10 Things Never to Say to Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse

By Jerri von den Bosch
Awake Leadership Team

As the daughter of a clergy abuse victim-survivor and a lay person who works for the Church, I speak often with fellow Catholics about my family’s experience with the abuse crisis. People respond to this information in a variety of ways. While certain responses are not meant to be hurtful, they do cause pain to victims who have been abused by Church leaders, as well as victims’ loved ones. 

Here are the 10 comments I hear most often, with my take on why those comments can be hurtful, and some thoughts on how to respond instead. My goal is to help Catholics react in compassionate, supportive ways that aid healing instead of adding to a survivor’s wounds. (By the way, that’s me with my Mom in the photo above!)

1. “I know that priest so well! He would never do anything like that!”

This can be incredibly painful for a survivor to hear, given that it’s basically another way of saying, “I don’t believe you!” Consider that abusive people are skilled at hiding their deviant traits. They can be charismatic and friendly in one setting, and cruel and controlling in another. It’s possible that the abusive person has only ever shown you one side of themselves. 

Instead, say: “I’m so sorry. I thought I knew that person, but I guess I was only seeing one side of the story.”

2. “Sexual abuse happens in ALL organizations, not just the Catholic Church.”

Yes, sexual abuse is sadly common, and it takes place in a variety of settings, including families, schools, and sports teams. But this particular response dismisses the ways the Church has been especially hurtful. Awake often refers to the “twin crises” of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic church. Victim-survivors suffer severe trauma because they are harmed by someone seen as a representative of God, a person they should be able to trust. And too many victims have reported their abuser, only to face doubt and legal maneuvering by Church leaders, and rejection by fellow Catholics in the pews. These experiences create deep, lifelong wounds that are particularly difficult to treat. 

It’s also important to remember that as Catholics we are the Body of Christ. When a part of the body is in pain, we don’t cut it off or ignore it. Instead we tend to the wounded part and help it heal.  

Instead, say: “I’m so sorry that my Church has let you down and caused you harm.”

3. “That crisis happened a long time ago. Our bishops fixed it in 2002 with the Dallas Charter.”

Regretfully the 2002 Dallas Charter did not fix everything. There have been new reports of sexual abuse every year since the charter was adopted. The charter also did not address misconduct by bishops—and the cover-ups conducted by some Church leaders have been just as painful to victim-survivors as the abuse itself. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the pain for victim-survivors doesn’t stop when the abuse does. 

Instead, say: “I’m going to find out what my parish does to help prevent sexual abuse.”

4. “The problem is gay priests,” or “It only happens to boys.”

Abusive clergy victimize boys and girls, men and women. Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the dynamics of sexual assault. Abusers seek to exert power over others, and power matters more to them than gender or attraction.

Instead, say: “The person who hurt you was wrong to do so. There is no excuse for that behavior.”

5. “I just can’t believe what you’re telling me!”

If you or your loved ones have not experienced sexual abuse, the details of abuse can be shocking and hard to hear or even believe. Yet research suggests that false reports of sexual assault are rare. And “I don’t believe you” are the most damaging words a victim-survivor can hear when they disclose abuse to another person. 

Instead, say: “I believe you!” 

6. “You really need to forgive your abuser. You’ll feel better when you do.”

Not all victim-survivors are able to forgive their abuser. Some people find power in forgiveness, and some do not. Leave that process to the victim, their therapist, and God. Everyone comes to a different decision on this issue. 

Instead, say: “Can I pray for you?” (And if they say, “No,” respect that.)

7. “We need to protect the good priests.”

I hear this often from well-meaning people. Indeed, the abuse crisis must be devastating for clergy who live with integrity. There are many great priests in the world who are upstanding citizens and admirable Christians. But when people respond this way, it can sound like, “We need to protect the Church!” These are painful words to someone who has been hurt by the Church. 

Instead, say: “I’m going to talk to my pastor about the importance of addressing the issue of abuse in the Church. He is a good man, and I know he’ll be open to listening to me.”

