It’s been hard to hear the news from Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury which reports that some 300 Roman Catholic priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades. Attorney General Josh Shapiro disclosed that the actual numbers are higher. Almost as disturbing is that the church did everything in its power to cover up the crimes and protect the perpetrators. And perhaps the word perpetrator is too sterile. Maybe we should admit that these men have become monsters in the lives of those they molested, their families and communities.
Adult Heroes Who Slay Monsters
Several champions have shown up to help us find a way to heal. Among them are Paul Dorsch and Nanette Kirsch.
Paul Dorsch at age 13 was the victim of Fr. Jack Hoehl, who was his headmaster at Quigley High School in Pittsburgh. After his initial battles with depression, substance abuse disorders and chronic physical problems, Paul came forward in 1997 to tell his story. Despite being dismissed without apology by then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, he continued to fight for the dignity of those who were abused. His determined persistence paid off. The grand jury released public accounts of the actions of the priests and responses by the church. His story of resilience has inspired dozens and dozens of boys, young men and adults to find their voices and to seek long neglected care for the trauma they suffer.
Nanette Kirsch published her book, “Denial: Abuse, Addiction, and a Life Derailed” she tells the tragic real-life story of a Pennsylvania grand jury report victim of childhood abuse at the hands of a priest. Her accounts of suffering, addiction, and suicide have opened the door for others who had been hiding in shadows for so many years. Recently, she bravely faced the ‘monsters hiding in her own closet’ as the scandal in PA continued to unfold. Her most recent blog names her abuser and tells of the long-term effects the molestation has had in her present-day waking and sleeping life.
Kids Slay Monsters Too; Shane’s Story
It is a whole different battle for children and adolescents to confront a monster. Telling the truth to power when you are so vulnerable makes it very scary. And everyone has power over kids. Exposing a monster can mean losing your family, your school, and your friends. Trying to find someone who is safe and trustable with such awful information is daunting.
Shane was 14 years old when I met him. The community had chalked him up as a hopeless loss. He was already addicted to drugs, was committing juvenile crimes and seemed bound for a life behind bars. As fate would have it however, Shane ended up in our treatment center because of the rather high-profile nature of his situation. He summoned courage deep within him and told a teacher that his probation officer had been sexually abusing him for several months. The court determined that due to these circumstances treatment should be afforded at no cost and allowed him to remain with his family.
Many studies show that a primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships. Shane was lucky in that he had a mother who loved him deeply. She was a good role model who offered him continual reassurance and a safe home. His middle school teachers believed him and saw great potential. Counselors and medical staff at the treatment center embraced him. These are a combination of factors which contributed to his remarkable resilience.
Shane was very hesitant to talk in group and individual sessions. He never made eye contact and showed signs of depression. His mother reported that he was having night terrors and rarely slept for more than a few minutes. His first counselor asked if I would consider taking over the case since my experience with abused boys was well known. Things did not go well until I decided to disclose the fact that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse as well.
The boy began to reveal his history of victimization at the hands of the probation officer and earlier abuse from a family acquaintance. He trusted me because I really understood. Before long, Shane was joking around with the other boys in group and showed signs of hope and joy. When I asked if anyone might be interested in starting a Narcotics Anonymous group for kids, Shane volunteered to help get it going and assumed a leadership role. Later, we encouraged him to enroll in junior golf at a local public course. The sport allowed him to compete against himself, set and achieve personal goals, and re-introduced him to playing. When we talked about hopes and dreams, the boy said that he wanted to become a master mechanic. Shane’s mother reported that night terrors were gone and that he slept as many as six hours without waking. He successfully completed outpatient treatment after about six months.
I got a phone call from Shane and his Mom two years after I left the area and moved to North Carolina. They told me that he had received his three year sobriety chip from NA and graduated from high school. In addition, Shane was enrolled at Job Corps where he could be licensed as a master mechanic when completed. What had appeared to be a dead end life of struggle and heartache turned into a life buoyed by resilience, hope and love. He ended our conversation by asking me to keep helping boys like him. His message to other survivors was;
“Be brave even when you are blaming yourself and all you feel is fear, guilt and shame. Someone will help. There is nothing worth staying in hell.”
