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Shedding light on the dark world of abuse

A personal story of grooming highlights a need to strive for healing —By SALLY FRASER

We are holding a prayer service in a few week’s time for and with those abused while in the care of the Church. This is, obviously, not a comfortable issue. But I don’t recall that making people feel comfortable was one of Jesus’ main attributes.

In fact, unless I am reading Him wrong, I seem to think He was more of a ‘face the pain head on,’ speak the truth, advocate for the oppressed kind of guy, so if we are to really follow Him we probably have to do a bit of that too. We have to be about shedding light in the darkness, recognising all things invisible as well as visible.

We held one once before and some people said it helped them. And, with a situation as unbearably horrific as this, to be able to help at all, even in the slightest way, is worth doing.

There is a great power in simply showing people that they are seen, heard, believed. Because silence can be healing, but it has to be the right kind of silence, and often if we ask people to keep quiet about something, we are in part telling them they have something to be ashamed of.

For people who may have been raised not to know the difference between what is private and what is secret, there can be, hopefully, some liberation in speaking out or standing together in one place.

I know much of this is symbolic, and not much practical use. But I do know also that, perhaps especially for those of us who live with trauma, there is some comfort in symbols and gestures. And my hope is that this will be a gesture which says, ‘this shouldn’t have happened, we are sorry you have to live with it, and if there is anything we can do to help you not have to hold this, we will.’

These are certainly the words I would long to hear, and while I am aware my experiences in no way compare with those abused as young children in institutions, I do live with the consequences of being groomed and abused myself as an adolescent, of having to live with a secret.

Abuse survivors are not a homogenous mass, all behaving in identical ways defined only by their experiences, so I cannot begin to speak for anyone else, only how I have been affected. I don’t long for justice—my abuser is in prison already—but I spent much of my life angry and not really understanding why.

I don’t feel robbed of my childhood so much as robbed of my adulthood, as if through being forced to grow up too early, I never really grew up at all. I have a tendency to disconnect, to retreat into places of loneliness, as if, having started holding things in and keeping secrets, I can’t ever quite stop. And a tendency to be anxious, because a world which has proved itself so dishonest will never feel very safe.

While time and therapy have helped with emotional volatility and intimacy struggles, the spiritual side of coming to terms with my past is proving a daunting mountain to climb.

Our Faith calls for trust, obedience, submission—and these things are problematic for me. My ideal, the very idea of security, love and safety I had been living with, was abusive, harmful, and not what it seemed. Spiritually then, my very wiring is wrong. I struggle to formulate an idea of a loving, caring God I can trust in because even the very idea is painful.

The wound has created scar tissue, a hardening against precisely that which would heal it. But it occurs to me that while some of my struggles are extreme, they are not in any way unique. What I have ­survived does not render me an alien species. Does not everyone struggle with intimacy? With trust? With feeling like imposters, like we are going to be ‘found out?’ Do we not all struggle to really imagine an unconditionally loving God?

We are all wounded one way or another, all have things which keep us from loving and being loved. The hardening of our hearts is what makes us human, and places us in need of God in the first place.

How much more would this hardening against healing take place if the abuse had happened in Church? Thousands of times worse I assume.

Now that I work in the Church, I know that if my own priest annoys in a board meeting, I don’t want to go to Communion for a week, so I can’t begin to imagine how impossible it must be for those who have been abused by clergy to participate in Mass. Or how an image of God would have been damaged by such betrayal by those who were supposed to be His servants.

I am concerned that we don’t even attempt to be offering healing. Moreover, when we speak of how ‘when one is broken, the body suffers,’ we are not seen as attempting to help others for the sake of our own healing. I would hope that we are offering a space for grief, and prayer, and anger and pain and all those things which do belong in a church; that we could at least reach out a hand to people to accept or reject as they wish.

I can’t honestly tell you I think that healing is possible, but I feel blessed by the grace to at least believe it might be. And to believe that, as painful as my experiences might make my relationship with God, He is the only one who can help me. But I couldn’t have come this far without people who loving me and accepting me.

In all of our communities, we have a duty to offer this love and acceptance to others, not shy away from them because their pain makes us feel uncomfortable.

We know full well what Jesus would do to help abuse survivors. We must endeavour to do that ourselves.


– Sally Fraser is a pastoral associate at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith, Edinburgh. She converted to Catholicism in her 20s and is married with two small children

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