10 Things Never to Say to Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse

This week we revisit an important post written last summer by Jerri von den Bosch, a member of the Awake Leadership Team. If you’re a survivor, we invite you to include your own additions to the list in the comments below.

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 over the last year; in April 2021 our state attorney general 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.

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

  1. All of these have been said to me. Trauma changes you and healing is elusive when there is no accountability…these statements have caused me to not speak of it for fear of a statement that may re-traumatize me. Even the well meaning words can cause agony.

  2. Let me offer a few more things not to say to survivors from my personal experience: “You must have done something to trigger his behavior” (I was thirteen at the time). “All you need to do is come back to the church and you will be forgiven.” (As if I was the one who was responsible for the abuse and needed to be forgiven by another priest.) “You are only doing this for money, to destroy the reputation of a holy man, or to destroy the church community.” These things and worse I have heard from “good Catholics”.

    1. Michael ~ I am aghast that anyone would say “all you need to do is …..and you will be forgiven,” that is so horrific and I am profoundly sorry. All of the above are re-traumatizing….I wish I could slug them for you, So very sorry!

  3. Some other “well intentioned” things said to me over the years. “You must have done something to trigger him for him to do that.” (As a naïve thirteen-year-old that would seem unlikely.) “Come back to the church and you will be forgiven.” (As if what he did to me was my fault and I should go back to a church and ask another priest to forgive me.) “You are only trying to get money from the church that could have been used to help the elderly and the children.” (Go ahead and put the guilt trip on me while you turn a blind eye to rapists and the hierarchy that protects them.)

  4. Im a bit different, as one of the 2-3 million Baby Scoop Era Mothers. Few know we exist. A Jesuit took my newborn simply because i and my fiance unmarried and pregnant in college. I have heard most of these comments from Catholics. One other”He was just trying to help you”. I did not ask for help to be sequestered, drugged with Twilight Sleep without telling me to not recall the birth, tied down hand and foot, not allowed to see my newborn. “You should have run away”. I was taken to a strange state, surrounded only by strangers, no cell phones, and i was frightened and pregnant. My most remembered comment ,is my brother telling me at age 70, that I was “airing dirty laundry” and “embarressing the family” when the Washington Post and news outlets did a story on my case . Age 70 and stilled shamed for being the victim of abuse after 50 years.

  5. I did a speaker series in Virginia recently, and we did questions and answers afterward. The person handing me the question cards took one and put it aside. After it was over, I asked to see the card. My abuse started at 7 years old to 17 years old. The card said “After it happened the first time, why didn’t you learn your lesson?”

  6. Practicing Catholics also need to understand that many victims of clergy abuse in ANY religious institution may have completely lost any faith in a god because of the betrayal by a person who alleges to speak and act for deity. It’s soul murder, and it’s okay to believe or not believe in a higher power, especially for victim-survivors. Don’t judge the non-believer because of the pain that was inflicted on them by someone they trusted and who had power over them. Sexual violation is a crime, not just a sin.

  7. I entered the Church as a single mom coming from an abusive relationship. I had three children, in which two were autistic. The parish priest preyed on me. He abused me like my ex husband did. I have never been the same. Another priest from a different parish told me to report what happened to our Diocese. They begun an investigation. The investigation found many things. My name got out, and I started getting attacked by the parishioners after the Diocese got rid of him. I am petrified to leave my house. The Bishop told me maybe it is best to leave the Church. I still do Catholic studies at the Institute of Catholic Culture, and the kindly parish priest still checks up on me.. but I am not allowed to go to church and neither are my kids. I feel like I am getting punished for what he did to me. I am so hurt. I am broken.

    1. Christina, I am so, so sorry for all of your suffering – both in your abuse and in the way those in the Church have responded to that abuse. You do not deserve to be treated this way. If you are looking for accompaniment and support as you deal with this, please feel free to reach out to me at saralarson@awakemilwaukee.org. You are not alone.

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