Courageous Conversation: Survivors Discuss the Sacred Power of Listening

In the latest installment of Awake Milwaukee’s Courageous Conversations last week, two survivors of clergy sexual abuse offered moving testimony about the power of having others listen deeply to their personal stories.

Panelists Paula Kaempffer and Fr. Jerry McGlone, S.J., modeled compassionate, trauma-sensitive listening in a remarkable conversation that touched on a host of important topics around trauma and healing, including the Gospel mandate that we listen to victim-survivors. A recording of this event is available below.

Kaempffer (above left) worked in parish ministry for more than 41 years before taking the position of Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul–Minneapolis, where she provides support to victim-survivors of clergy abuse. She began the evening by speaking briefly but powerfully about her experiences of being abused by three different priests early in her career. She didn’t fully process this abuse for many years, until 2002, when the Boston Globe Spotlight stories appeared and started a national conversation about clergy abuse.

McGlone (above right) offered his gratitude to Kaempffer for sharing her story and reflected on the holiness of the moment. “It just feels very sacred to me, that we’re on very sacred ground,” he said. “This is different sacred ground than we’re used to in the Catholic Church. We can be on sacred ground in woundedness and in vulnerability and in hearing the pain and the suffering of others.”

McGlone, a Jesuit priest and senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown, shared his own story as well. He was a teenager at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia when a Jesuit priest who served as his homeroom teacher and civics teacher first groomed and later assaulted him. This man served as vocations director and assistant novice director as McGlone entered formation for the priesthood. Years later, as a doctoral student, McGlone began therapy and started to recognize the relationship with that priest as abuse. He recalled the “aha” moment with his therapist. “He said, ‘Jerry, what you’re describing is abuse,” and I said, ‘No, but he told me it was love.'”

It took McGlone years to start to make sense of it all. Finding the words to describe what happened was part of his healing. “In my experience,” he said, “it becomes really important to just say what happened and to be … listened to.” He told the audience that even speaking during the Awake event felt “incredibly important and so vital for my own continued recovery, so thank you.”

“The Neglect of Silence”

Both Kaempffer and McGlone described the particular pain of having their stories ignored. When Kaempffer took the position working with victim-survivors in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, she shared details of her own abuse in a news story about her new role. The youngest of 12 children, Kaempffer had never before told her family about these experiences, so she sent the article to them. “No one said a word to me,” she said. “And it was devastating to me.”

In 2020, McGlone gave a TEDx talk on the topic of survivor stories, which described the abuse he suffered and shared details of his current research on survivor narratives. “The sad thing is … how few of my Jesuit brothers viewed my TED talk, ever even talked to me about the TED talk,” McGlone said, calling this “the neglect of silence.”

Kaempffer offered some words of caution to victim-survivors: “Try and make sure that you can trust a person first before you share your story,” she said.

The Gospel Mandate to Listen

Awake Executive Director Sara Larson, who moderated the conversation, asked the speakers why they see listening as integral to “who we are and who we need to be as a Church.”

McGlone brought up the story of the Road to Emmaus, when the risen Christ appears to disciples who are traveling away from Jerusalem in the aftermath of the crucifixion, a devastating, traumatic event. “Christ didn’t do anything other than say, ‘How are you? What are you talking about?’” McGlone notes. “He showed up, he walked, and he listened. That’s the first known action of the resurrected Lord. If that’s not a Gospel mandate, I don’t know what is.”

McGlone also offered the words of theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen.”

In his writing and research, McGlone is working to establish what he calls “a catechesis of survivor stories.” He wants the Catholic Church to include stories from victim-survivors in all types of settings, such as schools, seminaries, and leadership trainings, “so that we always start with the experience of a survivor story,” he says. In response to people who worry that hearing such stories regularly might be painful or traumatizing, McGlone says that the Church is based on a survivor story: the events that unfolded around Jesus’s death and resurrection. He suggested that we are called as Christians to face the pain of such stories.

“It’s not easy to listen to someone’s story and all the trauma that they have experienced,” Kaempffer acknowledged. “But we can listen with the ears and heart of Jesus, and Jesus will help us to do that.”

She described what this listening work sometimes looks like in the Archdiocese of St. Paul–Minneapolis. In parishes where leaders have been accused of abuse, she said, a team from the archdiocese will visit for a restorative justice-style event that involves naming what happened in the parish, listening to stories from victim-survivors, and gathering parishioners for small group discussion. Participants are asked this question: “How has this sexual abuse by clergy impacted your life?” People take turns sharing their answers while others listen. “This gets people thinking about how the abuse affected them, including their faith and relationship with God,” Kaempffer says.  

How to Listen Like Christ

Kaempffer offered many tips about listening well if someone discloses that they’ve been abused. She shared that as a leader of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in Catholic parishes, many survivors of sexual abuse came to her over the years to share what happened to them, without knowing that Kaempffer is also a survivor. “I didn’t share it with them because I wanted to hear their story and let it be about them,” she explained. Many of them said they had never told anyone before. She sensed that they responded to her empathy.

“Listen quietly,” Kaempffer advised. “Don’t ask questions, just listen. And when they’re finished, then you can … let them know that what they have shared is sacred and it will be held in your heart.”

Although it can be hard to simply listen to painful stories without comment, “[The moment] needs to be all about them, and not about you,” Kaempffer said. “Don’t start sharing your story or what you know. Just be with them and be quiet.” It’s also important to listen without judgment. “It is very, very rare to have a false allegation,” she explained.

“If you are ever the recipient of someone’s sacred story,” she added, “be sure to approach it with the heart of Jesus and … to get out of the way so the Holy Spirit can work.”

At the close of the event, McGlone returned to the image of the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus. “Can we as Church, in the image of Christ, companion and walk with those that have had their Jerusalem, that have seen their love killed, that have seen horrors in front of them?” he asked. His hope is that Catholics can “accompany them and listen, and make it the centerpiece of our faith together.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

The Conversation Continues, Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, March 24.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2. See you on March 24!

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