Spiritual Wounds: Grappling with the Trauma of Sexual Abuse in the Church

By Mary Gentile
Awake Leadership Team

Cathy Melesky Dante is a doctoral student at Marquette University studying the relationship between theology and psychology, with an interest in people who have experienced sexual abuse by religious authorities (SARA). The trauma experienced by SARA victims is especially painful, complex, and difficult to heal, she says, but she is committed to understanding the best ways to help these victim-survivors recover.

Cathy was born and raised in a Catholic family, but left the Church at age 19. She returned at age 30 while working as a social worker near Springfield, Massachusetts. At 33, she began studying for a master’s of divinity at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. After graduation she worked at a parish in the D.C. area while receiving additional training in spiritual direction. For the last eight years she has worked at Marquette University as a residence hall minister, while also serving privately as a spiritual director and retreat facilitator. She began her doctoral work in 2018.

I’ve worked alongside Cathy in programs that provide theology instruction to lay ministers and school teachers in the Milwaukee area for about two years. We realized quickly that we share a love of the Catholic Church and concern for those abused by clergy. She and I recently had this conversation about her work on spiritual wounds.

Mary Gentile, Awake: Cathy, can you tell me about the aspects of your personal journey (theological, academic, spiritual, professional) that led you to this course of study?

Cathy Melesky Dante: I returned to the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, when the sexual abuse crisis was exploding in the Diocese of Springfield. I saw this development as hopeful because it presented an opportunity for the Catholic Church to change and pay attention in a new way to people on the margins, including people who had been sexually abused. The victim advocate in Springfield at the time was my former social work supervisor. When I reached out to her to see how I could help, she offered me work doing trainings in preventing child sexual abuse in the parishes. Later, the Diocese of Springfield worked with the mental health agency where I worked to set up a case management program to help survivors. My agency asked me to be the first program coordinator. 

After completing my MDiv, a process that included an internship at Saint Luke Institute, a behavioral health facility for priests and religious, and receiving additional training in spiritual direction, I discerned a call to return to graduate school for PhD work looking at both theology and psychology. As part of my coursework, I wanted to better understand clergy sexual abuse so chose to research it for a paper called “Complex and Spiritual: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Sexual Abuse by Religious Authorities.”

MG: You and I have talked often about the twofold tragedy of the moral failure of perpetrators and the failure of Church leadership to hold itself fully accountable. Your recent paper highlighted the significant complexity and unique nature of the trauma suffered by victims of SARA. What makes SARA survivors’ wounds complex and unique?

CMD: I think this is a great question and one that mental health professionals think about as well. The fact that the Church is considered a moral authority on many matters, including sexual ethics, makes both of these failures more challenging. Many survivors have left the Church and become atheist or agnostic, and, as we have talked about, it is the source of deep frustration and anger among many of us who have stayed. For victims of SARA, a religious leader is initiating sex, but also teaching that sex outside of marriage is sinful. This causes confusion and leads to more mistrust—not only of the perpetrator, but of religious authorities, religion in general, and even of God.

There is a story of a little girl who was always happy after church on Sundays. She loved to share greetings and a smile with the priest as her family left. One day, her parents found her in tears after church. When her parents asked her what happened, she said, “God didn’t smile at me today.” She had mixed up her experiences with her priest with her experiences with God, something all of us do, including survivors of SARA. Abuse by a religious leader can be experienced as abuse by God, creating deep spiritual wounds. This is especially tragic because religion and spirituality can be an important source of healing for survivors who were not abused by religious leaders. But since many SARA survivors describe themselves as atheist or agnostic and do not go to church, this potential route to healing is far more difficult to access.

MG: Based on your recent research and writing, what do you think are some of the key issues that need to be addressed so that the best possible care can be given to victims of SARA? 

CMD: I think there are three main things we need to do to help. First, train psychologists on spiritual issues. A few years ago, a psychologist named Kevin Masters who studies the psychology of religion did a talk at Marquette where he shared that 70 percent of psychologists identify as atheist, suggesting that psychologists—and possibly other mental health professionals—lack adequate training and experience to help people with spiritual wounds.  

Next, we need to train priests and lay ministers to respond and refer when they learn that a person has experienced clergy sexual abuse. The priests in my MDiv classes had no experience or training in working with people with mental illness, never mind the complex needs of survivors of clergy sexual abuse. No one should feel obligated to be the sole provider of resources. There are other specialists who can help. 

It is also important to recognize that community response makes a difference. Communities can have a hard time acknowledging the needs of survivors or even the fact of abuse. When communities can be supportive and believe the survivor, that can help the survivor’s healing process.

MG: What immediate steps can you suggest for the whole Church—both institutionally, and the people in the pews—in responding and supporting SARA survivors?  

CMD: We need to listen. Lay people, priests, and bishops need to listen and be aware of when we are having a hard time listening. This sounds easy but can be quite challenging. When we listen to someone who is sharing a hard story, we might find ourselves tuning out, changing the subject, or arguing with them. These behaviors take away from the sense of safety a survivor needs. When we do not listen well, this can point to resistance in ourselves. If you notice you have a hard time listening, it might be time to refer the survivor to someone with more experience and training than you. There are experts out there who can help them. Another issue can arise when the listener jumps in to try to solve the survivor’s problems instead of simply listening; this can unintentionally trigger trust issues, a common problem for survivors.

The community’s response to a survivor who shares their abuse influences the survivor’s healing journey. Communities, like Awake, that believe and support survivors, can help a survivor to heal. If someone shares their story of abuse, thank them for trusting you. Their story is sacred.

I would encourage Church leaders and teachers to pay attention to the images of God we use when we teach and preach. A survivor of clergy sexual abuse might not be comfortable with a male image of God. In fact, Jesus himself used feminine images to describe himself, such as a mother hen (Mt 23:37). What feminine images can we offer as a church?

It is also useful to consider how we tell our faith stories. Survivors might need stories of people who suffer innocently, isolated and alone, like Jesus in the garden or on His way to the cross. Another example is Mary, who is so often depicted as pure and holy. While I am sure this is true, Mary most likely suffered, too. She was born when Romans were persecuting the Jews. She got pregnant before she was married. She suffered, she was shunned by her community, yet she was still chosen by God to bear God’s son. God chooses survivors, too.

Mary Gentile works at Cardinal Stritch University in the administration of programs that support lay ministers and Catholic school educators. She is an active member of St. Gregory the Great parish on Milwaukee’s South Side. She and her husband have three amazing (almost) adult sons. Awake has given her a space to work for healing and renewal in our Church. 

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