Healing Abuse Victims Is Key: Priest Says Spiritual Start Paves the Way Forward
Father Dominic Allain is the international pastoral director of ‘Grief to Grace’ Ministries, a retreat program for victims of abuse.
Father Dominic Allain, a London-based priest of the Archdiocese of Southwark, England, is the international pastoral director of “Grief to Grace” Ministries, a retreat program for victims of abuse, including clergy sexual abuse. He also serves as an adjunct spiritual director at the diocesan seminary for Southwark, holds a diploma in counseling, and has completed courses in spiritual direction and the ministry of deliverance.
In an email interview with Register correspondent Judy Roberts, he talked about his work with “Grief to Grace” and its relevance to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.
How did you become involved with “Grief to Grace,” and what do you do as international pastoral director?
I first encountered “Grief to Grace” in the U.S. as a participant, so I know the power it has to heal and transform deep wounds firsthand. In the light of that experience, I returned to England and proposed to my bishop that we seek to pilot the retreat in England.
The role of international pastoral director means that as well as running the British site, I help train new teams for sites both in the U.S. and farther afield. I also play a role in promoting our work and generally seeking to inform clergy and laity about the particular chronic legacy of abuse and what this means if we want to address the ongoing abuse crisis within the Church herself as well as wider society.
How frequently do you encounter victims of sexual abuse in your priestly ministry? Do they typically present themselves in confession or seek your help in pastoral counseling? Or does the sexual abuse reveal itself as they talk about other problems?
It’s certainly the case that people do not always start by naming sexual abuse outright, unless they have reached a point of breakdown or profound crisis. Unlike, say, a physical attack, [sexual] abuse doesn’t always leave a visible impact at the time, and because the shame makes people conceal it and just carry on, they often take a long time to trace the difficulties they are having to the abuse as the root cause. A prudent confessor or spiritual director, in ongoing conversations with someone who is seeking to live a prayerful and authentic Christian life, but repeatedly presents with compulsions or addictions, especially in the area of sexuality, or with behaviors that make them feel shame and self-hatred (like abortion) or a history of particular difficulties in relationships, will gently encourage the person to look for the roots of such behaviors. It is at that point that the person may realize for the first time that many of the behaviors they struggle with and attribute to their own moral weakness or fault are actually reflexes: defense mechanisms that arose in the wake of abuse.
Nowadays, my ministry is different because people know the area I work in, so there are many disclosures because people seek out someone to whom they feel they can safely make a disclosure and be believed. I do a lot of ordinary spiritual direction with seminarians and religious, among whom there are significant numbers with abusive histories, including sexual abuse. It is the brave ones, the ones who seek to grow in faith and virtue, who reveal it.
What can a retreat program provide that the sacraments cannot?
At its most practical, the retreat provides a very safe, loving and dedicated environment in which everything is specifically geared towards the particular kinds of issues that survivors bring, one where the abnormal and shameful isn’t going to be so shocking because we are used to dealing with the symptoms that abuse leaves and because we can use our understanding of the psychology of abuse to begin to be able to put a diagnosis to what’s happening, which is often a really helpful stage in healing any health crisis. If I developed an ulcer on my leg, I wouldn't simply pray and go to receive the sacraments. I would also seek the best medical care I could get. That such care exists helps me understand that God cares for me, that he works also through other human agencies
I would say that it is a bit like the difference between a consultation with a general medical practitioner and a stay in the hospital for longer, specialist diagnosis and treatment. Of course, priests and the sacraments can be part of the healing, but an abuse history requires specialist help, in particular, an understanding of the kind of ambivalence that survivors have, on the one hand wanting to confront the pain and heal and on the other easily distressed and triggered as they do confront or reveal that pain.
Because of your work with “Grief to Grace,” you were invited to meet last summer with members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. How well did they seem to understand the needs of clergy sexual-abuse victims?
I had the strong impression that the priority of the spiritual realm in addressing the wounds of abuse was not something they had considered to any great extent, and the idea of establishing healing programs, particularly a program like “Grief to Grace,” which models a distinctly Catholic integration of spiritual and psychological healing, had not formed part of their remit. While the committee as it was then structured contained a wealth of expertise, as ever, the emphasis, as one would perhaps expect from its title, was on preventing the same thing happening again. Vital though this is, above all the ecclesial priority must be the need to bring concrete healing to victims of clergy abuse (as Pope Benedict said in his “Letter to the Catholics of Ireland” in 2010).
It was also my impression that the committee had no power of its own to do very much except discuss and advise. When I met with them in June 2017, the commission had not actually had any meetings with Pope Francis. They would only do so a few months later, just as they came to the end of their three-year term. The only two noteworthy items from the published report from that plenary meeting last September are the announcement that the commission had now been established and that most of the members of the commission were to be replaced by new ones. This staggeringly lackluster progress seems to have been tolerated by the Catholic media and commentators, or perhaps there was an element of wish fulfillment in the idea that we now have a papal commission dealing with a problem the scale of which we don’t really want to acknowledge anyway.
Whatever the reason, after four years of a papal commission, there are no concrete measures to heal victims coming from the Vatican. ... Nor does the committee afford any comfort to the faithful who are devastated by the scale of the abuse crisis and the apparent inability of the Church to get close with it. Whatever it may be doing to safeguard minors, I would advise no one to anticipate any definitive course of action from the commission in the key sphere of healing victims. Pope Francis’ eagerly heralded committee on abuse has been a profound disappointment.
“Grief to Grace” makes use of “Living Scripture” exercises to help survivors unite their suffering with that of Christ’s passion. Can you explain how uniting one’s sufferings with Christ’s is healing and not morbid or depressing for abuse victims?
I know from my own experience of the retreat that the Catholic tradition of praying the Stations of the Cross meant that I easily and quickly felt totally at home with this way of opening my wounds to Jesus in his passion, but I think that like so much about Catholic devotion, it actually conforms to a deep psychological truth. Love has to be incarnated. It is not a matter of feelings only.
So, yes, the trauma of Jesus’ passion is grim, but it calls forth reserves of compassion and love at seeing such suffering. Abuse survivors are often frozen, unable to cry. Part of the experience of the group is holding up a kind of mirror to suffering so that a person may recover the sense that they themselves deserve compassion. Any stirring of compassion for another helps me get in touch with the compassion I should feel for myself, in the same way that I can only love out of some experience of first being loved. Jesus’ passion holds up a mirror. It shows how tragic it is when someone loving and wholly good and innocent is betrayed by someone close to him, is brutalized, humiliated, mocked and tortured by those who are supposed to be the paragons of moral and legal justice. It shows how painful it is to be unable to run away or fight back and how glorious a victory it is if it were possible to find new power and meaning through such suffering.
Even at a psychological level, this is a story everyone with abuse can relate to. To the perennial and essential question “Where was God in my suffering?” comes the answer that he was suffering not alone in solidarity, but out of love for me, and not suffering and dying just to teach me to be stoical, but because he wants to take me through suffering into a newness of life and love in him.
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.