I know the United Nations has been hassling you about priests abusing children and insisting you do something about it. It’s been all over the news. But, the U.N. isn’t the only group worried about your next move. Here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon in the United States, we’ve been dealing with this issue of what is to be done about priests abusing children for a long time.
I thought the U.N. was a little hard on you, not to mention they have some cleaning up to do in their own moral house. They have attacked you for your stance against abortion, but the Catholics I know are not the ones picketing abortion clinics. It seemed they used that argument as coercion so you’d bring priests into the open so the public could hang, stone, or otherwise shame them. It disturbs me deeply when any group is fanning the flames of fear to meet their political ends, but that is not why I write this letter.
I wonder if we could agree the number one priority is to stop the sexual abuse of girls and boys. Stop it in the present, prevent it in the future, and reach out to those who’ve been abused in the past and help them reach a place where peace can live in their hearts. I’m sure you must know there are many, many people waiting expectantly to see what you do to make the world safer for children.
My concern is the healing. Healing of children, their mothers and their fathers, and their sisters and brothers. Healing of families. Members of congregations who are involved because they belong to the community. And, let’s include administrators of the church who must also have hearts that can support the container of healing. The bottom line, sexual abuses happen within a community, they must be healed within a community.
Pope Francis, you may wonder why a complete stranger is writing to you pleading for you to take action. Well, the Vatican is the perfect place from which to bring long-needed changes to the process of worldwide sexual abuse healing. You have the influence needed to bring the healing processes out of the private offices of therapists and out of the secret conversations of victims as they cry over coffee with a friend. You have the influence to stop further abuse of children for generations to come.
You have an opportunity to take the council you’ve recently developed and initiate a completely different way of handling sexual trauma within the Catholic Church. In doing so, you could set the tone for Catholics in the United States and beyond. You wouldn’t have to create this program from nothing, there are folks in Alaska leading the way in an incredibly innovative and startling program, perhaps exactly what is needed in these dire times.
Please be sure to also watch the NBC video of a program called Dimensions, The Child as Victim: Incest and Sexual Abuse in which Dr. Henry Giarretto, one of the innovators in sexual abuse treatment is interviewed. Even though it was filmed in 1982, The Child As Victim stands out as one of the most coherent and humane models of treating families. In fact, it may well be the folks in Alaska modeled their program after Dr. Giarretto’s work because he is credited for the creation of hundreds of programs worldwide. And, there are many others who’ve been working humanely with trauma victims who understand implicitly what is needed to heal hearts and who’ve been doing so for decades, people like Jungian psychologist Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Their ideas are begging to be implemented on a worldwide scale and you have the reach to make that happen.
Imagine, if instead of immediately going to court and arguing about who is to blame and who is responsible (or sequestering away a priest accused of abusing a boy or girl in the church community), there was an immediate intervention, protection for the victim, and a town hall type of process to work through the feelings of distrust and rebuild the family and the community. Such a process would give the child a place to rest and grow and recover. It would bring long-needed resolution to families and communities falling apart over unresolved sexual traumas.
I know the results of trauma in a family because I sat with my father the day after an article I wrote for The Broad Side was published and told him I had written about our family and about him. He was quiet for a while and then, in the halting words he’s able to use after a stroke, said it was a relief because all his life he’s been hiding and that in each relationship he could only get so close to another person before his past interrupted the process. I’m confident he would agree, he would have rather gone through a public and community process toward reconciliation and healing even though it would have been difficult and he would have needed help.
The reason I’m asking you to take this on is that each country and state hold disparate methods and attitudes of how to deal, cope, or treat the sexual abuse of children. You have the permission and an established presence in nearly every country and state in the world that gives you access to influence the political landscape to help children. Sadly, some might not think prevention of child sexual abuse is necessary or even that children don’t need this type of protection. We need someone like you to demonstrate unequivocally that how we treat our children, and whether we harm them sexually or physically, may be the single most important marker of our intelligence and humanity as a species.
Humans need to be shown, we need proof. We need public models of alternatives to the locking away of those who harm. We need someone who’ll take on this problem and prove that with compassion and working together we can process our individual and collective shame, rebuild trust, and re-establish dignity within the Catholic church and beyond.
Before you make your decision, we should talk about money. I’m reading the news and the sums being paid to supposedly repair the past are staggering. In fact, the Catholic Church is hemorrhaging money. The sums of abuse settlements are so grotesquely large I’m led to believe it’s no longer about justice and more about the pain and fear and need to feel something is being done. Honestly, I’ve always wondered whether a massive sum of money could heal the deeply personal pain that follows sexual trauma. Perhaps the best use of the money isn’t in court settlements. What if that money were put to establishing and running treatment programs in every diocese where abuse has occurred and in the education of upcoming priests.
Can you imagine eradicating child abuse within the human population? Personally, I think we can if we put our minds to it. It will require re-evaluating and revamping the way mental health professionals bring treatments to the masses. It is no longer adequate to sit behind closed doors taking decades to help one person work through trauma that happened in childhood. Personally, I think that’s exactly the reason it takes so many years, because it’s happening in secret with shame clinging to the past.
Fortunately, we are seeing many professionals bringing healing work to many simultaneously which means there are more and more models of how systemic change can begin (some examples lie the work of Peter Levine, Brené Brown, and Diane Poole Heller). Perhaps there will always be a place for private therapy, but we must insist on more large group programs for healing our shared psychological wounds rather than living in fear of recurrence and in the shame of being out of control. To paraphrase Dr. Giarretto in the 1982 video on child sexual abuse, we must work to heal everyone in the community so those who were molested and harmed as children don’t grow up to harm another generation of children.
In summary: Pope Francis, you are in the perfect position to lead us to a vital next step in our human development. To undertake such a program, you’ll need to ensure transparency, dignity for all, elimination of obfuscations and contradictions, and external oversight. But, with a new treatment paradigm, done on the scale to heal the Catholic Church, well, you could change the world. I’ve been watching you as have so many other Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. I have a feeling you could do this. I’m not a Catholic, but please count me among those who will support and help with your efforts on behalf of children.
With many sincere regards,
Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at ahealthystepmother.com and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine. She has run from just as many traumas as she has faced but one day she was inspired to lay down her anger and rage and forgive her father.