Betrayed by what they loved – survivors of Church abuse have their say

Towards Peace, a spiritual support service to survivors of abuse by clergy and religious and in Church run institutions on the island of Ireland, submitted its own report that formed part of the Church in Ireland’s National Synthesis through the prism of survivors of Church-based abuse.

Towards Peace, a spiritual support service to survivors of abuse by clergy and religious and in Church run institutions on the island of Ireland, submitted its own report that formed part of the Church in Ireland’s National Synthesis through the prism of survivors of Church-based abuse.  

Describing the submission as “a call to the Church to hear the prophetic voice of survivors, and to act on the wisdom of their experience so as to renew the Church that failed to protect children and continues to fail survivors”, Towards Peace responded to the invitation to participate in the Synod in two ways: by consulting with eight survivors and by reflecting on its own experience of working with these survivors. Here is what they had to say: 

Secondary victimisation, sacrifice and betrayal  

The participants had all experienced abuse in its various forms: physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual and neglect. All agreed that this abuse is not just part of their past, it is part of their present.  

Abuse is an experience that endures. Some of those present spoke of how it has only been relatively recently that they have begun to process issues related to their abuse and have sought counselling in relation to it. 

One of those present spoke of how he thought that the trial, conviction and imprisonment of his abuser would bring him some closure. On the contrary, it precipitated a crisis and the work of recovery only really began after the trial. 

One of those who was unable to attend the meeting also highlighted the impact of a criminal trial and how the process of giving evidence, often in very gruelling detail, is akin to re-experiencing the abuse suffered.  

Another participant reflected that what is lost forever through abuse is the opportunity to meet the person you might have been if you had never been abused.  

All those present agreed that the secondary victimisation was often as bad, and sometimes worse, than the initial abuse. The secondary victimisation resulted from the response of Church authorities to complaints and disclosures.  

In one extreme example, a survivor was manhandled out of the office of a religious superior when he asked why nothing had been done about the man who had abused him. Secondary victimisation generally came about in more insidious ways, like the parish priest who told a survivor that it was a pity that her abuser had been given a prison sentence, since he ‘had not done very much’.  

Particularly objectionable is the way in which survivors of abuse are treated as ‘damaged people’. The damaged people are those who abuse children and those who deny, minimise and cover up abuse.  

The Church is very good at explaining away or minimising abuse. One participant referred to the ‘Bumper Book of Catholic Excuses’.  

A particularly egregious form of secondary victimisation occurs in civil cases for compensation. Solicitors who take on such cases often warn their clients to prepare for an ordeal. The process is adversarial, not pastoral. Those who make disclosures of abuse generally do not wish to engage in a legal process but often feel forced to do so.  

One participant spoke of his civil case, which took ten years to settle, and the pressure put on him during it. This included the threat that he could lose his family home if he did not settle the case. Eventually, even his own solicitor was pressurising him to settle.  

Some Church authorities have a ‘deny till they die’ approach, they said. Another commented that what you get at the end of a civil case is a cheque, not remorse. Lying was described by many of the participants as part of the response by Church officials to their disclosures of abuse.  

Survivors are strongly motivated by a concern that other children are not subjected to the same abuse that they experienced and they need to know that steps are being taken to ensure their abuser is no longer in a position to abuse children.  

One person recounted her decision to withdraw from a process that she believed was deeply flawed. A senior church official explained her withdrawal to a third party by claiming she was unwell, which was untrue. When it was discovered what the Church official had done, he did not deny it but rather explained that it was necessary for the good of the Church.  

These examples of lying were experienced as betrayal, as survivors were misled by people in whom they had placed their trust. Such lying illustrated the willingness of Church officials to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church.  

Listening but not hearing 

People who disclose abuse want acknowledgement of what has happened, an apology and assurance that steps will be taken to prevent any further abuse. If those who are listening to disclosures of abuse would hear what is being said to them, they would ask something like: “What can I do to help?” Instead, the experience has been of people being asked whether they have spoken to a solicitor. 

The Church is claiming credit for being seen to do the right thing but if the listening does not involve hearing and the hearing does not lead to action, it becomes an empty gesture.  

Many survivors invested in a listening process that took place a number of years ago. They bared their souls to those they met, in the hope that it might bring about real change in the Church’s approach. However, nothing happened – how can they be guaranteed that this does not happen again? 

One participant spoke about how the Church’s initiatives in this area often respond more to the Church’s own needs rather than those of survivors. There is little evidence that the Universal Church ‘hears’ what has been happening in countries such as Ireland and applies the lessons that have been learned.  

The Church’s preoccupation with money 

The theme of money runs through all the discussions about the Church’s response to abuse and is intermingled with all the other themes. It relates to that form of secondary victimisation that consists of treating those who disclose abuse as only or primarily interested in financial compensation. 

Survivor groups are told that the religious orders have no more money to pay out in compensation. However, it is known that many orders have very substantial sums of money in investments. This is needed, the orders say, to ensure that they can provide for their older members. There was consensus within the group that older and infirm members of religious orders should be cared for and not live in abject poverty. Yet, many survivors of abuse live in abject poverty.  

The members of religious orders have private medical insurance – unlike many survivors. In a more general way, participants spoke of the difficulty of accepting the idea that the Church is poor when there is so much evidence to the contrary. Despite all the concern about allegedly diminishing assets, Church bodies always seem to have enough money to obtain the best legal advice and to pay the costs associated with long drawn out civil cases.  

