How Cardinal Law’s death could retraumatize survivors

Alexa MacPherson, a victim of clergy sex abuse, holds a photograph of herself as a child as she reacts, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, in Boston, to the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced Boston archbishop who epitomized the Catholic Church's failure to protect children from sexually abusive priests. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

For many, but especially for those who were sexually abused by priests, the news of Cardinal Bernard Law’s death evoked an avalanche of emotions. The cardinal best known for his role in covering up sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston died on Dec. 20.

“The reaction will range everywhere from kind of indifference to anger that—in the minds of many—he never had to pay for his crimes of enabling the abuse that went on in Boston,” said Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a clinical psychologist who works with survivors of abuse.

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For those who were sexually abused by priests, the news of Cardinal Bernard Law’s death evoked an avalanche of emotions.

Ms. Frawley-O’Dea explained that survivors are often angrier with those who surround perpetrators than with perpetrators themselves.

“People have more empathy with the people who hurt them than the people who didn’t do anything,” she said. “And that’s where Cardinal Law comes in. He was the poster child for the person who turned a blind eye to evil.”

In some ways it is an unfair characterization, Ms. Frawley-O’Dea said, because so many bishops were involved in cover-ups.

Barbara Dorris, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Christmas time is always tough for survivors. Being reminded of Cardinal Law could make it worse, she said. Many survivors have broken relationships with family members who did not believe them or resented them for speaking out about a beloved priest. Christianity itself has come to be associated with abuse for some.

“Most of us came from very devout families. We were led to believe priests were God’s representatives,” Ms. Dorris said. “This piece of your life was supposed to be your moral guideline. It was supposed to be good. It wasn’t.”

Many survivors still go to Catholic churches, while others have joined other faiths, she said. Some are atheists. Survivors may struggle with depression, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This piece of your life was supposed to be your moral guideline. It was supposed to be good. It wasn’t.”

Ms. Dorris said the assumption is often that children have the ability to tell others if they are abused, but they actually “don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it.”

“For me, when I was raised, the abuse started in the ’50s,” she said. “I had no words for rape. I had no words for sex. If someone asked me what Father did, I would say he jumped up and down. I had no way of saying this was a completely different thing.”

In many cases, survivors of abuse believe the abuse itself was their fault, Ms. Dorris said. They need to be told: “I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not your fault. Help is available. You’re not alone.”

Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of Child and Youth Protection, said his office had already received a great deal of reaction to the news of Cardinal Law’s death.

Survivors need to be told: “I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not your fault. Help is available. You’re not alone.”

He compared it to the reaction they received after the debut of “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese. The deacon encouraged survivors to reach out to support groups, friends, family and therapists.

“They are loved by God. They’ve done nothing wrong, and they are not to be blamed,” Deacon Nojadera tells survivors when he speaks with them. “They want to heal. They want to move on with their lives. They want to be healthy and holy and have things normal again, whatever that may look like.”

Suzanne Healy, a therapist who has worked with survivors of clergy abuse, said news reports, like that of Cardinal Law’s death, can trigger emotions thought to have subsided. Survivors should take time for themselves, call their therapists to renew their coping skills and seek spiritual support.

“At this time, all of us need to be praying and remembering the survivors’ healing journey.”

“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m having a hard time because of this,’” Ms. Healy said, adding that it can be tough on all survivors, including those who have yet to come forward. “As troubling as these stories may be, it could be the opportunity for survivors to come forward and get the care they deserve.”

Coming forward can be the first step toward healing, she said.

“There’s so much shame and blame that comes with this that it’s hard to work through all of that,” Ms. Healy said. “At this time, all of us need to be praying and remembering the survivors’ healing journey. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a healing journey. Members of the church need to be sensitive and reach out and welcome these survivors.”

While she advised against reaching out to the church first for help, Ms. Frawley-O’Dea recommended working with someone who has experience with trauma survivors. She said people can heal if they are able to talk it out and work with others who have had similar experiences.

“Is it ever going to be like it never happened? No,” she said. “But you can experience post-traumatic growth.”

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Mona Villarrubia
5 months ago

"While she advised against reaching out to the church first for help..." I wholeheartedly affirm that reaching out to the church first is a very, very bad idea. Victims who have done this have been subjected to re-traumatisation in many different forms over the years. While it may generally be better now, I have NO confidence that victims won't be subjected to re-traumatizing behaviors. My therapist is a trauma specialist. That is what I recommend.

rose-ellen caminer
5 months ago

Perhaps these survivors could offer up their PTSD as a suffering, in solidarity with people who today are experiencing trauma. You know ;like mothers having their babies taken from them and thrown in a fire in Myanmar, or the suffering of people locked inside huts by Myanmar military/militias and set afire, or in solidarity with the future suffering of these Rohinga's being told they have resolved the holocaust; you refugees are going to return to Myanmar; the belly of the beast!Next time they get PTSD from remembering that 50 year ago some adult priest touched them down there and got off [both meanings of the phrase] instead of having that be the defining event of their lives, they could think of the evils people are experiencing reported daily in the news, and how the world watches and does nothing , how the perpetrators remain free and often in power, and these survivors of; being -touched -50 -years- ago- down -there, could get some, if not wisdom at less perspective.
Perhaps if these PTSD survivors of decades old events, could channel their anger and their indignation at the evil being done today, that would bring a Christian and humanist dimension to their apparent arrested psychological and even spiritual development!
The church hierarchy is not solely to blame for the cover up. The parents of these children who never believed their kids, or who were not nurturing parents so that a child could trust to tell their parents that the priest was making them feel yuckey, are part of that authoritarian and clueless, if not callous- towards- children -mindset, that was part and parcel of much of society at the time. But like the song goes" how many years must a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea"? Cardinal Law should not be made a scapegoat for it was not just one man; but from the the priests, to the parents, to the psychologists, to the hierarchy, it was the same pervasive culture of dismissing children's sufferings and defending those in positions of prestige and authority. Times have changed. RIP Cardinal Law.

Mona Villarrubia
5 months ago

Rose-Ellen you have missed a large part of the scandal. There were hundreds upon hundreds of parents who reported the abuse of their children to their priests or bishops and their testimony was recorded and put away in secret files - this is fact. They trusted their church to do the right thing. Sometimes they weren't as trusting and they went to the police, only to be advised to take their complaint to the church.

Michael Ward
5 months ago

Well...I mean he HAD to die. Some things are unavoidable...right? Not sure there is much that can be done about "re-traumatizing". Seems best to avoid traumatizing in the first place. Just a thought. That having been said. Putting him to rest should have been less prominent and have attracted less attention than it did. No Saint Peter's and no cameras. Francis, at small event, in a monastery chapel and plot, close by where the Cardinal should have been spending his final years in prayer and penance, rather than at Santa Maria Maggiore would have been both more digniifed and fitting, and salutary for all involved. Pray for his soul.

Andrew Wolfe
5 months ago

The best thing would be to stop interviewing these victims and asking them to relive it and emote and react and comment. To me the reporters are re-traumatizing them.

Michael McDermott
5 months ago

The Homosex Ephebophile infiltration of the Priesthood by small numbers of Depraved Men who Primarily Targeted Adolescent Boys, is a disgrace that even this board now covers up for - By Ignoring the Homosex Ephebophile foundation for the Vast Majority of Abuse.
Quite simply - the Church (including its PC - P.C.B.s, Politically Correct Professional Catholic Bureaucrats) refused to follow its own Wise Moral Teachings, when they conflicted with the Pander or Perish pogroms of the GILBERT Gaystapo.
Author Tammy Bruce highlighted this Pogrom Targeting Adolescent Boys in her prescient book 'the Death of Right & Wrong':
"Almost without exception, the gay men I know (and that's too many to count) have a story of some kind of sexual trauma or abuse in their childhood - molestation by a parent or an authority figure, or seduction as an adolescent at the hands of an adult.

The other reason actually discussed in the community is that, because of the Aids crisis and the emergence of drug resistant strains of contagions like herpes and gonorrhea, gay men are compelled to seek new, untouched young men."

The gay community must face the truth and see sexual molestation of an adolescent for the abuse it is, instead of the 'coming of age' experience many regard it as being." Tammy Bruce – ‘The Death of Right & Wrong’
&
Not Born This Way http://savecalifornia.com/not-born-this-way.html
SEE Also:
The Gift of Priestly Vocation
http://www.clerus.va/content/dam/clerus/Ratio Fundamentalis/The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.pdf
199 “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’.

Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep- seated homosexual tendencies”

“If a candidate practises homosexuality or presents deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director as well as his confessor have the duty to dissuade him in conscience from proceeding towards ordination”.

“It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality in order to proceed, despite everything, towards ordination. Such a deceitful attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and openness that must characterize the personality of him who believes he is called to serve Christ and his Church in the ministerial priesthood”307.

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