Pathways to healing: In wake of abuse crisis in Catholic Church, insights on how Catholics can find healing
Oct. 31, 2018
Eileen Dombo, PhD, an associate professor at the National Catholic School of Social Work at The Catholic University of America, serves as the chairman of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Child Protection Advisory Board. She is the former director of counseling services for the DC Rape Crisis Center and is a consultant for a number of victim assistance organizations. Dr. Dombo, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, has extensive experience in counseling survivors of sexual violence and abuse and has a private psychotherapy practice. She has been teaching at Catholic University since 2000 and earned her master’s degree in social work and doctorate there. Dr. Dombo, a native of Long Island, New York, attends the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington with her family. In an interview with the Catholic Standard, Dr. Dombo reflected on how Catholics – including abuse survivors, the overall Catholic community and faithful priests carrying out their ministries – can find healing in the wake of the abuse crisis in the Church.
Asked what she’s learned in her experience about the issue of sexual abuse, Dr. Dombo said, “What I’ve learned is the social context is so important, because individuals blame themselves for what happened to them. If you don’t address the social context, then you have nothing to counter the narrative that it’s the individual’s fault.”
The understanding that “it’s not your fault” is extremely important for abuse survivors, she said. “You think about it in context of something traumatic that happened to you,” she said, adding that if one blames himself or herself for what happened, thinking it’s because of something he or she did or didn’t do, “this sets a trajectory for your life for all sorts of mental health problems, because you can’t reconcile yourself with what happened to you.”
She said as a result, abuse survivors can experience things like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or problems with trust in relationship with others.
“It’s important to put the responsibility for the behavior where it belongs,” she said.
Regarding the terms used for people who have experienced sexual abuse, Dr. Dombo said, “For some people, the term victim feels very powerless, whereas a survivor is someone who’s gone through a horrible experience and endured. Some people still identify as victims (when they) haven’t healed fully.”
Asked how sexual abuse survivors can find healing, she said, “The first step is to speak about it, to talk about it with someone you trust. There’s so much shame in silence, feeling you can’t say anything.”
Dr. Dombo noted that many hot lines and resources are available inside and outside the Church, and support groups that are helpful with healing. “The victim assistance coordinator within a diocese is a good place to start,” she said. The Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection & Safe Environment can be reached at 301-853-5328. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country.
“For a lot of people, the (abuse) experience drives them away from faith practice,” she said, adding that people struggling with their faith might want to talk with a spiritual director. “I’ve worked with survivors who find it healing or (an occasion for) reparation to talk to a priest and for that priest to hear it and apologize and tell them it wasn’t their fault… A pastoral response bearing witness to the trauma, bearing witness to someone’s pain, carries weight, particularly if it’s a leader from your faith tradition. The reason some turn away from their faith tradition is they feel that God abandoned them, there’s a sense of feeling abandoned and not protected. When someone is ready for that kind of experience, to have someone who represents the institution and represents Jesus Christ embrace you in that way and hold the pain you’ve been experiencing alone, there can be such a closeness to God in that moment, a sense of being cared for.”
She added, “When you see the Church acknowledging there are survivors and speaking directly to them and wanting to hear from them and hear their experiences… there’s great healing in being heard and believed and seen.”
When asked how the lay faithful can find healing in the wake of the abuse crisis, Dr. Dombo said, “The biggest piece is (for the Church) to acknowledge your trust has been broken, too… the acknowledgment of this behavior being done by someone you trusted and someone who held themselves to be the link between yourself and Jesus Christ. That’s a betrayal of monumental proportions.”
That healing can be fostered, she said, “the more that parishes engage in healing circles or Masses or town hall opportunities to come together as Catholics in the parish setting and speak about the pain they’re experiencing and support one another. Healing is about bringing what’s been in the dark into the light. When you’re no longer silent and (then) able to speak the truth, it’s very healing.”
Regarding the difficulty of learning that an admired priest or bishop has engaged in misconduct, Dr. Dombo said, “”People who engage in sexually abusive behavior can be very charming and have a certain level of seduction. They abuse the power and trust they have by crossing that boundary and doing things they shouldn’t be doing. This is where accountability becomes important. That person has to be held accountable for violating boundaries and violating the trust of others and abusing their power.”
Asked about the Archdiocese of Washington recently releasing the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors since 1948, she said, “I think it’s a good start. I do caution (that) you can never fully say this is a complete list, because you know there are people who haven’t come forward.” Qualifying such lists is important, she said, noting it’s important to add, “this is what we’ve been made aware of” and making clear “that the Archdiocese of Washington is open to people who haven’t come forward before.”
Dr. Dombo said that faithful priests serving in parishes and other ministries likewise need healing and support in the wake of the abuse crisis, as they deal with the trauma with those whom they serve. “That’s what’s happening to priests on the front lines,” she said. “They’re absorbing the knowledge of their brother priests and what they did, their behavior. They’re witnessing the pain in the pews. Some can feel very powerless to help.”
She said for priests, “the ability to name it, to speak to it plainly and clearly and not shroud it in secrecy, to condemn sexual abuse in all forms,” is important, as is taking the time “to pray about it and reflect when someone comes to me to talk about sexual abuse, do I know what to say or how to respond?” She noted that the archdiocese has sent priests resources to help them, and the Office of Child and Youth Protection & Safe Environment can also provide advice.
Peer support and spiritual directors can also provide important help to priests, she said.
Facing the abuse crisis in an honest and transparent manner is vital in order for members of the Catholic Church to find healing, she said. “As painful as it’s been, I think it’s really necessary. You really can’t heal and move forward until everything is brought to light… The ability to admit wrongdoing in the past can prevent wrongdoing in the future.”
Serving on the archdiocese’s Child Protection Advisory Board, she said, “allows me to bring my professional area of interest and expertise (serving survivors of sexual trauma), it allows me to bring that to serve the Church and through that, to continue to serve survivors, and to help the Church in Washington follow these policies in the charter in an effort to prevent future victims.”
Dr. Dombo added, “I do have hope for the future of the Church. The Church is the people. People are demanding honesty and transparency and healing, and I think that will have a huge impact. I think the leadership in the Church right now is hearing the call of the people in the pews, and they know they’re watching to see how they respond.”
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