A Survivor’s Perspective: Sexual Abuse in the Church

Teresa Pitt Green is a practicing Catholic who was abused by a series of priests as a child and teen. She now devotes her time to helping others integrate Christ and faith into recovering from abuse through a trauma-informed ministry. Teresa is a co-founder of Spirit Fire, which serves individuals, families and dioceses by offering programs and resources. She is co-founder and editor of The Healing Voices Magazine. She serves as lead on the Steering Committee for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.

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You went from hating the Church to working full time to help people heal relationships with the Church. How did that happen?

My experience of abuse by priests was from about age six or seven until when I left home and never went back at 19. There were many priest abusers in my town. My parents were active Catholics and my mother worked as the rectory secretary. My abuse happened in school, at the rectory, and at home. There was really no safe place, and it involved a series of priests.

When I left home, I left the Church. I hated the Church and didn’t acknowledge any of its moral precepts. I certainly stayed close to God in my heart, but that’s a very hard thing to do when you’re isolated inside the hell of all those emotions. I left and tried every other religion. Eventually, I stumbled back into a church one snowy night and found a place that was safe. I found some priests who were not scary at St Francis of Assisi in New York City, where I could sit in the back and feel safe. From there, I slowly began my creep home.

 

You’ve said that returning to the church for survivors can be a beautiful grace to experience, but it’s maybe not a path for everyone. Can you talk about that?

I think people really underestimate the pain involved in the idea of a trigger. One of the most difficult things for people who love the Church is to understand how some of the most beloved things, like walking into a church and feeling safe and at peace, were broken for us. It takes an enormous amount of courage just to step in a church. I’ve sat in parking lots with my two dogs for protection, with my missal and followed Mass – without going inside. I would see everybody coming by my car and I was jealous of those Catholics walking in.

For each survivor, there is a process of psychological desensitizing. In the context of faith, that process is quite full of grace, so full of God and the Spirit. I have walked with survivors in this process: You meet one week, you go inside the first step of the church, or you sit in the parking lot. I get a cup of coffee and we hang out in the parking lot. Maybe next week you step inside. The survivor maybe makes contact with the pastor and talks about how hard it is to step inside. You build a network of support around the person to help them find a way to walk back in that church and eventually participating in the sacraments again.

For some, if the scar is such that they can’t get over the triggers and agonies, they would be psychologically torturing themselves. That is not a healthy choice. They will be my friend forever. They will be in my heart forever. But they may not be able to step in a church again. The expectation that somebody can just come back is very dangerous psychologically.

 

What can the Church learn from survivors without exploiting their stories?

How can I tell you the beauty? For one thing this whole movement “I’m leaving the church because…” misses the point. We’re at the heart of this whole thing, and we’re still Catholic, so where are you going? Why are you leaving? I say that with some snark to it, and, I apologize because Catholics are shaken, but if you met any of the survivors I know and the love that has helped us walk through the hell to get back to the Eucharist, you wouldn’t leave.

No one can love and offer kindness and compassion like the person who has suffered, and there’s nobody who’s suffered like someone who was wounded as a child. What I have experienced, even in survivors who emerge with mental illnesses, chronic mental illnesses, there is an incredible depth of compassion.

I see very few places handing the microphone to a survivor. Many bishops don’t realize the resource they have in us. They create a box: “We’ll feel sorry for you. We’ll pray for you. But don’t say anything because we don’t know how to deal with you yet,” that’s a ruptured relationship that needs to be fixed.  

 

How should bishops be held accountable?

We should be 200% relentless. The Dallas Charter is fantastic, but not perfect. The whole idea that bishops had no accountable forum, no place that could hold them accountable but the pope. Turn the heat up. Then turn it up higher. This is a self-inflicted wound and it’s ridiculous. Be relentless, forceful, moral, righteous. There’s anger that is moral outrage, and that is the only moral response to this.

