Courageous Conversation: Panel Reveals the Impact of Clergy Sexual Abuse on Families

By Anselma Dolcich-Ashley
Guest Writer

Awake’s January Courageous Conversation provided an opportunity to listen to a mother, a husband, and a daughter of victim-survivors of abuse.

The conversation “Family Matters: How Abuse Wounds the Loved Ones of Victim-Survivors,” featured Jerri von den Bosch (above, middle), a member of the Awake Leadership Team and Board of Directors, whose mother was sexually abused as a teenager in the Baltimore Archdiocese; Letitia Peyton (above, left) of Tentmakers of Louisiana, whose teenage son was abused by their parish priest in 2015 in the Diocese of Lafayette; and Peter Schiessl (above, right), whose wife is a victim-survivor of clergy abuse as an adult in the Diocese of St. Cloud. A recording of the event is available below.

The panelists shared some of the challenges their loved ones have faced, in daily relationships at home and outside the home once the abuse became public. “Nobody heals from trauma and abuse in a straight line,” von den Bosch reflected. “It’s more like a tangled ball of yarn.” She noted that some days with her mother are wonderful, while other days can be very hard. “As an adult you look back and say, ‘She wasn’t a difficult mother. The Church made mothering for her impossible,’” von den Bosch said. 

Featured in the Netflix docuseries The Keepers, her mother’s case received national attention and encouraging responses from viewers. But the Baltimore Archdiocese “said this Netflix series is filled with a bunch of lies,” von den Bosch reported, a response that drove a wedge between her and the Church. “My relationship with the Church because of this terrible crime is off-and-on,” she said. “I’ll go through periods where I can’t sit at the Communion table with these people.”

How An Abuse History AffEcts The Family

Schiessl said his main approach to supporting his wife Deborah is to try to “be gentle and understanding” and to continue to ask, “How do you walk through this?” He described how impressed he has been by his wife’s courage, and her efforts to  keep moving forward, even  “when you don’t … know what the healing looks like or what the wounds are.” Peter and Deborah worked with authorities when her abuser ended up in court after repeat offenses. They also encountered acceptance and support from Deborah’s children, who understandably feel much anger at the Church.

Peyton shared, powerfully, the painful dilemma she and her husband, a deacon, faced as parents once they learned that their son had been abused. “How do you raise children in the Catholic Church, [or] ask [them] to go to church to find Christ for healing, when the church itself is where the abuse happened?” she said. The family was very involved in their parish, frequently had priests over for dinner, and wanted their sons to understand the priesthood and befriend parish priests. “And then this happens,” she said, adding that she and her husband are still navigating the best ways to instill the Catholic faith in their children. “There are good and bad weeks,” she said. Peyton also cautioned against the wishful thinking that receiving the sacraments is all it takes to move past the pain of abuse. “It just doesn’t happen that way,” she said.

According to police, the priest who abused Peyton’s son confessed his crime to them. But having a non-contested story did not make the situation easy, Peyton explained. Many people in the parish felt that the family was lying, had a grudge, or wanted money. Only one deacon of the 100 in the diocese supported Letitia’s deacon-husband, and only “two priests came to our side … so needless to say you’re very alone, you’re ostracized,” she said. To make matters worse, the community held a farewell luncheon for the priest but no public show of support for the family.

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!

Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, January 26.  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 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on Thursday! 

What Support Do Loved Ones of Survivors Need?

The panelists shared that the most important needs for family members include acknowledgment and non-judgmental listening. For example, von den Bosch said she would “like to see the Church acknowledge its role” in her family’s pain. Panelists pointed to groups like Awake and SNAP where they feel accompanied. Peyton recounted how her multi-denominational Bible study group became the “new community that came to my rescue,” and together they learned how to talk about trauma and its effects. By contrast, spending time in their parish church was often painful, Letitia said. “You have this feeling of walking into a room and everybody’s like, “That’s them. That’s the family. That’s the mom. It’s her son, it’s her husband.’ You just don’t want to deal with that.”

As to what the Church can do to better serve the victims’ loved ones, Schiessl said he would encourage the new bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud to reach out to victim-survivors and families, to show both bravery and accountability. And von den Bosch encouraged Catholics in the pews to take actionable steps by listening closely to victim-survivors and families. 

What Would They Do Differently?

While hindsight is always 20/20, Peyton wishes she had known more about sexual abuse by clergy in the Church. She feels that the immense trust that she and her husband, as devout Catholics, placed in their priest likely made it possible for him to groom their family over several years. Even her husband’s knowledge as both a deacon and police officer could not prevent this problem. “That collar sort of blinds you to certain behaviors you can’t imagine a priest can do to your own children,” Peyton said. “We have to watch out for each other.” Schiessl shared that he wishes that he and Deborah had started talking about the abuse sooner so they could take action sooner and start the healing sooner. 

Victim-survivors in the audience asked the panelists for advice in discerning whether to tell their families. Peyton noted that every family is different, but in her case having the whole family involved has been immensely helpful. “You watch your children cry together,” she said, “and they love each other and support each other, so family is very important to healing.” Von den Bosch added that knowing about her mother’s abuse has made her more empathetic.

Facing Anger, and Advice for New Priests

When audience members asked the panelists how they cope with the strong feelings such as anger from the victim-survivors in their lives, Schiessl spoke about making an effort to understand where the anger is coming from, which makes it possible to absorb the feeling and dialogue about it. Von den Bosch has learned to deploy the therapeutic technique of the “gray rock,” becoming neutral and simply listening. “Sometimes people have to yell, and you [choose] to let them,” she said. 

A priest who attended the event asked the speakers what they would like to tell young clergy members just beginning their ministry. Peyton offered that priests need to understand both trauma and the presence of families of the abused in their congregations. Schiessl would like to see more effective education and screening in seminaries, with particular attention paid to how some priests learn predatory grooming behaviors.

As the conversation closed, Peyton reiterated that Awake and other groups have been doing the right thing in providing a safe place for truthful sharing, compassionate listening, and the airing of the complex journey of victim-survivors and their families. Von den Bosch encouraged participants to call their legislators and state representatives, and influence laws on sexual assault. And Schiessl offered some key goals: “Listen, listen without an agenda, and tether yourself to other people that are supportive,” he said. 

Anselma Dolcich-Ashley is a theologian and independent scholar from South Bend, Indiana. She has studied the meaning of moral norms as applied in the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church; other research interests include eco-theology and the American naturalist Aldo Leopold. She appreciates working with Awake to accompany others, to encounter the human face of the abuse crisis, and to participate in a compassionate Catholic community.

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