Helen Watson lost her son to suicide in 1999, but in truth she had lost him nine years earlier. A visiting priest had invited Peter, then 15, to spend the night in the rectory along with some of his friends. According to Mrs. Watson, Peter came home a different child. He developed violent behavior problems, turned to drugs and alcohol, and began disappearing for long periods. Finally, he told his mother that Father Paul Ryan had sexually abused him. But he felt responsible for the abuse, and he couldn’t live with the shame. Fourteen years after Peter took his own life, the parliament of Victoria, Australia issued a report on an official inquiry that had led to the arrest of several priests, including Paul Ryan. Victims and their parents had tried unsuccessfully for years to report one of those priests. Advocates called the report a “vindication for victims,” or proof that they had been telling the truth about a terrible danger, and that the church’s indifference had ruined more lives.
That is the ultimate vindication: to have the whole world learn that You Were Right! You were reporting a Genuine Danger! The church should have listened to you! That is the most powerful sort of validation — but it is also the most painful. I wish my former churchmates believed me; I wish they had seen the danger I saw. But it seems the only way to open their eyes would be to show them more victims. I would rather stay an outcast all my days than see my former pastor harm even one more woman.
There is another path to vindication: the church could tell the truth. My bishop told no lies, but he let secrecy and silence proclaim my offender’s innocence. The investigator thought I’d be relieved that the bishop wanted to handle my complaint “confidentially.” I asked, “But surely if he finds a credible offense, he won’t sweep it under the rug?” When I met with the bishop for the last time, I learned he really did intend to keep the matter quiet. I gave him the courtesy of a “heads up”: I told him I needed to tell my friends why I was leaving the church. Even then, the bishop held his ground. There would be no disclosure. Two weeks later, I had only talked to three or four people when a harsh wave of ostracism drove me underground and into silence.
Without the other elements of justice-making — truth-telling, acknowledging the violation, compassion, protecting the vulnerable, accountability, and restitution — there can be no vindication. Even if we receive partial justice, if we are not vindicated we cannot free ourselves from the shame of being the scapegoat.
If the church will not vindicate us, we must vindicate ourselves. How can we do that?
Contact the CSA/CSM survivors’ networks. Early in my ordeal, I described my experience to Jan Tuin of Tamar’s Voice. She affirmed that I was a victim of clergy sexual misconduct. After I had left my church, I connected with Samantha Nelson of The Hope of Survivors. She also affirmed me, and she encouraged me to attend the Hope and Healing conference. At that conference, every speaker told us, some more than once: “This was not your fault.”
Read the literature. It was Peter Rutter’s Sex in the Forbidden Zone that opened my eyes about my experience. Two great articles affirmed it: Diana Garland’s “When Wolves Wear Shepherds’ Clothing” and Pamela Cooper White’s “Soul Stealing.” Reading about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct has helped me understand my experience. These books and articles taught me how CSA/CSM happens and how to escape from it, heal from it, prevent it, and support other victims and survivors. I’ve listed some of these resources on the Survivor’s Bookshelf. The FaithTrust Institute offers a more extensive bibliography.
Connect with survivors of any kind of abuse. As we listen to people who share our experience, we learn to stop blaming ourselves. Early in my healing journey, I found strong support in a treatment group in an eating disorders clinic. None of the other patients had experienced CSA/CSM, but many had experienced other kinds of abuse. We discovered what we had in common, and we helped each other heal. Survivors with addictions (one of the consequences of abuse) may find healing in a twelve-step group. Most cities have support groups for adults who have survived abuse within their intimate relationships, families of origin, or religious communities. Don’t overlook the survivors who may already be in your life. As you share your story with trusted friends, you may find them confiding in you.
Learn to honor our own voice. Or, Learn to hear the voice of God within us. Trust our feelings. Trust our judgment. Trust our gut. When we squelched our misgivings about our offenders’ behavior, we made ourselves vulnerable to abuse. As survivors, we learn to hear and heed our inner voice. We learn to say “No” with more confidence. We learn to step away from dangerous situations. And we learn defend ourselves — in the court of our own conscience — against lies and unfair attacks. We no longer accept condemnation from people who don’t know the facts. We know what was done to us. We know what was taken from us. Even if we were coerced into “consenting,” or even if we were manipulated into making the first move: we know! And we know how we tried to protect ourselves and others. Most of us will never have a Victorian Parliament on our side — but ultimately, we don’t need it. We know.
Those are the steps to vindication, but it’s a long process. I know I told the truth to my bishop (and so does my offender; his testimony matched mine almost exactly.) I know I acted not to harm the church, but to save it. My conscience is clear. I have the respect of my new church community and of a widespread network of survivors. And yet I keep telling my story, as if I’m looking for a judge who can free me from the shame — of what? Of other people’s misinformed judgment against me?
Yes. Healing is a long journey.