Your Cross to Bear: The Crushing Consequences of the Catholic Church’s Silence on Sexual Assault Survivors

Mar 6, 2019

Tell the truth. For many, this was our first moral lesson. If we commit a wrong, honesty allows us to take responsibility for our actions and offer reparations. If a secret causes discomfort, sharing our thoughts and experiences with others may minimize isolation and distress. Telling the truth often just feels better.

So what happens when we tell the truth – and no one believes us? What happens when we’re told we should have never spoken up, that we are to blame for what happened to us, that our secrets should never again be uttered out loud? The suffering of victims of the Catholic clergy illustrates the consequences of silencing truth. Contrary to the Church’s teachings, these people – many of them children – learned that honesty is not a virtue. Those that shared their stories of abuse were often told they were lying, blowing things out of proportion, distorting events. Others, effectively silenced by the implicit and explicit messages of their church, did not speak out until years after they were abused. And many, many more victims never have and never will disclose their secrets.

Sexual abuse is not about sex; it is about power. Lyn Yonack, MA, MSW, BCD-P, writes that sexual violence most often occurs “within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.” Children, always less powerful than adults, are particularly vulnerable targets for sexual abuse. And it is largely children who are sexually assaulted by Catholic clergy – by the very adults who vow to protect their young parishioners’ physical, emotional and moral well-being.

Children grow up, but when they are silenced, they do not outgrow the legacy of abuse. When those who should reinforce their sense of safety and trust betray them, children come to understand the world as a dangerous, chaotic place that they alone must navigate. In her article on the history of abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Chatelaindetails Church officials’ repeated failures to recognize and investigate claims that accused clergy of sexually assaulting children. CourtneyE. Aherns, writing for The American Journal of Community Psychology, writes, “When ‘experts’ doubt survivors, hold them responsible for the assault, or refuse to provide assistance, survivors may question both the effectiveness of such services and the usefulness of reaching out for help to anyone at all.”

A New York Times article describes common themes in lives of victims who were abused by Catholic clergy: depression, suicidality, substance abuse.  One man, abused by a priest when he was a sophomore in high school, quit his football team, stopped attending to his studies, and started drinking. Years later, he reported his abuse to Church officials, but his claims were not investigated and the perpetrator was not held accountable for his actions. In a Washington Post article, a survivor describes her chronic suicidality after being raped by a priest: “‘I wanted to kill myself, but I had to keep living with it, every year.’”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported. For years, the Catholic Church protected perpetrators and silenced victims.  But the voices of sexual assault survivors, growing louder and stronger by the day, are starting to be heard in churches, on the streets, in the media and in the courtrooms. If you or someone you know is ready to tell your story of Catholic clergy abuse, please reach out to our qualified attorneys who are ready to help your voice be heard.

Sources and Resources: