Hell, hope and healing: a four-part series

This story appears in the Hell, hope and healing feature series. View the full series.

by Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea

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Editor's note: This blog introduces "Hell, hope and healing", an NCR four-part series on sexual abuse. Part 1 of the series has been posted online. Parts 2, 3 and 4 will be published first in our print edition first and then posted to our website. You will be able to read the whole series at the feature series page Hell, hope and healing. Special feature: Download the complete report here.

Since 2002, we rightly have been bombarded by stories about sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Many Catholics have felt the church has been singled out as a particularly heinous committer of crimes. There is truth to this, but it is also important to contextualize clergy abuse as a part of the wider phenomenon of serious child maltreatment that is still much too prevalent in this country and in others.

The first article in this four-part series, therefore, will place clergy sexual abuse within the universe of child abuse and neglect and will describe the damage suffered by victims of early maltreatment. The other three parts will be published in upcoming issues of NCR, and later posted to NCRonline.org.

We also have heard many times since the church crisis exploded into the public square that victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse are damaged for life, that these horrible experiences never leave them and instead turn their lives into hell on earth forever. While this can occur, it does not have to. Survivors of adverse childhood experiences can heal and the second article in this series extends hope by describing what processes can help that happen.

In the third article, I extend the discussion beyond healing to discuss the possibility, now validated through research, that some trauma survivors actually experience post-traumatic growth. While never suggesting that somehow the survivor is better off because of the abuse, it is possible to derive meaning from those traumatic experiences and the healing processes addressed in Part 2 of this series. At that point, survivors often develop capabilities, interests and skills that add fullness to their lives. Part 3 also suggests that institutions and organizations affected by trauma can strive for growth by understanding the parts they are playing in healing or impeding their own and others' recoveries. 

Finally, in Part 4 of the series, I offer some practical suggestions for making empowered choices among healing resources. 

[Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea is author of Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church and a psychologist who has been working with sexual abuse survivors for 30 years.]

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