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.