ROUND TABLE Peace Circles: Voices, Stories, Peace

This Healing Voices ROUND TABLE offers four essays to create a powerful testimony for the peace created when circles of adult survivors of clergy abuse gather together. My one qualification for introducing these four points of view is that I have not (yet) had the experience. So, I can join you with awe and hope for how, together, we who are wounded can bring grace and light into each other’s lives—even where so many others have despaired of finding joy and hope. Yet again, survivors of child sexual by clergy and others in authority are showing a path to inspire the whole Church. We invite her to see and believe.

Teresa Hartnett

Can Peace Circles Offer Hope and Healing to Victims-Survivors?

Thomas P. Tharayil, LCSW, BCD

Director, Office of Assistance Ministry, Archdiocese of Chicago

“To Promote Healing and Reconciliation with Victims/Survivors of Sexual Abuse of Minors.” It is the heart of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth. How does one go about accomplishing this? These were my marching orders from the Charter when I was hired on February 1, 2011 as the Director of the Office of Assistance Ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago.  Within six months of starting my new job, I stumbled upon a flyer for a summer institute at the Catholic Theological Union. While I had never studied there before, I noticed that they were going to combine classroom theory about reconciliation and forgiveness along with an experiential component on how to lead peace circles. Since I’ve always been drawn to group work, I took a chance on the fact that this might be a good fit.

When Fr. Robert Schreiter, an international scholar on the subject of reconciliation spoke, I was immediately engaged. I couldn’t stop taking notes. While he covered a wide range of issues related to the subject, I was particularly tuned into his thoughts about people and their narratives. As a therapist, I had spent thousands of hours listening to people tell me their stories. So when Schreiter said, “it is only when we discover and embrace a redeeming narrative that we can be liberated from the lie’s seductive and cunning power.” This is a process I had seen in action, watching clients on their journey to find their own narrative. Over time, their words and emotions came together in a story that they could own as their truth, and when that happened, the power of the trauma was less profound. It didn’t go away, but it was less intense.

Schreiter also spoke about “communities of reconciliation.” Victims need a safety zone, a safe place where they can examine and explore their wounds with others present. Another important piece is a “community of memory”, where memories can be recovered; and where we learn again to speak the truth. In community we can also find hope. People can move beyond a culture of endurance, which has allowed them to survive on a day to day basis, to a culture of hope that allows them to envision a place for themselves in the future.

Schreiter’s theory helped to frame the more experiential peace circle taught to us by Fr. Dave Kelly. Kelly is the Executive Director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) in the Back of the Yards Neighborhood on Chicago’s South side. Kelly built upon the ideas of Kay Pranis, the author of the Little Book of Circle Processes, A New / Old Approach to Peacemaking. She defines a peace circle as people together in which everyone is respected, gets a chance to speak without interruption, and gets to explain themselves by telling their stories.  Each participant is equal, with no person more important than anyone else. Spiritual and emotional aspects of individual experiences are welcomed. “The peacemaking circle is a container strong enough to hold anger, frustration, joy, pain, truth, conflict, diverse world views, intense feelings, silence, and paradox.” There are different types of peace circles, but for victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, ‘healing circles’, Pranis writes, creates a safe place for people to share the pain experienced in trauma and loss. A plan for support beyond the Circles may emerge, but it is not required.

One unique dimension of many peace circles is the use of a “talking piece.” Pranis describes it as an object passed from person to person around the Circle. The holder of the piece has the opportunity to talk, others have to listen, without thinking about a response. The holder of the talking piece may also choose to offer silence, or the holder may pass the piece without speaking. Pranis states that the talking piece is a critical element of creating a space in which participants can speak from a deep place of truth. It assures that speakers will be able to pause and find the words that express what is on their hearts and minds that they will be fully and respectfully heard. The talking piece slows the pace of conversation and encourages thoughtful and reflective interactions among participants.

Nearly two years after I took the training, I reached out to some male survivors about what I called the “gathering of men.” I began the group with a welcome, an introduction to the circle process, and some initial ground rules for group behavior in order to create a safe space.  These included a message about respecting confidentiality, a boundary that each participant comment only on their own experiences and not on what others shared about their experiences, and that no one should go into graphic details about sexual abuse so as not to trigger other group members. The talking piece, I used was a soft slightly worn silver and black juggling ball that my son had practiced with for several years. I have wondered why I made that choice. Perhaps it symbolized for me, the struggle that many victims-survivors face trying to juggle the secrets from their past along with the challenges of today just to make it through another day.

Our first group and was attended by 6 men. The members supported each other aptly and appreciated the opportunity to connect and listen to one another. At the conclusion of the meeting, they wanted to meet again.  Within a year, we had another couple of groups that were well attended. However, I knew that for the group to really take off, victim-survivors would have to take over, and make it their own. So, when victim-survivor, Jim Richter took over and established a group at Holy Family Church, and then later in his parish in Minneapolis, I was very pleased. It felt like an important piece to have a victim-survivor lead other survivors on the next phase of this journey.

