Comfort the Sorrowful: Parents of abuse victims in Boston support each other.
Has anything positive happened in Boston in the wake of the scandal? The press seems preoccupied with the negative consequences, unwilling or perhaps unable to recognize moments of light in an otherwise dark story. I would like to tell a part of the story that deserves wider recognition: how wounded families can help one another.
In 2002, the Archdiocese of Boston established the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach to victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. It is staffed by four licensed social workers and an administrative assistant, who have worked tirelessly and with quiet compassion in this special ministry. I am also a member of that staff. Neither a psychologist nor a social worker, I am a registered nurse with a unique qualification for the ministry: I am the mother of a victim.
One of my sons revealed in 1990 that when he was 11 years old, he was sexually abused by a parish priest. My son had kept this secret for 17 years. As a mother, I believe that no child should keep such a secret for 17 seconds, never mind 17 years. He had given me important information, but I didnt know what to do with it, so I kept the secret for another 10 years. Later I discovered that others had acted similarly.
Forming a Support Group
A year before the sexual abuse scandal became public, I received a phone call from a former neighbor, who wanted to talk to me about her son and his experience with the same priest. Then I received another call, and another. One night in January 2001, nine mothers met in a living room and exchanged horror stories about the experiences of their children. As we told our stories we were slowly shocked into silence as we realized that so much had gone on, and we had known nothing. We wept, we embraced and for the first time realized what had happened. The things we had once heard and considered gossip were true. We shared faces and names and understood each others pain. We were not alone anymore. There were no more secrets, no more questionsexcept why?
At the end of that evening, I asked what the group wanted to do next. They said they wanted to meet again the following month, and we did. We have been meeting every month for the past six years. Dads have joined us and are very engaged and active.
Working Through the Diocese
Shortly after the scandal broke in 2002, I had the good fortune of meeting Barbara Thorp, the director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach. She had heard about the parents group and invited me to work with her office, helping parents of victims.
What we parents knew so well was the fact that an entire family is affected by the tragedy of the sexual abuse of a child. We had watched our children decline, fall into drug and alcohol abuse, fail to perform at school, lose jobs, abandon relationships, become unable to function in the family or society, and we hadnt known why. We maintained our homes as best we could; we worked, paid mortgages, cooked meals, like other families. We were good at hiding our secret sorrows, while wondering what went wrong. Siblings were affected as well; no one escaped.
The professional women at the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach understood and appreciated the impact that sexual abuse had on families. When I came on staff we were not quite sure how to begin, but things fell into place quickly. When victims contacted the office, they were asked if their parents would be interested in talking to me and learning about our group of parents. If they agreed, I would call, set up a meeting either in their home or in a place where they were comfortable, listen to their stories and invite them to our support group meetings.
Not everyone accepts the invitation. Some just need to be heard and comforted. The fact that I am a parent of a victim immediately breaks down barriers and helps to establish trust. Others welcome the opportunity to be with parents like themselves. Some parents called me without their child knowing it. They were concerned about the victim and felt as though there was nowhere to turn. Our group is unique in that we share stories that no one else in our communities, churches or families can understand. The reaction of those who think that victims and their families should just get over it and move on is not only insensitive but hurtful; it isolates us once again. Such a dismissal is particularly painful when it comes from those associated with the Catholic Church.
Facing Lost Possibilities
Contrary to what some may believe, we are not dysfunctional families; quite the opposite, we are well-educated, professional people who have been and are involved with our children. We live the enduring results of sexual abuse every day. So do our children. Who can measure what has been lost? Educations, professional possibilities and personal relationships have forever been affected. Those untouched by such tragedy cannot understand the pain we suffer as we watch these childhood victims, now young adults, struggle.
We are as good as our children are. If they are doing well, we are doing well; if they are having bad times, we are having bad times. A good day is when parents can say their child has been sober for another month, or was promoted in a job that is below his educational level. A good day is when their child moves out of a sober house into her own apartment. A bad day is a relapse or downward slide.
The support group is our lifeline. We may be in different places emotionally, but we are there for one another. Support is our survival, and when we survive, we are stronger for our children. One family, however, found it necessary to relocate to another state because the victim could not return home without danger of relapse.
Sustained by Faith
We are all in a better place than six years ago. The anger is there, but it is not as volatile. Pain is always there, but it is now more manageable. We will always grieve the loss of our childrens potential, the betrayal of their promise. But above all we have hope. Our hope is for a better future for us all. We are all still proactive, churchgoing Catholics. If our church did not sustain us, our faith did. We would not let that be taken away as well. And we have formed a bond of love, trust and friendship. We are a church within our church; we care for one another as Jesus has instructed us. We never know what may happen in a meeting, what will be said or what need will be voiced, but Gods spirit is there guiding us, somehow gently leading us. We also have a strong covenant of confidentiality; what is said at a meeting stays there. Trust is the foundation of our friendship.
Litigation and settlements have helped many victims to establish lives that were interrupted, but have harmed others who have fallen back into dangerous ways. Some victims have been able to go back to school or buy a home; one was able to adopt a baby from China. Many have received the professional counseling they so desperately need.
I wish to give credit where credit is due. Less than two months after his installation as Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean OMalley met 25 families of victims in a home south of Boston. He came and listened to our stories for nearly three hours. He prayed for us and with us and blessed us, and he continues to be available to victims and their families to this day. Cardinal OMalleys support is unwavering.
Can the church now go back to business as usual? There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done; it is a daunting task that must continue. The consequences will affect future generations. Part of our process of healing is outreach. There are many families experiencing this sadness, and we wish to share what we have, to make known that we exist. We want to console those whose lives have been shattered, welcome them, and be with them in their time of need.
We are just a small link in a long arduous process, but great change often comes from the grass roots. As one mother said, We shall rise from the ashes. Together we can and will survive. We do not ask for money or time but for prayers for us and our families. We have not heard such petitions in our Sunday liturgical prayers of the faithful. Instead, we have often been told that parishioners are discomforted by reminders of the sex abuse scandal. But Jesus never avoided discomforting situations. He was in the midst of them, listening with compassion and comforting the sorrowful. Henri Nouwen writes: Indeed, we need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy, will we be able to drink it.
It is our hope that following the example of Jesus, we can be a church of compassion and hope, the foundation of love and joy.
Read an interview with Virginia Lucey.