My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The month of October has been designated as Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. Unfortunately, the amount of domestic violence and sexual abuse that occurs today is overwhelming. In the United States, it has been reported that nearly 20 victims per minute suffer physical and/or sexual violence by intimate partners. This fact gives some idea of the prevalence of violence against persons in our society.
As we attempt to deal with the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, which I have been speaking about for the last several weeks, recognizing the societal problem is important. Although for almost the last two decades the Church has actively placed successful policies, preventive programs and training in place to prevent any sexual abuse by priests, deacons, bishops and those working for the Church, the problem in our general society remains consistently much larger. We recognize the problem also in the schools of the United States, and in New York State schools, as reported in a study conducted several years ago. The context is important so that we understand the societal implications.
Why is abuse so prevalent? This is a very complex issue with varying explanations and causes, depending on the type of abuse and the victims of the abuse. One dimension that cannot be ignored is that we live in a society where violence and pornography have become almost second nature to us. We do not even recognize it when we see it. The violence and pornography that comes to us in films and the general media have become so commonplace that we are not fazed by it. This, however, has a deep influence on our children. Children’s minds and consciences are easily negatively impacted by a constant diet of violence and pornography to which they are exposed.
The mental health community in our country has attempted for the past several years to make us aware of this issue. Our Catholic Charities organization has several programs that assist those who have been victims of domestic violence. The link given below is a direct access to the call center where victims of such violence can call, and speak with a counselor who will let them know of available services: https://www.ccbq.org/what-we-do/integrated-health-and-wellness-services
We will continue working together as a Church to heal those who in any way have been abused.
Closer to home within the Church, our efforts at healing those who have been abused by priests, deacons, bishops, religious and those working for the Church continues to develop, being guided by the voice of survivors. As I have spoken about our Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program (IRCP), which offers monetary compensation for abuse that has been experienced many decades ago, for many the most important factor in healing is that we listen to and acknowledge the suffering of victims. The Jesuit priest, Father Hans Zollner, President of the Pontifical Gregorian, University Center for Children Protection in Rome, said, “All concur in this, that the most important single element in a possible healing process, is being really listened to…all say this is the starting point.” I have listened to victims who have come together to form our diocesan Survivors Advisory Committee who are able to guide the diocese in the work of healing. These survivors are primarily responsible for our annual diocesan Mass of Hope and Healing, as well as some of the support groups that have been formed to assist other victims who are in the process of healing.
My own experience in meeting with victim-survivors, along with Ms. Jasmine Salazar, LMSW, Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Brooklyn, has been very heartrending, while at the same time very encouraging for me to see that survivors can heal. Although most of the victim-survivors with whom I have met understandably do not wish to repeat the story of their abuse, they do wish to be heard regarding their feelings and how the abuse has impacted them throughout their life. The most important thing we can do for victim-survivors is to listen, to accompany and to assist each in their healing process. There is no way to hasten the healing process. Just like the image I have previously used, sexual abuse is like a deep wound that heals slowly and then develops first a scab and then a scar. But that scar always remains with us, although the wound may be healed. This is a delicate matter in the healing process to affirm the victim-survivors and remind them that the abuse was not their fault and that the Church as a whole affirms their integrity and wishes to express sorrow for their abuse.
The lessons we have learned from the IRCP remind us that there is much healing before us. To date, only a few of the newest victims who have come forward have been seen by me or one of our auxiliary bishops. Yet, we continue to make efforts to let them know that there continues to be an open invitation for victims to meet and that there is a desire to assist them as they continue to seek healing. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the attorneys representing these victims are holding our letter of invitation to them since we cannot directly communicate with their clients.
The Church has put out into the deep waters of healing. There is much more to be done – by the hierarchy and also by all members of the Church; especially the priests, deacons, religious and laity all of whom are involved in the tremendous work of making the Church a safer place for our children. While at the same time, recognizing the work society needs to do in making domestic violence and sexual abuse a thing of the past.