Day of Healing Colloquium, St. Mary’s Church, December 16, 2018 by Rebecca Shiner

Rebecca Shiner is Professor of Psychology at Colgate, where she has taught since 1999. Her PhD is in clinical psychology, and her research focuses on personality development in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. She is married to Mark Shiner, who is a Catholic deacon and the Catholic campus minister at Colgate. She and Mark have two children--Leo, a student at Brown University, and Sophie, a high school senior.  Rebecca will be starting our panel by talking about the ways that Catholics can respond psychologically to heal the deep breach of trust that has occurred as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. 

I am glad to be talking with all of you today; of course, I would prefer to be talking with you about a different topic altogether. But, given that our Church needs to face its history of hiding clergy sexual abuse, it is good that we will be having a frank discussion of this topic today.

Father Jason asked me to address with all of you the ways that we can move forward in healing of the breach of trust between the Church and her people. I think that Father Jason asked me to address this topic because I am a clinical psychologist by training, and I conduct research on how people manage their negative emotions. However, I am well-suited for addressing this topic for another, more personal reason: I have all kinds of negative emotions about the clergy sexual abuse crisis myself! I am hurt and sad; some of the men called to be shepherds to the flock that makes up the Church have instead turned out to be wolves attacking and wounding the sheep. I am also angry about the ways that Church leaders have covered up clergy sexual abuse of both young people and adults. Many of us hoped back in the early 2000s that the Church had finally begun to reckon with its past history—that the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and priests were finally acknowledging openly the ways that clergy had abused parishioners and dealing with this crisis with honesty and integrity. It turns out that our hopes for change were not entirely well- founded; some leaders continued to cover up crimes and failed to take this crisis seriously. So, I share the feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal that many of you likely feel.

I have several ideas about how we and the Church more broadly can respond effectively to this breach of trust. I am going to organize these suggestions based on the framework used in the psychological research on coping with hardship, loss, and stress. For decades, psychologists have been very interested in trying to understand what the most effective means are for responding to the inevitable suffering that people encounter in life. This literature divides possible coping responses into three big categories: social support, emotion-focused coping, and problem-focused coping. Social support involves reaching out to others for care, concrete help, and information. In emotion-focused coping, we do not try to change the source of stress; rather, we try to change our emotional response to that stress. And, finally, in problem-focused coping, we try to change the stressor itself. I am going to address each of these three big categories of coping strategies in turn and will offer some suggestions of how each one is relevant to our responses to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

First, social support is just what it sounds like it: reaching out to others to receive and offer empathy and caring, concrete help, and additional information. As humans, we naturally turn to other people when we are suffering I think that social support has the potential to play an especially important role in how Catholics can move forward. This crisis has occurred in part because of an attempt on the part of the Church hierarchy to maintain secrecy about what has happened—to keep parishioners unaware of clergy abuse by moving priests from parish to parish, by failing to report clergy to the proper legal authorities, by failing to address abusive situations that people recognize may be present. Social support is a vital way to counteract this secrecy and the isolation that it breeds. We can act as the body of Christ, by providing for the emotional and practical needs of people who have been victimized and assaulted. We do not have to wait for the official Church to organize us in this way; we can create communities where victims feel safe and supported. Social support is also important for those of us who are feeling deeply disillusioned about the Church; we need to stay in conversation with each other as we move forward.

The second big category of coping responses is called emotion-focused coping. Emotion- focused coping involves strategies that modify our emotional responses to painful, stressful, or difficult experiences. For example, if you receive disappointing news about something, an emotion-focused coping response might be to re-interpret the meaning of that news for your life; you might be able to imagine some unanticipated good that will come of the bad news, rather than focusing just on the loss. A lot of emotion-focused coping strategies are quite bad for us, especially ones that involve turning away from the truth of the situation—strategies like avoiding dealing with the problem, denial of the problem, or wishful thinking. The Church has engaged in all of these unhealthy emotion-focused strategies for decades, and it has led to considerable harm. Any emotion-focused coping strategies we use for dealing with the clergy sexual abuse crisis will have to fully engage the reality of the situation.

As we think through possible emotion-focused coping responses to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, is essential that we accept that we have the right to feel whatever way we do about this crisis. No one can dictate to us a right or wrong way to feel, nor should we judge others for their responses. It may be uncomfortable to have so many negative feelings about the Church and its leadership because we have been taught to respect the hierarchy of the Church. I would argue that in this case, it is a sign of respect to be disappointed, hurt, or angry. We rightly expect more from our clergy and the hierarchy of the Church—more transparency, more accountability, more sense of urgency, more love; it is because of our respect that we are distraught.

Just as we cannot dictate how people respond emotionally to this crisis, we must be careful not to demand that those who have been wronged by the Church forgive their abusers or the Church as a whole. Forgiveness is rarely a thing to be aimed at directly. Rather, forgiveness comes about more often as an indirect by-product of a long process of healing and as a grace from God.

One emotion-focused strategy that I think will be especially helpful is adopting a self- compassionate approach to any suffering one has experienced as a result of this crisis. Self- compassion is the practice of treating oneself with the same care and kindness with which one would tend to approach others; when we adopt a self-compassionate stance, we accept our negative emotional reactions to things without judging ourselves and we recognize the ways that our suffering connects us with all other humans. By adopting a self-compassionate approach, both victims and people who care about them are likely to open up more possibilities for healing.

The third and final big category of coping strategies is called problem-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, we try to fix the situation that has led to the suffering in the first place. Problem-focused coping is a great strategy if the situation is one that we have control over; if wedon’t have control over the situation, problem-focused coping might just make the suffering worse. For example, you could be suffering because of an unjust situation at work; if your workplace is somewhere where you can effect change, then organizing with co-workers to change your situation is an important step. If you have no ability to change your workplace, attempts at organizing will just leave you frustrated and discouraged. In the case of the Catholic Church, problem-focused coping is tricky. To what extent do lay people have any ability to make change in institutional practice? I am not sure. I am going to leave it to my fellow panelists to address the potential for problem-focused strategies within the Catholic Church more fully.

My final recommendation for responding to this crisis is a very practice one. I believe that the Church should provide victims of clergy sexual abuse with therapy free of charge. We have some therapies for addressing trauma that are reasonably well-supported, and the Church should pay for victims to receive these therapies. The Church shouldn’t be funding treatments that don’t have research support backing them up, and should look to psychologists for guidance on what treatments work best. This is the least that the Church can do to support the people who have been hurt by the people they wrongly trusted.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that we, as a local parish community, and we, as a universal Church, will embrace some of these strategies for helping victims and the Church as a whole to move forward, in full truth and in love for the most vulnerable people among us.


Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Shiner. All rights reserved. Posted to with permission.

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