Holiday How-To: 10 Tips for Talking with Your Family About Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

It’s the holiday season, a common time for family gatherings—and a chance to engage loved ones in important conversations.

Earlier this fall, a group of us at Awake Milwaukee began wondering about the best ways to start conversations with Catholic friends and family members about the abuse crisis in the Church. It’s a topic that matters a lot to victim-survivors and to those of us in the Awake community, but it doesn’t often come up in ordinary conversation. For some families, the issue sparks strong feelings, tempting conflict-averse people to steer clear. 

This topic can feel especially tricky for Wisconsinites. In April of this year, Attorney General Josh Kaul launched a statewide investigation of sexual abuse by church leaders, establishing a phone line and website for victim-survivors or others to report abuse cases. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee expressed opposition to the investigation, which it sees as “a product of anti-Catholic bigotry.” The investigation quickly became a divisive issue.  

We sought the expertise of Katie Hyten, co-executive director of Essential Partners (EP), a Boston-based organization committed to bridging divides and healing communities through healthier conversations. The organization was founded in 1989 by family therapists, a fact that still shapes EP’s work. “Family therapists aren’t necessarily there to solve conflict,” Hyten says. “They’re there to help a family constructively navigate moments of tension, moments of difference, and bring their best selves to those conflicts, rather than falling back into old patterns or cycles … so that folks can have those conversations in ways that feel healing and helpful and constructive,” even if they’re unlikely to end up in total agreement.

Hyten, who has a master’s degree in international negotiation and conflict resolution, has helped facilitate community conversations on polarizing topics such as race, religion, and gun rights, using a research-based approach designed by EP, called Reflective Structured Dialogue. These tools and strategies are shared in EP’s guide, “The Constructive Cycle for Conversation.”

This approach is designed to help people “bring their best selves” to difficult conversations and to create conditions that allow for mutual understanding, Hyten explains. 

Here are ten tips that she says can build your skills and confidence in bringing up the abuse crisis and encourage constructive conversation. 

1. Reflect on Your Goals for the Conversation.

Before you begin, consider why you want to talk about the crisis of sex abuse and cover-up in the Church. For example, do you think your friend or loved one is unaware and you want to share information? Do you want to discuss your own experience as a survivor of abuse and hope to be lovingly heard? Hyten adds conversations are most successful when your goals are agreeable to the other person.

2. Seek Buy-In.

The conversation won’t be constructive if you force the other person to take part, Hyten says. She recommends that you give loved ones the opportunity to opt in or out. For example, you might say something like “I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the abuse crisis and I’d like to check in when we’re together later this month about where you’re at with all of this. Would that be okay?” You might ask the person when and where they’d be open to talking, which increases the chances that they’ll take part.  

3. Ground Yourself.

Before you start the conversation, Hyten recommends taking a moment to ground yourself, “whatever that looks like for you.” It might involve saying a short prayer or meditating for a minute or two. “It can also just be going for a walk or taking a deep breath,” Hyten says, “anything that can help you center and show up with intention.” Going in centered will make you less reactive. “We find that, especially in families … people are likely to fall into very familiar roles and patterns,” Hyten explains. “When conversations get difficult, you might recognize that one person will withdraw. One person might lash out. One person might get quite angry. And that happens again and again and again, no matter what the topic is about, and you can kind of predict it. A lot of our work is in helping to disrupt those cycles and replace them with new cycles where people can be more intentional, where people can say, ‘This is how I want to show up and respond.’” 

4. Ask with Genuine Curiosity.

“We invite people to start their conversation with an open and honest question, with a curious question,” Hyten says. Let your curiosity be your guide. She suggests questions such as:

+ “How are you doing with the news about abuse and cover-up by leaders in the Church?”

+ “What is bringing you hope or strength these days when you think about the abuse crisis?” 

+ “I’m curious about how the investigation by the attorney general has impacted you. Could you share one thing that makes you hopeful about the investigation and one thing that you’re worried about?”

5. Invite Stories.

Hyten adds that one way to disrupt old, unhelpful conversation patterns is to encourage your loved one to share a story about their own experiences around this topic, such as “Can you tell me a story about an experience that has shaped your perspective on the abuse crisis in the Church?” This approach encourages people to respond with more complexity and depth.

6. Listen Well.

Once you ask your question, “you’re really listening for the many layers of what people say when they respond,” Hyten says. Look beyond the words and facts the person shares to “see the emotions and the values that they’re sharing as part of their stories. Listen for what’s most important to them,” she explains, adding, “Do your best to just listen and to assume that they are sharing this with good intention.” Try not to get sidetracked by your own thoughts or by formulating your next question or the point you want to make. Just listen. 

7. Reflect Back.

Next, Hyten suggests taking a breath to absorb what you’ve just heard. (In fact, she says, it’s okay to take a longer break here if you need it before you respond.) And then she recommends reflecting back what you’ve heard from your family member. “I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced the power of watching somebody’s defense mechanisms lower a bit when you can reflect back what you’ve heard them say,” she offers.

8. Speak About Your Own Experience.

This is often a good moment for you to tell your own story or experience around the abuse crisis. You’ll be more likely to be heard if you share how the situation made you feel or how you’ve wrestled with the complexities of this crisis. You could say something like:

+ “My priest is like family to me. When I was younger, here’s what the parish meant to me…” or “When I was going through a tough time, my priest was there for my family and I’m afraid that the investigation will turn everyone away from church experiences like the one I had.”

+ “This issue really hits home for me because of an experience I had/ witnessed/ heard about from someone I love.”

+ “I know it made it harder for me to trust the Church when … and here’s how I’ve wrestled with that …”

9. Ask Follow-Up Questions.

Once you’ve completed a cycle of “ask, listen, reflect, speak,” Hyten recommends asking follow-up questions sparked by your loved one’s answers. Again, she says, “follow your curiosity.” What do you want to hear more about? 

10. Close With Gratitude.

As you’re wrapping up, Hyten recommends acknowledging that you and your loved one care about one another and your relationship, no matter how deeply you might disagree. Thank your family member for talking with you, saying something like:

+ “Thank you so much for this conversation. I am still thinking about what you said about …”

+ “It meant so much that you were willing to talk with me. Would you be willing to chat about this again sometime in the future?”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Two More Tips from Awake Milwaukee

If it’s an extra-hectic holiday season and you don’t have time right now for a longer conversation about the abuse crisis, here are two quick options that have worked well for Awake members.

+ Mention Awake Milwaukee. When your aunt or brother-in-law ask what you’ve been up to lately, you might share that you’ve attended some powerful events related to the abuse crisis. This invites loved ones to ask questions.
+ Share News Stories About the Crisis. If you read a powerful survivor story or thought-provoking article about the abuse crisis, forward it to loved ones who might find it useful. Include a short note, like “I found this story to be well-balanced and important. I think you might find it interesting too.”

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons. Sincere thanks to Awake volunteer Catherine Owers for inspiring this post.

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