Courageous Conversation: Panelists Describe Pain, Loneliness, and Healing After Clergy Sexual Abuse in Adulthood

Awake Milwaukee’s latest Courageous Conversation was an emotionally intense discussion of the wounds suffered by people sexually abused as adults in the Catholic Church. A recording of the event is available below.

The March 18 event began with Esther Harber, a 38-year-old wife, mother, and committed Catholic, recounting her rape by a priest in October 2010 while she was serving as a lay missionary in New York City. She said that when she summoned the courage to tell her pastor what happened to her, he helped her contact archdiocesan officials, “and from there the reporting process was hell,” she said. “It was more traumatic in some ways than the rape itself.”

Harber and the two other speakers revealed ways that Catholic dioceses and parishes often overlook and even exacerbate the pain suffered by adult victims of sexual abuse in the Church.  

“When you’re an adult and you’ve been sexually abused by clergy, there is a different level of shame involved, simply because people are always saying, ‘She could have stopped it,’ or ‘She led him on,’ or ‘Why did he let it continue for so long?” explained panelist Paula Kaempffer, Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is also a survivor of clerical sexual abuse as a young adult.

Abusers often manipulate victims with grooming techniques that set the stage for abuse, break down boundaries, and cloud victims’ thinking. People who have not endured abuse “don’t realize the psychological hold that the abuser has on a victim,” Kaempffer said.

She and the third panelist, David Pooler, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, stressed that relationships between clergy and lay Catholics cannot be consensual because of the power differential between them. For many people, clergy members represent God, making it “almost impossible to say yes or no in a free and clear way,” said Pooler, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma psychologist who has conducted extensive research on clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults.

It’s absolutely, unequivocally on the shoulders of the clergy person … to maintain and … delineate what a healthy and safe relationship [is] to look like,” Pooler said. 

In 2015, Pooler conducted a national survey of 280 adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse from a range of religious denominations, along with in-depth interviews of 27 of the survivors. He found that 70 percent had “unresolved trauma” prior to being abused by the Church leader. “Abusive priests are looking for people who have unresolved prior trauma,” Pooler said. “They know how to spot it, they know how to pick up on that, they know how to take advantage of that.”

The Term “Vulnerable Adult”

When the Catholic Church does acknowledge adult victim-survivors of sexual abuse, it often uses the narrow term “vulnerable adults” to describe them. Kaempffer took issue with that language: “I can’t tell you how the hair on the back of my neck stands up,” she said. “Just by saying that … it puts all the blame on the victim.”

She said that in her work with victim-survivors, she aims to reshape that concept. “We are adults created by God with many, many beautiful gifts: compassion, sensitivity, gentleness, strength, courage, and understanding, and the list can go on,” Kaempffer says. “Instead of vulnerable adults, we are gifted adults who entered into a vulnerable situation in which someone took those gifts of ours and manipulated them to serve their own purpose.”

Messages for Survivors

The audience of the Courageous Conversation included multiple victim-survivors of abuse as adults, and Kaempffer and other panelists spoke directly to them throughout the event.

“If you are or were an adult when you were sexually victimized by a priest, it was not your fault,” Kaempffer said in one particularly powerful moment. “I want you to hear me say that. I’m going to say that several times. It was not your fault.”

During the question-and-answer period, a survivor in the audience submitted a question about how survivors can go on to trust others and form healthy relationships after abuse. Both Harber and Kaempffer talked about the importance of psychotherapy in their own healing, as well as the support of good friends and loved ones. Both joined support groups of fellow survivors or clergy sexual abuse. “That was very affirming to me to hear similar stories,” Harber said. “Survivors build each other up a lot.” Both also spoke about how their faith and belief in God has also been a source of strength in the healing processes.

Listening Well, And Spotting Abuse of Adults

A priest in the audience asked the panelists for advice on how to respond well when someone discloses that they’ve been sexually abused. Pooler that the best response is to say, “I believe you and I’m sorry this happened.” He cautioned against questioning the truthfulness of the person’s story, which can be retraumatizing for victims.  

An audience member who works for the Catholic Church also asked how to spot abuse of adults, and Pooler offered an answer based on his findings. “This is going to sound oversimple,” he said, “but just trust your instincts. If anything feels a little bit funky, a little off, say something, ask a question, jump in there. Because that’s what we’re not doing. We’re not doing that enough.” He noted that when news of abuse comes out, there are often people close to the situation who felt that something was not right and regret not speaking up. “I’d rather make someone mad in the moment by asking a question, then not say something in the moment and someone gets terribly injured,” he said.

How Can We Respond?

The panelists offered multiple ideas for addressing the sexual abuse of adults in the Church. “The reporting process for minors needs to be duplicated for adults,” Harber said, adding that any action by the Church would likely be an improvement. “Start doing something, because this has been a long-ignored problem,” she said.

Pooler mentioned that fourteen states currently have statues that address sexual abuse by clergy, and a fifteenth state, Tennessee, is currently working to create such legislation. He suggested that oversight is more effective when handled by external entities. “Part of it is that the Church just protects itself and its reputation,” he said. “It protects its power, its image, and its reputation at the expense of survivors.”

Kaempffer ended the evening by stressing that despite what some Catholics and church leaders might wish, victim-survivors cannot simply “get over” the abuse they experienced. “We can get through it,” she said, “but we can never get over it.”

In closing, Pooler stressed that clergy abuse of adults “is an absolutely real phenomenon. It is never consensual; it should never, ever be called an affair.” He said that churches should prioritize the needs of victim-survivors over the needs of abusive church leaders, and he issued a call to survivors, noting that churches need their guidance. “Who better to help us figure out what a healthy church can look like than survivors,” he said. “You are the people who are critical to making the Church safe and healthy.”

—Erin O’Donnell, editor, Awake Blog


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