The Sacred Work of Listening to Female Abuse Survivors 

Some pockets of the Catholic community have overlooked the experience of female victim-survivors of sexual abuse, perhaps because media coverage has often focused on male victims. On Monday, October 25, Awake Milwaukee co-sponsored a panel discussion that centered the stories of women abused by clergy or others in the Catholic Church. 

“What comes across in the media, what we hear in stories, is a certain image of what a survivor of clergy sexual abuse looks like, and that is usually a white man of a certain age,” Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, explained during the event. “We tend to get stuck thinking in generalizations and stereotypes,” instead of thinking more broadly about the abuse crisis, including how women or people of color might experience abuse, or that abuse in the Church might be perpetrated by people other than priests, Larson added. “One of the really important things that we need to do as a Church is start to recognize the diversity of survivors’ experiences,” she said.

This event, “Lifting Up the Voices of Female Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse,” featured powerful insights from four women who are victim-survivors of abuse in the Church. The discussion was co-led by Larson, Kim Daniels, co-director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and Jennifer Wortham of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. The event was organized by Gerald McGlone, SJ, a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center, who is currently studying the impact on Catholics of hearing abuse survivors’ stories. 

A recording of this event is available below. Here are three key takeaways from the speakers about the sacred work of listening to survivors of any gender. 

Takeaway #1: The Importance of “Deep Listening”

Carol Longsdorf, a Minnesota elementary school teacher and mother of eight, shared her story of being sexually abused between the ages of 7 and 10 or 11 by a Benedictine sister. Longsdorf (above, far left) suppressed memories of this abuse, but began using alcohol as a young teen, developed depression and thoughts of suicide, and spent a month in an inpatient psychiatric program. “I can tell you that during this period of time I was hiding and I was running from something, but I would never understand what that was until late October two years ago, at the age of 52,” she said. That’s when she unknowingly encountered her abuser at a college reunion. 

In the months after the reunion she began having crying episodes and “replaying the darkness of my youth from junior high onward.” A supportive priest suggested that she was experiencing symptoms of trauma. Soon, Longsdorf developed severe insomnia and a fear of falling asleep. Once during this period, “I awoke to the memory of the abuse by this religious sister,” she shared. “It happened just like that.” 

Longsdorf set to work piecing together her past experiences. “Trying to come to terms with what happened to me became almost an obsession of mine,” Longsdorf said. She met with the prioress at the Benedictine monastery hoping to discuss her experience, but the prioress said very little and seemed afraid of Longsdorf. During this time, the order assigned her two victim advocates, but meetings with the advocates weren’t fruitful. “I believe that they were truly the advocates for the Benedictines and not for me,” she said. “Nobody really wanted to hear my story.”

“I wasn’t seeking legal or judicial reparation,” Longsdorf explained. “I was seeking … someone to acknowledge me and the abuse.”

Longsdorf eventually connected with a skilled trauma therapist and with Paula Kaempffer, Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is herself a survivor of clerical sexual abuse as an adult. Longsdorf joined a victim-survivor support group run by Kaempffer and began learning more about trauma, including what she needed to heal from her experiences. 

She also discovered that Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis has a practice of clearing his schedule to meet with victim-survivors who want to talk. Longsdorf chose to make an appointment. “In this meeting the archbishop listened, and he responded with the heart of Jesus himself,” Longsdorf said. “It’s life-changing to experience this from someone within the Church. This was a game changer for my healing to be respected, to be honored by someone who simply listened to me.” 

Kaempffer of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (above, far right) also spoke during the event about her own experiences as an abuse survivor and about the choice to take her current position with the archdiocese. “I hesitated because I didn’t know if I could be effective to victims if they saw me as part of the institution that so deeply hurt and betrayed them,” she explained. In the end, she said, she took the job because she wanted “to be a small voice at the table speaking out for them.” She was also encouraged to be working for Archbishop Hebda, whom she sees as a “model for all cardinals, archbishops, and bishops” because of his openness to survivors. “He listens deeply and he believes them, and he’s not afraid of them,” Kaempffer said.

Takeaway #2: The Importance of Trauma-Sensitivity 

A dominant theme during the event was the need for the Church to adopt trauma-sensitive practices, particularly when interacting with victim-survivors of sexual abuse. The panelists said they’ve found that the Church often operates without knowledge of emerging trauma science, and even well-meaning Church employees can add to a victim’s wounds when they engage without this understanding. 

Panelist Kathryn Walczyk (above, middle left) shared that she was baptized when she was eleven days old by a priest who began victimizing her seven years later, abusing her and abusing other children in her presence. She described remaining silent about those experiences for decades, until she began to work in her mid-40s to heal from the trauma. In this process, she met with “individuals who tried to help, but were unqualified, really.”

“I found compassion and caring, but I really needed a lot more,” Walczyk explained. She would have benefited from referrals to qualified mental health professionals, but instead encountered people who used the language of Catholic spirituality, which triggered painful memories of the spiritual abuse she endured. 

Walzcyk eventually left the Catholic Church. She now works as a professional spiritual companion at the Richard Mauthe Spirituality Center at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. “I became what I most needed, a spiritual companion who understood trauma,” she said.

Another panelist, Deborah Rodriguez, MD, (above, middle right) also survived clergy abuse as a child. Now a pediatrician trained in trauma-informed care, she works regularly with victim-survivors through the Maria Goretti Network and created a resource booklet, A Catholic Response to Trauma and Abuse. “Most of the resources are from outside the Catholic Church,” she noted. During the discussion, Rodriguez called her experience of reporting her abuse “one of the darkest times of my adult life,” and said she tells people that she is both a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and “a survivor of reporting the abuse to a church.”

The panelists spoke multiple times about the additional trauma caused by the Church’s reporting process, with Carol Longsdorf even suggesting that survivors coming forward for the first time may want to find a survivor support group first before they consider reporting to the Church.

Takeaway #3: The Importance of Invitation

Kathryn Walczyk spoke powerfully about the doubts she had to overcome to participate in this event, given that it was sponsored by Catholic organizations. “When I was invited to be a part of this webinar, I said yes,” she said. “Then I hesitated, almost backed out three different times, asked questions, raised concerns, and scrutinized each response given. I knew I had something to offer but I was afraid that sharing today would eventually bring more trouble.” She noted that her fear is justified, given the painful reality of her experiences in the Church. Taking part in a Catholic event could bring her back to “the symbolism, the locked doors,” and other sources of trauma, she said.

In the end, she chose to take part because “my concerns were all addressed,” she said. “I was affirmed.” More importantly, her involvement was sought out and she was invited to take part in the conversation. “In the past I was never invited,” she added. Walczyk and Longsdorf both talked about the pain of going to the Church after their abuse, hoping to find validation and support but instead being rejected, sometimes repeatedly. “I decided several years ago only to go where I’m invited,” Walczyk explained.

“When people invite, that lifts my dignity,” she added later. “Maybe you’re invested and really want to know what I have to say. Maybe you’re as invested as me. That’s what [an invitation] says.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Background Resources from Awake Milwaukee
+ Why Catholics Need to Hear Survivor Stories (and 5 Ways to Listen Well)
+ Why Do Victim Survivors Sometimes Forget Their Abuse?
+ 6 Ways Clergy and Church Leaders Can Build Trauma-Sensitive Parishes

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