The personal cost of engaging with the Church  

Survivor groups spoke of their wish to bear witness to the pain and sense of betrayal of other survivors. This has taken a variety of forms, such as, speaking out publicly and advocating for people in dispute with Church authorities. It has also involved engaging with the Church, as evidenced by their participation in this process.  

Some people spoke of their estrangement from the Church. Those who have agreed to engage with the Church in exercises such as this synodal one are often seen by other survivors in a negative light. One participant spoke of the acute pain and hurt that goes with being accused by your peers of disloyalty. Another spoke of receiving very abusive messages and even death threats when it became publicly known that she had engaged in such a process a number of years ago. Despite their experiences, and without much hope of seeing the kind of fundamental change understood as necessary, all of the participants had willingly agreed to participate in this exercise. One said he did so only as a means of bearing witness to the treatment of survivors.  

A Gospel-based response to abuse within the Church  

There was a consensus that bishops and other church officials do not know how to respond to people who disclose abuse and need to be trained for it. Only those with a capacity to empathise with survivors, and a willingness to do so, should undertake this work. Those who are ill prepared for meetings with survivors can inflict a lot of damage.  

The shame that arises is the knowledge that something appalling has occurred in an institution to which the bishop has devoted his life. The danger is that the bishop stays ‘in role’ and clings to his status as a means of resisting an encounter with another human being. 

One participant was part of a team of trainers, from a variety of backgrounds, who delivered training to bishops in another country. Survivors were equal members of the training team. It was residential, over three days. Trainers and trainees were together for meals and leisure time as well as the training sessions. Attendance was mandatory for the bishops. 

There was a lot of tension at first but then people met each other as people. At the end, there was an open forum. The questions asked revealed the depth of the bishops’ lack of knowledge. The programme was a success. It worked because it was training and awareness raising, but also a human encounter.  

Pope Francis, when he was in Dublin, was asked specifically to say that it is not a mortal sin for mothers who were separated from their babies in mother and baby homes to look for them later. He did so at the mass in the Phoenix Park. It was a transformative and healing moment for many people – there was an 800% increase in tracing enquiries.  

One participant referred to Church leaders who are very good Catholics but not such good Christians. Something has to die within in the Church as it is now, so that something new can be born. There must be humility and recognition of survivors as people who are precious in the eyes of God.  


There is a strong sense that we, as a Church, both failed to protect children in the past and continue to fail survivors in the present. This loss, which for some includes the loss of God, is felt most acutely by those who experienced abuse. It is felt also by the lay faithful, those who remain, and those who have left because they cannot hear the good news in a Church that failed so many.  

It is also felt by the many priests and religious who remained faithful to their calling. We are convinced that a warped understanding of sexuality and sexual sin impacted on the way that people (clerical, religious and lay) were formed within the Church. We believe in a radical overhaul of those hierarchical Church structures that create and sustain opportunities for people whose primary motivation is exercising power rather than expressing love. Sexual abuse is also an abuse of power.  

Metanoia: transforming hearts and minds 

We are dismayed at entrenched negative attitudes within the Church that are holding us back from making the changes we need to make. 

We believe that, in this moment, all of us – Church leaders and workers, lay faithful and survivors – are called to conversion. It must start with welcoming survivors, listening to them, and hearing them as though for the first time. It is our conviction that the survivors can be healers, if we welcome them and the gifts they bring.  

We welcome, indeed rejoice in, the synodal path as one of dialogue and journeying with others. We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them and the presence of the Spirit. Those of us who were privileged to meet with the survivors who participated in the meeting in May know that the Spirit was with us that day. If we trust that the Spirit is with us, then all will be well. 

Steps in a reparative process:

Meetings with survivors have to be planned carefully and carried out by those with appropriate attitudes and training. In the first instance, lay professionals should conduct such meetings, though, at a later point, a meeting with a bishop or other Church leader may be appropriate.

The survivor should be asked what assistance he or she requires.

A person should be appointed to act as the survivor’s contact person. This person should provide accurate information and ensure the process of dealing with the person’s complaint is transparent at every stage in the process, including the canonical process. The contact person should ensure that the survivor is aware of anything said about them by the respondent (person said to have abused them) and given a right of reply.

There should be an acknowledgement that abuse has occurred.

There should an apology that contains an acknowledgment of responsibility.

Apologies should not be written by lawyers – such apologies are easily recognisable and add insult to injury.

The safety of other potential victims should be assured and the steps taken to do so explained to the survivor.

Canonical processes need to be sped up.

• ‘I am sorry that you were abused’ is an expression of regret. ‘I am sorry that we abused you’ is an apology.

The Church body should make restitution. This could be compensation and compensation should be available, if sought, through a non-adversarial process with a limit of two years for settlement. At the very least, restitution should include payment for counselling/therapy and medical expenses.

The margins

Jesus reached out to those on the margins. The Church must do the same and invite those who have been abused to come forward and tell their stories. When faced with an allegation, Church leaders must refer, in the first instance, to the gospel, not the lawyers.  

The Church has to atone for the sins of abuse and all the wrongs that were done to survivors. Words that are carefully chosen and spoken with humility and sincerity help, but they are not enough.  

All attempts to supress or undermine the voices of survivors must cease, including, for example, the use of non-disclosure agreements in settling claims for compensation.  

The Church must commit to learning from the mistakes and failures made in countries such as Ireland and not repeating these in other parts of the world. Abuse is part of the story of the Church. If we are truly to come to terms with it, we must acknowledge it and teach people about it, including children, so the next generation of Catholics will be better equipped to ensure it does not happen again.  

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