Journeying From Grief to Grace: How a Retreat Program Helps Sex-Abuse Victims Heal
Support is vital to recovery.
Two experiences of sexual abuse, one by a priest, left Marty Meyer like many victims of trauma: outwardly normal, but inwardly distant from people, especially men.
After trying therapy and prayer for inner healing, he finally found help through “Grief to Grace: Healing the Wounds of Abuse,” a retreat program started in 2005 by Theresa Burke, a psychotherapist who created Rachel’s Vineyard retreats for those suffering from post-abortion trauma. It was Burke’s discovery that many post-abortive women had also experienced sexual abuse that led her to develop the second program.
Meyer said Grief to Grace, which takes place over five to seven days, can succeed where therapy alone does not because, in conventional therapy, about the time the client is ready to open up, the session is ending. “You never really have a chance to unpack this significant event of your life,” he said.
Furthermore, he added, “Oftentimes, talk therapy re-traumatizes you, because you’re reliving [the abuse], whereas you’re experiencing pain in the retreat, but in a safe environment and with peers who all suffered something similar.”
Grief to Grace seeks to integrate both psychological and spiritual healing for the aftermath of abuse through therapeutic facilitation, discussions, grief work, journaling, group activities and what are known as “Living Scriptures,” which help victims unite their suffering with that of Christ. Participants make a verbal commitment of confidentiality to each other at the start of the retreat and also sign a statement of understanding on the retreat application that includes information about confidentiality.
Each retreat team includes one or two therapists, a priest and four to six facilitators, nearly all of whom have been abuse victims themselves. Meyer, for example, and his wife, Jeanette, who made one of the first Grief to Grace retreats in 2007, now serve on Grief to Grace teams in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota.
Open to any adult or teen who has experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse, as well as abandonment or neglect, Grief to Grace has helped a variety of victims, including those who have been abused by clergy. Since Burke presented the program at the 2007 National Victim Assistance Coordinators meeting organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dioceses have been covering the cost of the retreat for clergy-abuse victims.
In addition, bishops in the U.S., Canada, Jamaica and the United Kingdom have endorsed the program. Among them is Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese, one of several places in the U.S. where Grief to Grace retreats are conducted. Bishop Olmsted said the shame experienced by those who are sexually abused can be more difficult to overcome even than anger, resentment, grief or other emotions, and that those who have suffered such harm may not be able to heal the trauma through their own efforts alone. For that reason, he said he is grateful to have had Grief to Grace in his diocese for the last four years.
In a 2016 letter of support for the program, the bishop said, “Those who have suffered need to experience the loving and healing ministry of the Church. This can be particularly true when a person has been abused by a representative of the Church in the past.”
Inviting God Into Suffering
Still, the inclusion of priests on Grief to Grace retreat teams has been questioned because of the possibility their presence could be distressing to victims of clergy abuse. Likewise, the program’s spiritual component has been criticized as an effort to rush the healing process by spiritualizing it.
Burke said, however, that all the priests who serve on teams are skilled at validating victims’ injuries and showing deep empathy, respect and sadness for what victims have experienced. In turn, she said, victims can benefit from having a priest witness their anger and outrage in a safe, nonthreatening environment. “Priests joining them during the anger work, or weeping as they hear a story of clergy abuse and apologizing for the way members of the faith have abused their trust and their bodies — this is key for those victims who have been traumatized by priests.”
Furthermore, Burke said, Grief to Grace doesn’t spiritualize anything, but, rather, invites God into the suffering of the victims. “We do not avoid the real crosses that people carry which have almost crushed them. We embrace that reality in its most grotesque form as we accept every aspect of stories never before shared. No one is censored or put into any ‘spiritual box.’ The overwhelming suffering associated with moral injury and traumatic experiences requires a renewal of relationships, a recovery of humanity and a regained sense of purpose and meaning through compassionate love so that the healing process can begin.”
Amid all the talk about the clergy-abuse scandal, Burke said, “No one is talking about healing or how people can help victims besides extending statutes of limitations and more lawsuits, panels, investigations and more apologies. … Victims do want someone to address the soul-shattering spiritual injuries of abuse.”
Father Dominic Allain, international pastoral director of Grief to Grace, said many people, bishops and priests included, lack an informed understanding of what sexual-abuse victims live with day-to-day. “Clergy can be fearful of the anger of survivors, instead of understanding that it is a necessary and appropriate reaction, and actually related to a great grief and in many cases a kind of rejected love of the Church, which should have been a place of safety and refuge and instead has been a place of violation.”
For Meyer, Grief to Grace provided the healing he needed to pursue the diaconate, a calling he had first felt in 1997 but did not respond to, mostly because he felt overwhelmed by the shame and unworthiness related to the abuses he experienced. In 2008, when he went through Grief to Grace, he said, “It addressed the core of everything I needed to be healed of to where I became free to finally pursue [the diaconate].” He was ordained two and a half years ago.
Father Allain said he tries to explain to anyone who will listen why abuse isn’t something that a person just “gets over” with prayer or counseling or compensation and why, as a Church, the priority must be to bring concrete healing to victims.
“One of the things I keep trying to say to bishops is just sending abuse victims for counseling is not an adequate response, even clinically, let alone at the level of the spirit.”
The Therapeutic Triangle
Father Allain said Grief to Grace goes deeper than counseling alone can because Jesus Christ present in word and sacrament becomes part of what might be called the “therapeutic triangle.”
“This is what makes it a safe place to open up, not just from a sociological point of view, but because the spirit, not just the psyche, is seeking healing. Abuse, especially if it happened in the context of my faith community, involves all kinds of wounds to my relationship with God — wounds in my perception of who God is and when and how he is present to me.”
The presence of other retreatants and team members who have known such suffering also makes the experience different from counseling, Father Allain said. “What you actually need to heal from the betrayal of trauma is not just a therapist who is appropriately empathetic for exactly 50 minutes twice a week. To truly heal you need the normal human caring and sympathy of people who will weep for what you suffered, who will share your own sorrow or anger, who will tell you that you are not crazy because they, too, have felt the same way. This is what having to keep your wound a secret denied you. Telling a counselor in an office can be a little sterile by comparison.”
Burke said this is also why Grief to Grace is not about quick fixes, but a process. Prospective participants are asked to fill out an application in which they define their expectations. “They know before coming that it will be a lot of work and will be challenging to face the trauma of their histories and practice new ways of relating to triggers. Most people are very eager to do this work, and the fact that they do it together, helping and supporting each other, is where they see not their brokenness, but true resiliency.”
Participants, Burke said, go home from the retreat with new insights, tools, resources and relationships. For example, the Meyers host gatherings for retreat participants, providing an opportunity for adoration and prayer, as well as talking about successes and struggles. As Burke said, “They become part of the Grief to Grace community and have the option to stay connected via nonpublic social media and local community gatherings offering support, prayer and encouragement.”
Judy Roberts writes from
Besides Phoenix, “Grief to Grace” retreats are currently being offered in the U.S. in Philadelphia; Minneapolis; Houston; Newark, New Jersey; Portland, Oregon; and Palm Beach, Florida. Other sites include London; Kelowna and Yellowknife, Canada; Kingston, Jamaica; Buenos Aires, Argentina; San Salvador, El Salvador; Perth and Hobart, Australia; Cote d’Azur, France; Panama; and St. Lucia. Online: GrieftoGrace.org