Called to the Foot of the Cross: Why the Catholic Church Needs a “Catechesis of Survivor Stories”

Gerard McGlone, SJ, a Jesuit priest and researcher, believes all Catholics should regularly hear the stories of people who have experienced sexual abuse in the Church. 

He envisions a day when seminarians read, see, or hear the accounts of sexual abuse victim-survivors as part of their initial and ongoing formation. When leadership training for bishops and major superiors includes honest descriptions of survivors’ experiences. When parish bulletins feature a survivor story each week. And when pastoral council meetings and RCIA classes involve listening to short recordings from survivors, followed by brief reflection and prayer.

Trained as a clinical psychologist and now serving as a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, McGlone sees survivor stories as sacred and necessary to heal the Church from the crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up. 

“There is little doubt that we have a systemic issue here, a systemic way in which the voices, the words, the … reality of survivors has never been put first,” he explained in a TEDx talk in 2020. In the place of survivors’ perspectives, Catholics have traditionally heard “the words of the abusing Church and abuser,” McGlone adds. 

He believes the Church needs a “new path forward,” one that “puts the words of survivors front and center.” McGlone has been collecting accounts from abuse survivors and is currently editing their stories to retell them in different formats: short written stories, videos, videos with animation (similar to animated videos produced by StoryCorps), and podcast-like recordings. His goal is to share these different versions with Catholics and non-Catholics to study which formats are the most effective. 

A Personal Connection

McGlone’s work related to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church began in the 1990s while he was in graduate school studying clinical psychology. A professor called his attention to emerging stories about clergy abuse in Louisiana, which led McGlone to start researching the topic of clergy abuse while working in a clinic where he provided counseling to adolescent sex offenders in the penal system. 

Gerard McGlone, SJ

“I graduated in 2001 thinking, like most folks, that my dissertation would sit on a dusty shelf,” McGlone recounts. But the Boston Globe Spotlight series about clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston started to appear in early 2002, making the topic of clergy abuse an urgent national and international conversation. Given that he had just completed a dissertation entitled “Sexually Offending and Non-Offending Roman Catholic Clergy: Characterization and Analysis,” McGlone immediately became part of that conversation.

The topic of clergy abuse became particularly personal for McGlone during graduate school. He began to see a therapist himself, a common step for psychologists in training. Through that process McGlone made startling realizations about the relationship he had with a Jesuit priest who served as his homeroom teacher in high school and the vocations director and assistant novice director as he took the first steps to becoming a priest. He had loved and respected this man but began to see that their relationship had involved physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse. 

“My abuser had pretty well brainwashed me into thinking that what he had done to me was a normal way of loving,” McGlone explained in a recent phone call. “It was a part of what it meant to be a man, part of what it meant to be a Jesuit. It took a long process of years in therapy to really understand how I was manipulated, how I was brainwashed, how I was used by this man.” Around the same time, McGlone suffered a series of painful losses, including the death of his mother, a serious car accident that left him injured, and the deaths of his father and then his sister, who was 42 when she died of breast cancer.

McGlone says all those layers of grief pushed him to enter more deeply into his personal work in therapy and gave him a greater understanding of trauma and its impact.

Steering into the Pain

Being both a priest and a survivor of abuse puts McGlone in a difficult in-between position. Abuse survivors may distrust him as a member of the clergy. At the same time, “most priest survivors are not really accepted in many places within the Church because we speak so honestly and so consistently about our experience.” Yet this in-between place gives him insights into how Church culture contributes to the abuse crisis.  “I think the problem in the Church’s response is that it has been perpetrator-based,” he says. “It’s been about saving reputation, about how to protect the assets and the good reputation of the Church. Comments like, ‘Oh, well, the story was only in the press for one day,’ are common at tables and gatherings of Jesuits because it’s a perpetrator mentality.”

Survivor stories are an antidote to this perpetrator mentality, he adds. “As people of ritual and people of story, what nurtures us? Well, story nurtures us,” McGlone says. “So can’t we also have stories of survivors that allow us into the darkness so that we see the light of what can be?”  Given that our faith tradition is built on stories, he adds, Catholics would benefit from a “catechesis of survivor stories.”

McGlone has launched a research project that will test the four story formats: short written stories, videos, videos with animation, and podcast-like recordings.  People in the study will complete surveys before and after reading or hearing or watching the stories to determine how these formats affect perceptions or feelings of institutional abuse, betrayal of trust, satisfaction with life, spiritual well-being, spiritual beliefs and practices, and sense of being betrayed by a religious organization. Later, McGlone plans to expand the findings and test how the most effective formats can be used in Church settings and trainings.

McGlone acknowledges that these stories will be hard for some to hear, especially people who have experienced abuse themselves. “All participants both now and in the future will be warned about what they will be seeing, hearing, or reading,” he explains. “They will be asked to take measures that would be appropriate to take care of themselves: not participating, leaving the room, or seeking appropriate help from a list of providers if they suffer in any way as a result of the story.”

It’s a common instinct to look away from pain, McGlone says, noting that even the apostles fled as Jesus was being put to death on the cross. But McGlone suggests that we are called to bravely face such painful realities. “When I was in grad school, I volunteered to work on a suicide hotline,” McGlone says. “They taught me that I would instinctively want to tell a caller, ‘It’s okay! All will be fine!’ But they said, ‘Don’t do that! Rather, like a good sailor, steer into the wind, steer into the pain of this person calling now.’” 

In a similar way, we the Church are called to face survivors’ pain. “The Church is called to be at the foot of the cross at this moment,” McGlone says. “The Body of Christ is wounded, traumatized, divided, and we need to be attentive to it. Our instinct is to avoid and run, to numb the pain. But I think perhaps God is asking Church leaders and the faithful to steer into the pain and to become more emotionally and spiritually mature, to listen more attentively to each other, especially to victim-survivors, and in this to bring about a more full and robust healing. We may be able to forgive, but we can never forget.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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