A new approach to helping abuse survivors


Dealing with the impact of sexual abuse has been largely outsourced by the Church.

Now an initiative is being launched, with the support of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, taking a fresh pastoral approach to the welfare of survivors

“You took away my faith”;
“The Church cheated me out of my relationship with God”;
“When I needed the Church, it was not there for me!”

Time and again, we hear these cries from the victims of sexual abuse.

They point to the pastoral and spiritual failure at the heart of this crisis.

Many of the survivors of abuse are members of the People of God; their suffering is a deep wound in the Body of Christ. Saying “sorry” is not enough.

There must be a fundamental change.

It is now time for the Church to walk together alongside victims, to listen to them and to learn from them, and to serve and support them in their search for healing, wherever that might take them.

Anyone listening to survivors will often hear how badly sexual violence by a priest or other church figure can damage their relationship with God, or destroy it completely, and how they have felt completely abandoned by the Church when they have tried to understand and deal with the spiritual consequences of the abuse they have suffered.

Despite all the public and private apologies, the compensation paid to victims, the implementation of prevention and training programmes, the creation of safeguarding structures, and the commissioning of scientific studies into the root causes of abuse, it is clear that the Church is still failing survivors at this fundamental, spiritual level.

At present – when it does not avoid offering support altogether – the Church tends to ­delegate dealing with the effects of abuse to psychiatrists and canon lawyers, to internal Church specialists or external professional experts.

Caring for the victims of abuse has become the responsibility of a small and increasingly specialised group of people, who operate largely on the periphery of Church activities.

The Church needs a “Copernican revolution” in how it deals with the survivors of abuse.

“Those who have been abused do not revolve around the Church,” he said, “but the Church [revolves] around them.”

Archbishop Mark Coleridge

The pastoral care of the wounded and abandoned is often outsourced.

All this and much more is absolutely necessary – this professional and clinical work must be sustained, particularly the support of victims through counselling and psychotherapy.

But we can no longer keep abuse in the Church at a clinical distance.

As the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, said during the abuse summit at the Vatican last year, the Church needs a “Copernican revolution” in how it deals with the survivors of abuse.

“Those who have been abused do not revolve around the Church,” he said, “but the Church [revolves] around them.”

The Church must face up to abuse and its effects not at its peripheries but where it hurts, at its heart.

It is there, in the pastoral and spiritual arena, where it claims the greatest competence, that it has failed the most. It is time the Church began to respond to the ­spiritual wounds caused by abuse in the ­spiritual setting where the abuse occurred.

The pastoral care of those who are suffering is at the heart of the Church’s mission.

Its obligation to offer spiritual help to victims does not become obsolete because the suffering took place within the Church, or because of its failures in the past to deal with abusive priests or to listen to the voices of survivors.

Whenever victims of abuse seek spiritual support and guidance, the Church must not turn its back.

It must act with humility and sensitivity.

There has often been rejection, intrusive questioning, accusations, obfuscations and delays in the past.

For understandable reasons, many survivors have no interest in seeking therapeutic or spiritual help from the institution that has abused them.

When victims do seek to engage with the Church, they must be met with appreciation and respect, and regarded as equals.

Two fundamental principles should underpin the Church’s approach. Continue reading

  • Peter Beer and Hans Zollner.
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