8. “Well, the Church isn’t perfect. It’s made up of sinners.”

Yes, we are all sinners. But we are not free to ignore the hurt our sin causes. Sin is not without consequence, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Abusers do not just hurt the victim—they also hurt families and communities. As members of the Body of Christ, we need to consider what we can do to help heal the wounds suffered by victim-survivors and the entire Church. We have all been injured by the abuse crisis.     

Instead, say: “This person’s sin has hurt you, and it hurts me also.”

9. “You need to go to confession, and find healing in the Church.”

Many Catholics find that Church traditions, including the Sacrament of Reconciliation, help them grow closer to God. Unfortunately abusers in the Church have often used our traditions against victims. A person who has been abused in sacred spaces like the confessional can experience PTSD, anxiety, and panic attacks if they return there. Please understand that the fact that you find peace in the Church’s traditions does not mean that a survivor will. 

Instead, say: “Let me know how I can help you find healing.”

10. “This is religious persecution!”

Because I live in Wisconsin, I’ve heard this a lot lately; our state attorney general recently announced a statewide investigation of sexual abuse by clergy and faith leaders. For some Catholics, this investigation feels like an effort to target and damage the Church. Speaking as the daughter of a clergy abuse survivor, I have a different perspective. The Church’s history of trying to cover up abuse—by doing things like moving abusers around to different parishes—tells me that investigation by an outside entity is necessary for truth and transparency. Even though it hurts, I hope that a state investigation can bring the justice that victims of assault need. 

Instead, say: “I’m sorry that our Church has failed to respond properly. I pray that laws bring justice for those who have been hurt.”

If someone shares with you that they or a loved one have been abused, please remember that the most important words you can say are, “Thank you for sharing this with me, I believe you, and I’m here for you.”

It’s that simple. Survivors don’t need you to change the world, but they are looking for people willing to help them shoulder their pain, even for a little while. 

Survivors, what would you add to this list? Please comment below.

Jerri von den Bosch is the director of Youth and Adult Formation at Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee and a member of Awake’s leadership team. She graduated from Marquette University with a master’s degree in Christian Ethics.

15 thoughts on “10 Things Never to Say to Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse

  1. Thank you for sharing this timely information. I appreciate the work you are doing. I belong to a parish in the Archdiocese of
    Minneapolis/ St Paul and continue to be updated about their work as well.

  2. Perhaps another one, related to number 10, is: “I think this whole thing is overblown.” That hurtfully diminishes the pain of the abuse. I don’t have anything to say instead. How about if that’s how you think, don’t mention it.

  3. One thing you should always say to a victim of abuse immediately after the person shares this very personal secret with you is “How can I help?” In those four very simple words is contained an affirmation of the person and their truth, the acknowledgement that hurt and pain exist for that person, and a joining with them in that pain and hurt together with a willingness to walk along side of them in their attempt to resolve their pain and hurt. The question also is open ended and leaves the victim with the power to lead you where they want to go with the issue! Very healing words!!!

    Bill Kessenich

  4. How can I help? You can help greatly by not giving money to the church . Your money can go directly to your community that needs help. No funds ending up in lobbyist hands who hold support for laws against statue of limitations laws. Bishop funds, where a portion go to Peters fund that support hierarchy. Save your tithing each week until you know for sure. Give your tithing to local groups that support poor. Look for shelters, food warehouse that are local. Each instance of how did this get covered up, can start with follow the money. When the masses start looking at the money trail change and justice happens.

