Last Wednesday, May 1, I participated in a ground-breaking dialogue between some U.S. bishops and survivors of sexual abuse. Sponsored by Spirit Fire and hosted at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., it was a graced opportunity to pray, listen and learn and a great experience of the Catholic Church at its best. I am grateful to God and to those survivors into whose lives I was welcomed. 

Spirit Fire (spiritfire.live) promotes Christ-centered restorative justice for adults, families and faith communities wounded by child abuse and trauma. They seek partners in pastoral care with survivor leaders in order to cultivate, in their own words, “inspired and renewed relationships for all hurt by abuse and all members of the Catholic Church, rejecting cynicism and fostering ever-deepening faith and compassionate connections.” 

While looking for both causes and preventive measures in the current crisis situation that we face within the Catholic community, I have been very concerned by the ways abuse has hurt not just victims but also families and parishes. I found new reasons for hope while participating in this Spirit Fire event at Catholic University, where survivors and bishops, as well as other leaders, could focus on the restoration of relationships that have been broken or seriously wounded.

“We are wounded in relationship and we heal through relationship,” the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote. The experience at Catholic University offered concrete evidence that this hope is not only possible, but that healing through such relationships should, at least in my view, become a constitutive component of what it means to be an ecclesial communion of wounded healers. 

It was Jung also who conceived and experienced the role of a therapist as that of a wounded healer, able to assist others only because the analyst is “wounded” as well. More than we may know, or be willing to admit, we are all profoundly affected by the sufferings of those who have been wounded by sexual and other forms of abuse, especially in their youth and when presumably in the trusted care of the Church no less. The survivors at this event reminded us, ordained and lay alike, that we too are wounded by the abuse they suffered. They invited us to learn to care for them so that we can care as well for their families, for our parishes, for all others who suffer from abuse — and for ourselves who have listened and heard their cries. This is a message from wounded healers that has given me much to ponder and, with the help of the Lord’s Church, take significant action on.

It is the mission of the Church, as the Bride of Christ, to immerse herself in the passion of her Spouse, the Wounded Healer par excellence, Jesus Christ himself, who suffered and died for all our sins — to save us, in some cases, from ourselves and, in others, from the effects of the sins of others. 

The reflections shared in Washington by survivors reminded us that real recovery runs from the Passion of our Lord to Easter. The Lord is truly risen, yet his wounds remain, though changed and, in a remarkable way, transfigured. Those harmed by abuse may remain wounded, but they can find a deeper healing through their relationship with the Wounded Healer, Jesus Christ. In each survivor I met, I found a wounded healer whose life does not hide the lifelong impact of abuse — but seeks to help others through what each one has learned. 

None of this is to imply that there is not much work to be done as an institution, but this day with survivors at Catholic University affirmed my own sense of our entire Church family as wounded and in need of care and healing. I have come to believe that accompanying survivors must and will become an essential stage in the Church’s own growth in self-understanding — of our failings, and of the wounds we inflict on each other. This is our path in healing together. I believe that, going forward, understanding the arduous recovery of survivors will enrich the effectiveness of our ability to reflect the light of the Gospel itself as the one reliable way to transform these dark hours into a path towards life and renewal.

Being among survivors over the course of the day in Washington, I have even more hope for this kind of “paradigm shift,” as we come to see survivors of sexual abuse as not “just” victims of the terrible violence and injustice that was done to them. Even more, I see them now as the courageous and resilient persons they are, the wounded healers they become in the course of living through and overcoming the pain. Indeed they are potential leaders on the path toward re-grounding and rebuilding the foundations of our faith community. Accompanying them, we both suffer and grow together in strengthening the bonds of spiritual friendship in the Lord. 

This path is fraught with risks and perils. Not everyone may be ready, willing or able to take it, at least not yet. Anger, upheaval and even alienation are natural and healthful stages through which many must pass. We must accept that at times all we can do for some is simply to hold a hope that one morning they will sense the Lord’s invitation, and the strength to take that next step towards a new day. Until that day, we will honor and respect how far each victim has come, and will pray they do not grow weary or disheartened. Graced with the sacramental presence of Christ in the community of faith that accompanies them, they will not confuse rest stops in the process of healing with the destination of the new life arising.

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