On the other hand, it’s a really great time for Catholics to reflect on what it actually means to have a heart of mercy. A lot of psychological research in the past said that abusers could just be told to stop. One of my abusers, I’m sure, said “I’m sorry. I’m sorry” and got transferred to all sorts of different places based on his promises. His was a case where forgiveness was perverted to become enabling. Many of these bishops, as well as parents and victims, were also groomed by abusers. Does that relieve them of failing to protect us? No. Does it add an important context? Absolutely.

I would not say that those who mishandled abuse cases should automatically resign. It’s absolutely important for people to understand degrees of evil. It’s important for Catholics to take a breath every time something comes out and wait to understand more. I think there are distinctions between people who repressed stories and kept their friends in high places, and, on the other hand, bad managers, maybe even incompetent leaders, or even bishops who lacked full information. To paint all bishops with the same brush is an injustice. I’m not willing to be part of perpetuating injustice related to my abuse. I am not opposed to having  a charitable conversation with a bishop who was partly responsible for enabling abusers. I am not opposed to working with bishops who have converted truly, in their hearts. In fact, there’s a big loss if we don’t work with bishops whose hearts haven’t broken with ours. Righteous, moral rage is good, but we can’t kill mercy.

 

What are some of the cultural problems in the church that allowed abuse to go on and cover it up?

I think when you have a lot of power concentrated in a big institution that gets insular, you will have some kind of abuse. Child abuse is just a symptom of something that went deeper, of a Church of insular secrecy. I think the secrecy and the insulation needs to be blown apart. There’s complete obedience, almost obsequiousness, toward priests or bishops. You can’t just respect somebody for their position without question. On the other hand, there are people who think in order to tell a bishop what they think, they have to tell them off. We need to go from de facto acting like an institution to de facto acting like a family.

Lay-leadership is crucial, I hear that a lot, but it’s important for Catholics to understand there’s already a lot of lay-leadership in a lot of places. Within every diocese there are review boards that review every accusation of child abuse that has come out since 2002. The review boards around the country are filled with former FBI agents, law enforcement, former prosecutors, judges, child abuse specialists. On the other hand, in a review board, at the end, you can only make recommendations. I think the question for bishops then is how to empower lay people, because sometimes they just do the bishop’s bidding. This is a question of leadership, not theology or even morality really. The bishop makes the final determination whether a priest is moved out of ministry. Does he listen to his board well? Does he defer to their expertise? If you focus on empowering lay people who are already there, it would be super. I know the people at the Secretariat for the Protection of Children and Young People (USCCB), they’re top notch people. Maybe they should have some more power to move programs along. I want to emphasize that this is not to deduct from a bishop’s authority. I think some people conflate the two ideas.  This is to amplify voices and deepen relationships with bishops.

 

Can the church recover and regain a sense of moral credibility?

First, the moral truths of the Church are unchanging and have nothing to regain. It is the Church in human terms that has lost its moral credibility and that, I am not sure will be regained. The answer to that question rests solely on the shoulders of Church leadership now.

Second, we are scrutinized more than other institutions. People expect more from the Church than from other institutions, and that is exactly as it should be. We should be grateful that people understand there’s something greater in the Church and it should be held to higher expectations.

Third, as somebody who was abused since the 60s, when nothing was talked about, it is way better that all of this is public than it continuing to be suppressed. You can’t heal if you don’t clean the wound. It’s going to be terrible and it’s not going to go away soon. But it is so much better than what has been going on. This at least permits the possibility of healing.

The last thing is this: anybody who’s feeling doubt, I understand it. Evil is really scary. If I can get through it, and a bunch of survivors of clergy abuse can get through the evil of abuse, and get to the place where we understand and live in resurrected ruins, the Church doesn’t have anything to worry about.

It’s going to be hell, and it might be hell for all of our lives, but there’s no need to worry. Unless, of course, we stop and lose heart and let evil win. So keep being mad, but maybe make sure that we don’t become the thing we hate. I’m telling you, if it’s the last thing I say: Jesus is the Victor, do not be afraid.

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