An Open Letter to Pope Francis: Lead Us into a Future Without Child Sexual Abuse

Pope Francis 2Dear Pope Francis,

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
Portland, Oregon
United States

Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at 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.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/Edgar Jimenez

  • Georgina Schaff


    Thank you for your heartfelt work in reporting the truth and feelings of so many. I so agree that the Pope and the Catholic Church have the compassion and financial ability to bring about reform in “healing” the whole family and what a wonderful letter to the Pope. I can’t thank you enough for voicing “in print” what so many of us would like to say. May you and your family enjoy the inner peace that comes from forgiveness and unconditional love.

  • Kim

    Thank you. I hold Active Hope, as proposed by Joanna Macy in her book by that name. I don’t know what else to do. That and keep telling the story and talking out loud. I appreciate knowing this has meaning for some.

    • Georgina Schaff

      There has got to be someone, somewhere who has the compassion to HEAL the whole family. I am Catholic and my fear is that religion will become the issue and the Pope will be accused of trying “to protect” his own. I will keep speaking out for the sake of families everywhere. Thank you again, Kim.

      • Kim

        Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that angle, Georgina, I see your concern. Done right, the process I’m thinking of and that Dr. Giarretto used, would involve the priests coming before the community and working through what they had done and asking publicly for forgiveness. Whether that was granted at the moment or later over much time is not the goal. The goal is the public and communal nature of the process that allows the person harmed to be supported, not feel alone, not have to live in silent shame, and continue to belong to the community. In the same way, it would hold the priest accountable for his behavior, keep him close to the community so he could be involved in the process and not deny what he had done to another, gentle insistence on working toward restitution. I’m imagining a person who’s hurt another sitting in front of that person and hearing the story of the pain and suffering and it would have to be a hardened person who wouldn’t acknowledge his actions were responsible for that. Maybe that’s how to discern between someone who’s disconnected from compassion, and there’s a different treatment for that. Again, done right would mean there’d be some outsiders working with the group and much of the process in the public eye. Someone needs to lead the way, in a big way. What other groups could do it, have enough resources?

        • Georgina Schaff

          There are so many groups working for reform and the key is legislation but legislators are afraid to tackle such a “difficult topic” for fear of being “belittled” by their peers. Talk with your legislators and get their opinions and suggestions to share with us. I have forwarded this to several organizations and if you hear anything from Pope Francis please let us know. Thanks.

  • Rae Mullin

    Very well said Kim, thank you for writing this!

  • Will Bassler

    while I agree with the basic concept of this letter, and that is to heal, The victims of child sexual abuse, and one of the only ways properly to do that is to also heal the offenderso that he understands what he has done and has no more victims. I do have a problem with the community concept and how broad that community should be and who should be included in that community.

    in Dr. Henry Giarretto book, integrated treatment of child sexual abuse, a treatment and training manual . He lays out strict guidelines for the people that are the treatment providers . Remember this program was considered to be the most effective treatment program by many in the field from it came support groups that involve the community and those included parents United, daughters and sons united, adults molested as children united these were support groups that people in his treatment programs involve themselves in AFTER the family issues had been resolved. The sad thing is that vigilantes and bigots involve themselves in these programs with the primary goal of punishing the offenders basically destroying the effectiveness of these programs.

    as for the Alaska program, one of the things that I noticed that goes against Dr. Henry Giarretto ideals and principles of treatment was the use of ammonia nitrate conditioning something our United States Federal Courts has said is unconstitutional in treatment programs. because it is considered cruel and unusual punishment. it appears that the program in Alaska is still based on a behavior modification type program. Instead of a humanistic one.

    In Robert Balls’ book, Walking on Water”, he states that alternating fear and kindness, such as used in Behavior Modification, is one of the most highly sophisticated tortures used by man. This is a strong and effective way to condition someone’s behavior. It also instills high anxiety and destroys self worth.

    Equipment such as the plethsograph is used to measure penile responses to “inappropriate” sexual stimuli on the assumption that such responses can predict a man’s sexual behavior in situations outside laboratory. (If the responses are not what the therapist think they should be then the patient will receive a punishment such as an electric shock, many therapies force the patients to GIVE THEMSELVES THE PUNISHMENT. And if they don’t they are thrown out of treatment which violates their parole or probation and returns them to prison.) According to L. S. Grossman (in press) Research directions in the evaluation and treatment of sex offenders. ” There is no solid evidence that this (or any other measure) correlates with actual sexual misconduct”. Yet this dehumanizing and traumatic practice is still used and justified by treatment providers in total disregard for it’s long term affects and the trauma that it causes patients.

    Richard Seely, director of the Intensive Treatment Program for Minnesota Security Hospital, contends that punishment is a reinforcer to sex offenders, “a reinforcer of his own shame, his own blame and his own grief, and that serves no purpose. The shame, guilt, and blame are usually the stuff from which the offense comes… There is probably no more ashamed group, … the shame, blame model, and punishment just tends to reinforce it”.

    Behavioral programs work off this shame and blame model forcing the offender to except responsibility for all the problems everyone he has had contact with have or will have. Everything that has happened or will happen, is the offender’s fault. He is not even able to look to his past for the cause without being accessed of not excepting responsibility for his actions. No matter what, it’s his fault, and he is to blame for everything. Any one with reasonable intelligence can see that this double standard in its self adds to the confusion, anger and frustration.

    In Henry Giarretto’s, “integrated Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse”, the treatment and training manual for CSATP, he showed that much of the trauma that comes to the victims of interfamily child sexual abuse comes from the Criminal Justice System as it relies primarily on two devices: Separation and Punishment. It seems that the courts primary interest in the child has to do with the testimony they can give to convict the alleged perpetrator. With the report of the crime the children are expected to recount the incidents in agonizing and embarrassing detail to the police officers, case workers and Prosecuting attorneys with continual assurance that this is needed to get the offender help. When the victim finds out that the information that they gave has placed a person they care about into prison. The backlash on the victims creates a deeper trauma and a strong trauma bond between the offenders and the victims. One of the first things learned by the CSATP group was that the victims interest were best served if the mother, father and the rest of the family are included in the there type of counseling plan. A point that is also addressed in Beyond the best interest of the child by Goldstein, Freud and Solnit the second prodition from this is “the child’s best interested are served if she is permitted to continue her family life with as little interruption as possible even if this means reuniting her after appropriate intervention, with the offending parent

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