  5. As a survivor anytime there’s a discussion and someone says ” great another way to exploit the church ” , or ” now the lawyers will get rich..” I get so shocked , nervous about sharing ,,, and today ,very angry. This somehow insinuates that the survivors and their lawyers are the bad guys. And if your involved in litigation it might take away from the fight needed to cause change. And that can only happen beyond what the church is comfortable losing and that means billions. No kidding. You can see it in the amounts they tried to compensate or ” buy out ” potential lawsuits for. You can hear it when the Bishops stating to the reporter that himself as well as rest of priests( clergy) would rather go to jail than to break canon law and report confessions of child sexual abuse with law enforcement . They don’t get it. So the punishments ( all civil – not criminal) need to go beyond what they are now and before.
    Another thing I’ve actually heard ( maybe in jest and in regards to potential recovery from lawsuits) from acquaintances is: ” I wish I was abused by a priest” ( I know they have zero idea what they are talking about and they definitely were not abused- as a deny till I die survivor I never used this irony or ever thought of it and I really believed my role” Yeah I am or was too confident , he knew better than to mess with me” ( statement with fellow students of catholic school when talking about (the) priest who was being accused of abuse).. In other words , it’s a ….messed up thing and if your confused just think about sharing what happened absent any lawsuits or ideas of anything monetary .. Than think of that idea being the only idea for over 30 years. best case scenario is the Bishops shake their heads and say “DAMN!” after a related lawsuit and it causes their mindset to change and the money gained allows for security thus confidence to speak openly and then start to figure things out.. Its a process and requires what the church has . No one should say anything except ‘sorry that happened to you” and then think about how students of mostly middle income parents were sent to a school they were proud of ( costs only parents know) and using 2000 years of trust , a clergy member sexually assaults, fondles , sodomizes, changes that students life forever and does it secretly like a disease that cannot be diagnosed cause the patient intentionally avoids reporting the symptoms or the method of transmission.. Just understand the lawyers are making alot of money – but RICO would have the church pay plaintiff legal costs as well and so the victims do not need to suffer the unusually large compensations possible in these cases .

  6. I thought a lot about this, I have been told I want money. I really don’t want money. I want acknowledgement and prevention of this happening to another child. My abuser disappeared to Mexico (The church sent him to treatment) These statements you wrote I have heard many times. I have heard one more: Why didn’t you tell anyone? This makes it me feel that all my behavioral issues that happened during the offense against me was not enough. I told adults in my impoverished community, It was all my fault because a Person of God doesn’t do those things, so your’e lying. Then they sent me back with him to confess the sins that supposedly I committed. He just started giving me drugs and alcohol to shut me up. Another question that annoys me is ” Why can’t you just get over it i.e ; move on.) I haven’t been able to process all of these feelings for any length of time. I still need to not rent space in my head. I was abused. I can’t change it. I am going to prevent it from happening to others. Many questions mess with my emotional regulation. I just have to pause in that moment and say to myself that I’m letting it control me too much. I have the power now to respond to questions with well thought out answers, and not just let my triggers create a problem, that I don’t need to hate anymore.

  7. Sharing thoughts from Kathryn Walczyk, who sent in this comment via email:

    “Worse than what has been said to me, is what has been left unsaid, unspoken, unresolved, unanswered, not acknowledged, and not sought, that has hurt the most.”

  8. “But you were an adult! You could have done more to prevent it.” It’s true, I was 29 when I was raped repeatedly by a sociopathic priest while I was a teacher at the school. The rapes happened off campus. I did what I had to do to survive, but when I hear this, I wish I had let him kill me. The other comment: “why didn’t you go to the police?” Well, because if they didn’t see cause to take him into custody and lock him away forever, he would have killed me. And, I became pregnant from one of the rapes so I had a child to protect. Basically, I want to say to critics: “you are clueless”.

    1. Same here. Something like that happened to me too. It’s so sad.
      You’re right! I have a baby to protect too.
      Stay strong mama! I send you hugs and prayers.

  9. Thank you all who have read this and added your thoughts and shared your experiences. Please know that you are a valuable member of society, and I’m doing everything I can to change this church. When I was writing this I thought “I could write 1000 things that you shouldn’t say…” but your contributions here are so much better than what I could have done alone! ❤ Jerri

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