spiritual companion. Her skill is speaking with a person crushed by heartbreak and shame. Her gift is connecting with the wounded newcomer. Her work includes many unseen actions to help individuals take next steps.
What drew me to trust Pat, besides hints of a steely faith beneath her velvet glove of welcome, is her unusual point of view Pat is adept at listening, and fully able to acknowledge moral outrage of what has happened to us while remaining gentle and constant in her welcome home. She manages to offer sympathy without pity—not common in the area of abuse, where people eschew their own equality with the humility of suffering, and professionals are wont to overstate the role of their expertise in our healing. I’ve come to believe the organizing principle by which she deals with each survivor is the same as that with which she deals with everyone: We are first and foremost precious children of God.
To listen better, Pat created a Survivor Advisory Committee. We provided plenty of feedback to her and a growing staff. Make no mistake: we were very opinionated. Some approaches to discussion groups were scrapped. People wanted a retreat and insisted on preparing retreat leaders in advance, sensitizing them to neuralgic topics like forgiveness. We weren’t interested in people who figured they could “wing it” with us. In the early days, it took a brave retreat leader to be “prepared” by us. Pat helped others listen and learn—and grow—through knowing us.
Pat also facilitated meetings with the Vicar General, Fr. Mark Mealey, OSFS, and with our Bishop, who was at that time Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde. They listened to our stories, apologized for our suffering, took an interest in how each survivor (and their family members) progressed reconnecting with the Lord and the Church. Behind the scenes, they supported the program, empowered Pat and attended events, creating profound bonds with each survivor. They provided expert training for priests and nuns interested in offering spiritual guidance to survivors of abuse.
Different options on Pat’s survivor “menu” serve different purposes. For example, at prayer services turnout can be strong, or not, but they are safe places to explore. There was one prayer service in a tiny little church in a far corner of the diocese where only Fr. Mealey, Pat and I were present, along with the wonderful LaSalette laity who drive near and far to pray with us. Then, I spied a single figure hiding near the door, crying. That person called Pat within days. Every prayer service searches for the lost, and they come sometimes one by one.
Survivor discussion groups foster fellowship. While traveling for work, I make a return trip so not to miss them. Each attendee may bring a support person. Spouses or siblings often join in healing. Newcomers arrive hiding in coats they don’t remove, sit near doors to escape easily, do not speak and sometimes cry. It isn’t long before they find comfort and laughter with other survivors who are thriving as they heal in faith. Together, survivors flourish, all in the presence of an engaged bishop who is listening and encouraging every single individual.
Therapists attend these meetings but do not run the meetings. They are there to be available privately for anyone in need. These gatherings take care not to be therapy. Guidelines to that effect have been defined by the Survivor Advisory Committee and accepted by all. This way, survivors with varying degrees of therapy still feel comfortable being present, while details of abuse are reserved for professional therapeutic care. Here survivors value being in control of their setting, their discussion – and take very seriously their responsibility for respecting other, sometimes very different, survivors.
This discussion group often leads people past their resistance to therapy. But its main goal is to devote collective time to the Lord, relying on the role of Christ as Healer and Savior, the role of Church in a sacramental life. By having a well-defined role, this gathering supports people stabilizing and progressing, far more than many imagine. It permits survivors to reflect the Good News to each other in the language of recovery, as we each sew a patchwork of support and recovery of our own.
My experience with the diocese where I was abused was quite different. Because I believe in focusing on the good in myself and in the world to help it overgrow the dark, I seldom discuss this half of my experience as a survivor. However, for purposes of contrast I offer these brief points.
Despite what were real efforts by the then-bishops and others, I quickly cut off my dealings even with that diocese’s reporting process. One memorable dynamic was hearing regularly from a well-meaning priest in this process, “now you’re free to go on with your life,” and I kept thinking it was nothing but a rush to move beyond its own unresolved sense of guilt. Something was wrong even where they were trying to do right, and I had to disconnect.
Almost a decade later, a private detective representing one abuser who was being sued, along with the diocese called me. I was deeply shaken, intimidated at first. It sent me reeling. Eventually I restarted therapy to grapple with how shaken I had been, but as my book Restoring Sanctuary recounts, I walked out of a therapist’s office after she started to calculate how much the diocese would pay when I sued. I had no intention of suing. Within a few days, I wrote the Victim Assistance Coordinator at the diocese of my childhood if they would continue to pay but for a different therapist. In response, I received a menacing letter not from her but from the litigator involved in the lawsuits. I turned my back on them and never looked back.
When I severed all contact with my childhood diocese years ago, I left with the distinct impression of spiritual authority cowed by the evil of abuse rather than emboldened by the sufficiency of the Good News. For anyone who knows me, that is antithetical to my experience of God’s healing Providence in my life. Had this been all I experienced of the Church, I would have abandoned the Church to protect my bond with Christ, knocking sand from my sandals as it were. Yet, instead, here I am, lost but found.
Unfortunately, there is not a homecoming for all, and it breaks my heart.
I have known too many lives stuck in the quagmire of trauma, too many suicides, too many addicts, far too many lost souls, too many victims languishing outside the faith they still associate with predators who misrepresented it. My fellow survivors need, just as I did, to experience the Good News in real terms: that Christ has already vanquished evil that we survivors sometimes mistakenly conclude has permanently destroyed our lives. Who can preach this truth in our prison? Who can proclaim this truth in our foreign spiritual world?
And, then, there is Pat.
Kneeling beside a survivor who visits a church for the first time in years. Walking beside a trembling survivor about to meet his or her pastor. Accompanying a survivor into an annulment proceeding to soothe anxieties. Speaking to a spouse. Researching new options to add to the diocesan menu. Lighting a candle for us. Living her ministry of prayer. Handing one survivor the first rosary they’ve held in years. Selecting a prayer book for another survivor. Being something other than window-dressing.
More than a few Victim Assistance Coordinators likely recognize themselves in this description of Pat’s unseen ministry. Even if you do this work with little support or acknowledgement, or from time to time undermined by fearful or vengeful impulses in those around you, what you do has eternal consequences. There’s no need to fear growing weak or worry about growing faint. Soar like eagles. Keep the faith.
 As of December 2016, Most Rev. Michael F. Burbidge is Bishop of Arlington, VA, and has expressed a warm commitment to the flourishing survivor community here.