Note: It is always safe to call a local Child Advocacy Center
Exposing and Vanquishing Monsters
The work required in exposing monsters involves a great deal of insight, courage, and strength. They don’t want the light to invade their darknesses. They need for you to think they reside in the past, that you have moved on, and that they have far less power than you have given them. They thrive and feed on minimization and denial. As you allow them to whisper their lies, they provide false comfort and security until you doubt they ever existed in the first place. But their residence in your interior world is only taking up more and more secret space. When things begin to happen which remind you of the pain you endured, a glimmer of light breaks through. Your ego rejects the notion that it is important and informs you to keep it cerebral. And the monsters are rooting for you to do so too. They want you to intellectualize so that the cracks can be plastered over and the light extinguished. But if you have done some work, and recognize the need to break open the walls, the monsters will be exposed in all of their ugliness. This is when your insight, courage, and strength are summoned.
One of the things you must do is to name your monster(s) and call out the damage they have done. You tell them you know who they are. You bring them into the here and now as you tear open their hiding place. When you inform them they really are just a swim coach named Jack Nelson, a trainer named Larry Nassar, a tenth-grade science teacher named Randolph Byrd, or a priest named John Hoehl who crossed all of your boundaries and destroyed your innocence, a legion of dreams and memories are unleashed. These dreams and memories are metaphors for healing.
They are the wee small voice of the psyche and inner child telling of the impact of the abuse you endured. They can be nightmarish but are filled with symbols to assist us as we overcome the years of silence. They tell us that though you had been rendered voiceless, you are no longer that stifled victim. Now that the monster has a name and is faced with his crimes, he can no longer lurk in the darkness.
An important tool for expelling the darkness that I have used in my professional and personal life is ‘staging a rescue’. It has provided a path to freedom for so many people (including me). When I was working with a group of eight sexually abused boys several years ago, their agony spilled over into my own shadows. Though I had done much to deal with the sexual abuse I experienced as a boy, it hadn’t been enough. There was still a frightened kid in me who was living in terror of monsters. I kept thinking about how I must have been a seductive, cute boy who brought it all on himself. It must have been my fault. After all, I allowed the abuse to continue. I remembered how worried I was that my mother would find out.
Then, a confidant and colleague introduced me to John Bradfield’s staged rescue for survivors of abuse. In this exercise of guided imagery, I was to visualize myself as the strong adult I had become. Then I was instructed to see myself driving up to the place where I was abused. I broke through the door, ran up the stairs and burst into the room in which the man was about to molest me as a child. I shoved him out of the way, scooped my young self into my arms and made a daring getaway. I literally saved myself. This is the essence of the work to be done. A new freedom and a new happiness began to sink deep into my psyche. More work had to be done, of course, but the monster had no more power over me.
A Cry for Morality
The Catholic Church has covered up for monsters. American Bishops, Cardinals and the Vatican historically protected men who abused vulnerable children. In the past, there was a ‘playbook’ which spelled out mechanisms for shielding accused priests from legitimate punishments. Unfortunately, there is still a culture of minimization and denial at all levels of authority within the institution. Cardinal Wuerl stands by his actions which allowed priests to escape legal consequences and refuses to resign. The Vatican expresses sorrow and sadness. But there is little-proposed action that addresses the deep wounds of those thousands from Pennsylvania. It smacks of all-to-familiar rhetoric. Pope Francis himself has taken another step to express his own deep remorse in a letter that condemned the abuse and the cover-up on August 20, 2018, saying “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” This gives me hope. However, the bottom line is that men who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus not only violated these children but robbed them of a relationship with God. Restoring any element of that sacred connection should be the prime mission of the church.
Perhaps the monsters have indeed taken hostage a traditional understanding of God. But they cannot actually take the real God away. We can reconnect by looking outside of ourselves.RKJ
Perhaps the monsters have indeed taken hostage a traditional understanding of God. But they cannot actually take the real God away. We can reconnect by looking outside of ourselves. We can begin to trust, once again that there is a power greater than ourselves. It is a power greater than the sum of things we have experienced. It is greater than the power of our abuser. It is greater than the power of drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, or any other addiction. That power will guide and shepherd us from darkness into light. We will know that we were never alone and that everything that happened can be used to help someone else who was wounded and broken like we were.
God is bigger than monsters. We no longer feel we must get over what happened. We will use it to guide others home.
Robert Kenneth Jones
is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse. ,In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.