When it comes to abuse victims, the Body of Christ keeps score

3 mins read
Priestly collar

Having written a book on the sex-abuse crisis in the Church, it usually takes a lot to shock me. Even so, I was horrified to read a priest in Rhode Island recently making the vile and flippant claim that at least “pedophilia doesn’t kill anyone.”

We will come back to his demonstrably false claim in a moment, but contrast it with that of a priest who understands the costs of this crisis: Father Hans Zollner, a Jesuit psychotherapist who is president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In a recent talk at Villanova University, he admitted that “much damage has been done to the Church” due to sexual abuse, “but more damage has been done to human beings.” This led Zollner to use a striking phrase: “institutional traumatization.”

What does that mean? It means that all of us who make up the Body of Christ are affected by the trauma of abuse — even if we don’t know it. Abuse leaves a trail of devastation in the immediate victim, who deserves every form of help and healing the Church can offer. At the same time, abuse leaves an often hidden trail of destruction in all those connected to the primary victim — family, co-workers, friends, parishioners — and, indeed, across the entire Church and world. This is not just basic psychology but also basic theology. As St. Paul first taught us: When one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer (cf. 1 Cor 12:14ff).

Pope John Paul II expanded on this in 1984 in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia: “One can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world. In other words, there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family” (No.16).

So the “secret” sins of clergy who abused, and the bishops who kept the secret and covered up the abuse, are even today still having a profound effect “on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family.” As Carla Grosch-Miller’s recent essay in a new book “Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The Practical Theology of Trauma” puts it with great succinctness, “Many are the victims when a minister commits sexual misconduct.”

That message — that the victims are many — sadly does not seem to have registered with Catholics today, including that Rhode Island priest. So it is important for Catholics to begin to take stock of the burgeoning literature in traumatology going back at least 30 years now, detailing the utter devastation caused by sexual abuse.

The clinician and psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold, who just died a few weeks ago at the age of 94, wrote a landmark book in 1991, “Soul Murder: the Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation.” If asked to name one book accessible for the general reader, I would start here. Shengold makes it painfully clear that child sex abuse leads to the death of the soul, and very often of the body, too, via suicide, addictions and other fatal pathologies.

Shengold’s book was followed in 1992 by the Harvard clinician Judith Herman’s international best-seller “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.” Hers is also a must-read book, winsomely clear and cogently written to avoid the jargon one sometimes finds in clinical writing.

Since 1992, the field has grown considerably, and much of that literature was captured by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in his 2015 book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” also very accessible. For a more specialized and recent collection that assumes some clinical background, I have found Bernd Huppertz’s “Approaches to Psychic Trauma: Theory and Practice” (2019) helpful.

What has become overwhelming and repeatedly clear in the clinical literature over the last several decades is not just that abuse is one of the most devastating adverse childhood experiences possible, but that it has spillover effects into the victim’s family, work, schooling and community. Sexual abuse often inflicts some of the most complex traumatic responses that clinicians see, requiring years and years of enormous therapeutic effort to heal — and then, often only partly. But before seeking out that healing, victims often lose jobs, spouses, marriages and much else as life falls apart and they struggle just to survive.

What about those who do not survive? For some, the abuse is so devastating, so overwhelming, that they cannot cope. They seek relief through drugs and alcohol and not infrequently wind up dead because of overdoses or long-term substance use destroying their bodies long after abusive clerics murdered their souls.

In addition, clinical studies in numerous countries have indicated that up to 80% of those who attempt suicide were victims of child sex abuse. We have also had plenty of easily accessible newspaper and magazine reports for at least two decades now of Catholic victims across this country (and in other countries) who have taken their own life.

Following van der Kolk, and in light of Father Zollner’s phrase, we could say of sex abuse in the Catholic Church that “the body of Christ keeps the score,” and it is a lethal one. Nobody should be in doubt: Abuse of children is fatal — spiritually and physically — and all Catholics are implicated.

Adam A.J. DeVille is author of “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.95). He writes from Indiana.