Why Catholics Need to Hear Survivor Stories (and 5 Ways to Listen Well)

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

One of Awake’s central missions is a commitment to listening to sexual abuse survivors. Many have carried painful experiences in silence for decades. And those who have shared their stories have often been doubted, shamed, or ignored by fellow Catholics. In an effort to help change that culture, we’ll begin in coming weeks to post essays from survivors open to sharing their journeys with us.

But first, we want to reflect on the importance of hearing survivor stories and the best ways to listen. For advice, we turned to clinical psychologist Joan Cook, PhD, of Yale University, who has worked with and studied trauma survivors, including survivors of sexual abuse, for more than 20 years. Cook is also a practicing Catholic and a product of 16 years of Catholic schools.

The problem of sexual abuse is pervasive—found in families, on sports teams, and in a range of institutions—so it’s not limited to the Catholic Church, Cook says. But she believes that if both church leaders and people in the pews can face this crisis, the Church can serve as a model for other institutions grappling with sexual abuse.

 “The truth is that if you’re not a sexual abuse survivor yourself, then you likely know and love someone who is, because the rates are just so high,” Cook says. “This is understandably hard to think about. But if we deny the occurrence of sexual abuse and its potentially devastating consequences, then we don’t help those survivors among us to heal and that’s a disservice.” She suggests that listening to survivors is faith in action. Survivors need to know that they matter and belong. They are often deeply pained by their traumatic experiences, Cook says, and they need our congregations to accept them and show them understanding.

5 Tips for Listening

Giving survivors the chance to share their stories is key to their healing. Research shows that survivors who feel heard may be less likely to feel depressed and to engage in dangerous behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, Cook explains. Here’s some advice for listening well.

Consider your body language. If someone begins sharing their story with you, take a moment to check your body position. “Nonverbal messages can be very powerful,” Cook says. “If you can, try to maintain good eye contact, and avoid disapproving body postures, such as having your arms crossed, or holding your head back as if in disbelief. Finger pointing, eye-rolling, or disapproving facial expressions are certainly unhelpful too.”

Communicate your support. Helpful listeners make an effort to listen quietly, to be as calm as they can, and to respond in supportive but honest ways, Cook says. You don’t have to say a lot, but consider simple statements like, “Thank you for sharing this with me. I’m sure it’s very hard to talk about, but I’d like to support you in any way I can.”

If it feels right, offer an apology. Even though you did not cause the person’s pain, research shows that the survivor can benefit if you express authentic concern and sorrow. Don’t pretend if you’re not feeling it, Cook says. “But if you’re in a position to do so, and it’s appropriate, it can actually be very healing for someone to hear, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you.’” (Consider signing Awake’s Open Letter to Survivors, another way to show support.)

Take a break if you need it. It can be really tough to sit quietly when someone, particularly a loved one, discloses that they’ve been sexually assaulted. “It’s understandable that you would feel squeamish or upset or angry or a whole range of intense emotions,” Cook says. “It’s really hard. I teach this a lot: if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can say, ‘I love you so much and I hear you and I believe you. This is really difficult for me to hear and I want to be supportive, but I need a little breather.” Plan to come back to the conversation later.

Take your responsibility as a listener seriously. You don’t have to be perfect, but choose your responses with care. Cook gives the example of a World War II veteran she once worked with, who said that when he first returned home, he told a friend about his experiences as a prisoner of war. That person asked him why he “gave in” and was captured. The veteran was so disturbed by that response that it was decades before he mentioned his war experience again, despite carrying significant psychological wounds. An unhelpful response can cause a survivor to shut down. “Listening to survivors can feel heavy, like a burden,” Cook says. “But it’s also a big light that we carry, a responsibility that I hope many more of us are willing to take on.”

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s Eastside with her husband and two sons.

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