Courageous Conversation: Understanding Trauma to Build Trauma–Sensitive Parishes

Every parish has members who have experienced sexual abuse or other types of trauma, making it essential to create communities that feel welcoming and safe to victims and survivors, said Stephen Saunders, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marquette University, during Awake’s latest Courageous Conversation event. A recording of the event is available here.

“What I like to say to clergy … is that if you don’t know who is being abused, or who has been abused or traumatized, it’s because they haven’t told you,” Saunders said.  “It’s not because they’re not there. It’s because they haven’t told you. ”

What is Trauma, and How Common is It?

Saunders defined trauma as “an event or series of events that is experienced by a person as physically and emotionally harmful.” He noted that trauma can result from a single event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack, or a series of events over time, including domestic abuse or sexual abuse. And he added that traumas that take place in the family or at school or church are “much more common, but don’t tend to make the news.” These wounds are often more damaging to victims, he said, because the harm is committed by a person entrusted with keeping the victim safe.

During his talk, Saunders, author of A Christian Guide to Mental Illness, offered statistics about the prevalence of trauma, including the finding that 1 in 5 adults had adverse experiences as children. Adverse childhood experiences (often called ACEs) are traumatic experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, or witnessing the violent treatment of a parent.  

Traumatic experiences can have long-lasting effects on how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. “A black eye goes away,” Saunders said. “A broken arm goes away. Psychological effects don’t necessarily go away.” These can include self-blame, depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, and relationship and intimacy problems.

Survivors may also have spiritual wounds, asking questions such as “Does God love me?” and “Does God even exist?” Saunders said he believes such spiritual wounds are all too often overlooked.

How To Make Your Parish More Sensitive to Trauma Survivors

A church community that is trauma-sensitive works to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, and seeks to help people currently experiencing abuse or those abused in the past, Saunders explained. He stressed the importance of outreach to people who may be currently experiencing abuse, or living in its aftermath. Clergy and parish leaders may not know the identity of victims and survivors, but ministry teams can signal their care and compassion by making statements from the pulpit or in the bulletin like, “We know you’re here, we welcome you, and if we can, if you’re willing, we would like to help you,” Saunders suggested. He proposed praying during Mass for victims and survivors and the mental health professionals who work to help them heal.

Saunders also recommended that Church leaders:

Accept the Reality of Abuse. “Overall, trauma-sensitive churches and parishes need to stop saying, need to stop thinking, ‘It cannot be so,’” Saunders stressed. When an abuse victim or survivor comes to you and shares their story, “Accept reality even when it’s hard to accept. This, perhaps more than anything else, helps the survivor.”

Believe. When someone shares with you that they have been abused, remember that “the three most important words that a victim and survivor can hear are ‘I believe you,’” Saunders said.

Refer for Help. People who have experienced abuse often need mental health treatment, and church leaders should refer them to appropriate professionals. “I would encourage clergy to stay in your lane,” Saunders said. “You’re not qualified to treat people who are traumatized or are having mental health problems because of abuse and trauma.” At the same time, a psychologist is “not qualified to do what you do, which is reassure the person that they are loved by God and that God didn’t want this for them,” Saunders added. He advised clergy to make it clear to the survivor that they are not trying to hand them off to someone else; instead, they want them to get the most effective help. He also recommended following up with the person to find out how therapy is going.  

Encourage Open Conversation. Saunders recommended that parish leaders allow open discussion of abuse that has occurred at any point in the past or present. He also answered an audience question about the belief of some ministry teams that bringing up the topic of sexual abuse can harm victims. He stressed that this is not the case. “Talking about things, and having someone listen with care and compassion, helps,” he said.

Ideas from Survivors, and A Call to Action

During the event, Awake Executive Director Sara Larson read comments from abuse survivors sharing their ideas of ways to make parishes more welcoming to survivors. See a summary of their comments below.

Saunders fielded an audience question about how Catholics can encourage their parish leaders to adopt trauma-sensitive measures. He compared care for abuse survivors to the work priests and deacons do for the sick. “There’s not a priest out there that wouldn’t go visit, in the middle of a snow storm, someone dying of cancer or someone who just had a heart attack,” he said. “This is just like that.”

Saunders told the audience that they are welcome to contact him with questions, or to use any of the information he shared in his slide show.

As the event closed, Awake leaders included a call to action, encouraging Catholic attendees to share this event recording with clergy, lay ministers, and pastoral council members at their parish. They also recommended that attendees ask their parish leaders to offer gestures of outreach to survivors, including the suggestions included in the “Take Action Today!” section of the Awake website.

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Thoughts from Survivors About Building Trauma-Sensitive Parishes

During Awake Milwaukee’s February 2021 Courageous Conversation, Executive Director Sara Larson read comments from abuse survivors describing ways to make parishes more welcoming for people who have experienced abuse and trauma. Here’s a sample of their comments.

“Please take the safe environment stuff seriously. If your diocese is one that doesn’t do much for it or doesn’t take it seriously, that’s all the more reason for you to [do so] at your parish. Talking about that stuff frequently and openly with your congregation sets a more accountable culture, and that absolutely matters when you’ve survived abuse.”

“If you don’t know anything about the aftermath of abuse and dealing with it or with psychological disorders, please don’t give advice about them in the confessional.”

Two survivors asked that parishes consider how Covid restrictions might impact survivors. They both come from parishes that now lock the doors during Mass and spoke about how awful it can feel; one survivor said she had a panic attack and felt trapped when she could not leave. Another survivor talked about how she only feels safe sitting in a particular part of the church, and it’s hard when another pew is assigned to her due to Covid rules.

“If you tell a survivor you are going to do something, it’s important to follow through. For example, if a survivor tells you a certain icon triggers their PTSD and you tell them that you will remove it, please follow through.”

“Don’t chose to not respond to someone who discloses abuse, especially if you’re in a leadership position. Of all the stuff I’ve been through with the Church, my priest not responding when I told him about my abuse was the thing that has made it the most difficult to go to Mass.”

“It’s really important to me that leaders in the Church speak out about the abuse of adults in particular. I came forward because a local priest did a homily on what happened to another adult woman. This gave me courage that I wouldn’t be ignored.”

“Awake always has some kind of statement about survivors being welcome, and I wish parishes would do that also, and offer a way to get in touch with someone if they need some help/accommodation/support. A statement like that in a bulletin would be a simple, powerful thing.”

“I am a survivor of clergy abuse.  I wanted to share encouragement to the group of what can happen when a survivor shares his story with his parish priest. Although I was terribly nervous to tell him because I thought he might think I was attacking him, or his good ministry, or his good character, he didn’t take it that way. He listened to me and heard the depth of my sadness and pain. We talked for over an hour. Because that conversation went so well, I felt comfortable to begin a therapeutic process of healing. I would ask all priests to listen and believe the victim, allowing the victim to tell their story in their words, in their manner, at their pace.”

“Don’t choose not to respond when someone discloses abuse. Of all the stuff I’ve been through with the Church, my priest not responding when I told him about my abuse is the thing that has made it the most difficult to go to Mass.”

“Of all the things you can say to survivors, don’t tell them to forgive their abuser. Just don’t.”

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