'A Deeper Glimpse Into Their Suffering'

'A Deeper Glimpse Into Their Suffering'

BC conference explores plight, treatment of clergy-abuse survivors

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

In an atmosphere of solemnity and gratitude, Boston College last week hosted a day-long conference on the assessment and treatment of clergy sexual abuse, highlighted by the appearances of Boston Archbishop Rev. Sean P. O'Malley, OFM, Cap., and an abuse survivor and her family.

Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley talks to Graduate School of Social Work faculty members Vincent Lynch (right) and Hugo Kamya at last week's conference on clergy sexual abuse. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"Clergy Sexual Abuse: Models of Assessment and Treatment," held on Jan. 14 in McGuinn Hall, brought together some 150 social workers, psychologists, nurses and other mental health professionals, all of whom are providing psychotherapy or counseling to abuse survivors.

Sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Work in collaboration with BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative and the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach of the Archdiocese of Boston, the conference included talks and workshops given by academics and practitioners on various aspects of clergy sexual abuse. Topics covered family relationships, treatment for various abuse-related conditions such as anxiety disorders and PTSD, and the theological and psychological role of the priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Two of the more compelling events during the day were an opening address by Archbishop O'Malley and a talk by Jeanne Cratty, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse who was accompanied by her parents Bill and Mary. The Crattys' frank, emotional account of their experiences visibly moved many in the audience, including Archbishop O'Malley, who sat in the front row almost directly across from the family [see related story].

A panel discussion with four other sexual abuse survivors took place during the afternoon.

In his remarks, Archbishop O'Malley praised the work of the mental health professionals gathered in McGuinn Auditorium. "We are all grateful for your presence here, for your involvement in providing this very important therapy to survivors," he said. "We all have much to learn, and hopefully days like today will better equip all of us to help survivors, by giving us a deeper glimpse into their suffering."

Archbishop O'Malley's talk also underscored a central theme of the conference, and a major challenge in the response to the Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse scandal: ensuring that faith and spiritual support, as well as professional psychotherapy and counseling, are part of the healing process for survivors and others affected by the crisis.

"Many of those who have been abused by priests have found it difficult to return to the Church," said Archbishop O'Malley, discussing the numerous visits and conversations he has had with abuse survivors since his installation last summer. "They grieve at being cut off from their spiritual background. They feel a great sense of loss, and a latent desire to reconnect with their faith community. These are unmet needs that cannot be ignored."

The conference co-organizers, speaking at a mid-day press conference, affirmed Archbishop O'Malley's comments. "When you have a largely secular therapeutic profession treating parishioners with strong religious beliefs and practices, there can be gaps of understanding," said Terence Keane, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "We all want to learn from one another, and we hope this event will be part of that process."

GSSW Continuing Education Director Vincent Lynch said, "There is ample evidence of the link between people's spiritual lives and emotional healing. Faith, prayer and other spiritual activities are increasingly seen as valuable assets to mental health. So, one important goal here is to identify best practices that support all these aspects."

Another co-organizer, Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach Director Barbara Thorp - who is spearheading the archdiocese's response to survivors and parishioners - echoed Archbishop O'Malley's praise for the mental health professionals in her remarks, which preceded the Crattys' appearance.

Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley speaks to the media during a Jan. 14 conference, held at the Graduate School of Social Work, that brought together mental health professionals to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
"You've provided care under what could be described as battlefield conditions," said Thorp, noting the intense media coverage and other factors she said often brought additional stress and trauma to survivors and their families. Approximately 200 therapists, including some GSSW alumni, are providing services by arrangement with the archdiocese, she said.

Thorp said her office and mental health therapists had encountered "unique needs" in their dealings with survivors. Some wanted to return to the specific places where they had been abused, while others needed a "safe" location other than a church or therapist's office in which to meet. Those who had been given religious objects as gifts by their abusers often expressed a desire to return or dispose of them in some way.

"We realize we're on a significant learning curve in terms of our dealing with the aftermath," she said. "The work of restoring trust is a major focus for the near future. It will take all of us to rebuild what has been lost, and to have a church all recognize as being committed to respectful human relations, in which we take responsibility for actions as we strive to be holy and respond to the commandment to love one another.

"It is important that the Church not back away from the retellings of the horror that the survivors and their families have experienced."

The Jan. 14 event was the first in a series of anticipated collaborations between the archdiocese and BC on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, organizers said.

A similarly themed conference for the priests, deacons and bishops in the archdiocese is planned for later this year, and a recent grant through the Church in the 21st Century will help fund the development of assessment models to aid parishes struggling with sexual abuse issues. In addition, several articles based on presentations at last week's conference will be published in professional journals.


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