Serving to Therapeutic: Supporting Abuse Survivors
Mourning Grace UK turns ten this year. Our mission is to support abuse survivors, especially survivors of clergy abuse, by running a special retreat program, a self-help group and a counseling center. There can be no triumph over this anniversary, much less in the midst of a lockdown preventing us from running our residential programs. However, the milestone definitely indicates the continuing need for such a ministry that understands that abuse trauma not only leaves a devastating psychological impact, but also an embodied spiritual impact that can only be healed through the integration of these various elements.
Hopefully the anniversary will also be a sign of God's blessing on our work as it had to overcome significant obstacles from the start.
What does a Grief to Grace retreat program offer? A safe place to start exploring the wounds caused by abuse. It's a safe place as it's curated by a team of mental health professionals, spiritual priests, and trained volunteers who all understand how the trauma of abuse affects every aspect of one's identity and relationship with God, others, and too true self affects itself. (Many members of the team are abuse survivors themselves).
While it may initially seem counter-intuitive to investigate such wounds in a group, the group quickly bonds together to increase security and end the secrecy, isolation, and shame that are the legacy of abuse. Working in a group also avoids the kind of exclusive transference that occurs when counseling from a therapist or priest is the only means of healing. Such transference often repeats aspects of attachment to an abuser who, while similarly promising mentoring and security, led to betrayal and was bought at the price of great trust.
A retreat group usually consists of 15 men and women and half as many teams. Potential participants are offered an interview and a series of sessions with a therapist. They fill out a detailed history questionnaire to make sure the program is right for that person at that point. Not everyone is ready for group therapy, and people are at different stages in their healing journey.
The five-day retreat program is based on an expert understanding of the psychology and neurobiology of abuse trauma, but is essentially simple. To be cured of abuse, you must experience a safety community where your voice can be heard and your story believed. If belief has ever been important to you, then this community must be one in which your spiritual beliefs are properly weighted.
In addition to empathy, survivors need compassion, including compassion for what each had to become to adapt and to survive. Survivors must express the shame, anger, and sadness, lingering doubts about complicity, and confusion about why they tolerated or returned to the perpetrator. Such feelings are fearful to confront, but lose some of their strength when normalized as a proportional response to highly inappropriate circumstances and overwhelming emotional pain.
In order to process such emotions, one needs to be grounded and reassured not only with words but also with techniques that help regulate the autonomic nervous system and prevent instinctive survival responses from taking the executive, rational brain offline and activating more primitive brain circuits that designed for extreme threats from survival reactions of the fight / flight or freeze / fawn type, which are quickly overwhelming.
We use various methods to safely process stories of abuse through works of art, diaries, and bodywork. We call the unique and central feature of the program “Living Scriptures”. In each of these, an aspect of salvation history is proclaimed in a gospel or scripture. This is followed by a carefully crafted guided meditation on scripture that seeks to involve the participant in the drama (similar to an Ignatian meditation), and finally there is a ritual associated with it.
For anything that cannot be adequately expressed in words, it is necessary to use rituals.
These rituals provide a way to tell the story in an embodied way. On a psychological level, one could say that the biblical stories function as archetypes: narratives of the loss of Innocence, escape from the bondage of slavery, and above all the captivating story of a perfectly good and innocent man who was betrayed and abandoned, brutally tortured, humiliated, stripped naked and apparently destroyed by corrupt religious authorities.
This story ends with evil being conquered and suffering gains a new life in which the wounds of the past are now glorified.
Reliving the scenes of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus provides a kind of psychodrama in which the participants explore their own loss of innocence, bondage, betrayal, suffering and longing for salvation and new life. But for the person of faith these become something much more powerful than psychodrama.
The psychological identification with the content of these stories enables a deeper, spiritual internalization of God's solidarity with human suffering, with my suffering. Exploring my own wounds as I travel through the terrible abuse that was the Passion of Christ is not a game, but an invitation to unite the abused and tormented self with Christ on the cross and bury it in the grave with him.
This not only provides a psychological "closure" but also a spiritual renewal as the grief is drained to give way to grace, the grace of resurrection and the regaining of my true identity, not just as an "inner child" of psychology, but also as a baptized child, the child of light, whose true identity with Christ is hidden in God.
The surviving child of God cannot then be viewed as "damaged property" but as a beloved son or daughter of God the Father redeemed by Christ. This true identity enables a participant to wrest his life from the perpetrator and to remove the boundaries of identity that is formed by suffering and the defenses that it evokes. One participant described the program as follows: "The Church field hospital is working at its best, deep behind enemy lines."
What about the next ten years? The UK team is currently involved in training G2G teams for Europe and Australia. We are in advanced negotiations to lease a large house in London from an Order that would provide us with an "enclosed garden" – our own safe space in which to conduct withdrawal and support programs once the lockdown permits.
Until recently, reluctance to grapple with the extent and effects of clergy abuse has made it difficult to generate interest or promote what we do in the Church. Survivors' anger is not always recognized as the product of disenfranchised grief, but as a threat to the harm to the church. The damage to the facility can only be repaired by prioritizing specific healing measures, not by further inquiries and policy reviews. Even so, we are criticized by some who consider it inappropriate for priests to be involved in attempting to cure clergy abuse.
However, the church has "a divine mandate to bandage wounds".
It was a struggle to fund G2G in a culture that is not used to paying for health care or psychotherapy. Since our ministry is based on a Catholic anthropology and integrates the sacraments, many assume that our work is funded by the hierarchy or by the presumed wealth of the Vatican. In fact, we all collect our own donations to deliver our program at a fraction of its real cost. But our work is spreading primarily through the testimonials from our alumni. Typical Catholic survivors respond to our work with the words: "Finally someone gets it." We hope so.
We certainly want it for anyone who has suffered the unspeakable pain of abuse and who needs the healing of the Divine Doctor.
More information is available at spirftograceuk.org