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.
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.”