For years now, I have listened to victims-survivors struggle to find words to talk about their childhood sexual abuse and somehow integrate that with the adults they have become.  In Father Schreiter’ s words: “discovery and acceptance of a redeeming narrative is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one; if we are to be delivered from the effects of violence upon our individual and collective psyches, a different narrative must be found,” still makes sense to me.  As I approach the beginning of my seventh year in this position, these words are a constant reminder of the real work that needs to be done.

  1. The Ministry of Reconciliation Spirituality & Strategies, Robert J. Schreiter, C. PP.S, 1998, Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, U. S. A.
  2. The Little Book Circle Processes, A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking, Kay Pranis, 2005, By Good Books Intercourse, PA, 17534

The Divine Within Us

Jim Richter

(Jim Richter’s work organizing Peace Circles in Minneapolis has been featured in local news here.)

As survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, we are an unpredictable lot.  Years of shame, struggle, truth-avoiding, emotional torture and self-blame can leave us feeling worthless and powerless.  When we keep these feelings estranged from all of the other things happening in our lives, we perpetuate the suffering. We push ahead, some days better than others, and hold it together the best we can.  We lie to ourselves and those we love about how we feel.  We withhold the truth of the abuse from our parents, spouses, friends and children.  Even if we tell them, we may not share the full, authentic story, wanting to protect them from the same feelings we have been burying for years, decades.  We gravely doubt, even fear that the truth shall set us free. We perpetuate our own lonely hell, even as we seek the courage to tell our story.  Such a predicament: we can’t talk about it, but we can hardly bear to keep it all in.

Of course we are unpredictable.  We have carried our suffering with us, even as we attempt to blend in with those who have not known insecurity, danger, manipulation, violence, terror, and shame.  There are times when life is okay, even great, and we can blend brilliantly.  But when we aren’t coping well and we are struggling to bury those memories and feelings, we can hardly see ourselves as made in the image of the divine.

Unpredictable indeed: working or unworkable, truth seeking or terrified, God-like or garbage, confident or confused.  How we feel and how we see ourselves may depend on the day or the moment.

And so, it may be hard to know what to do for ourselves, and equally hard for others to know what to offer.  Such was the case several years ago for me.  I was stuck.  And sad.  And coping, not too badly I thought.  Except I wasn’t.  No one knew how I really felt about myself, about what happened to me, about the loneliness.

I attended my first peace circle.  We spoke, we survivors, in turns, one at a time.  The silence between the story telling was as awkward as the truth telling by unsteady voices.  We went around the table three times, each of those present speaking or remaining silent, as they chose, when it was their turn. I was exhausted.  It would take some time for me to process what I had heard and how I felt.  The effect was unpredictable for several years.  I was neither healed nor horrified.  I was curious, though, about the peace circle model.  And I knew that I couldn’t possibly live a full, authentic and content life until I let go of the pain and shame and filth that I carried inside me every single day.  That had proven even more exhausting, and I was tired of being tired.

I have shared my story and organized peace circles in Chicago and Minneapolis for victim survivors in the years following that first gathering.  I invite men and women to gather in small groups, and share their story of abuse and healing.  I welcome them, not knowing if it will be their first and last, or first of many peace circles.  One at a time, we talk about our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows.  As each one shares their truths, the rest of us sit quietly, being present to our own feelings and truth.  The silence is no longer awkward for me, but part of the process.  After the listening comes the processing.  We don’t tell one another how to feel, but create a space where feelings are welcome.  We listen without judgement, fear or shame, and that encourages us, when it is our turn to share, to do so with an open heart and calm spirit.

Having others who support me, accept me where I am in my healing, and listen to me has created opportunities for change within me.  It has allowed me to be more predictable, more loving, more honest, and more aware of my fears.  I feel less lonely.  As such, I have a greater capacity to reach out to others, take risks, and meet them wherever they are on their healing journey.  I see and feel the divine within myself and others.

Just Getting There

Kathy O’Connell, Co-Founder

A few years ago, when my story came out, I was asked to attend a victim survivor group. As hesitant as I could be and as frightened as ever, I found myself walking through the doors of a room filled with strangers. My anxiety continued to take over me as I sat in this room, trying to figure out how to exit without being noticed. Not saying a word yet listening to others, I finally stood up and walked out.

Recently again, I’ve been asked to attend a peace circle for survivors of abuse. The most difficult decision is getting myself to commit to attending.

As I take the smallest of baby steps, I first commit to myself that I will attend. After that commitment, I drive myself there with the possibility still that I may never enter the building. With the smallest of steps. I find myself entering the room, saying hello and sitting down, with much anxiety I listen to the others speak.

Their hearts like mine are genuine. They too are hurting, and I realize we are not much different. We suffer the same wounds. They speak from these healing wounds, while I still simply listen with a heavy heart. Yet, in a way, they are speaking for me until I can.

During my first Peace Circle, I sat and cried the entire time. Yet unlike the victim survivor group when I first tried to join others, I did not leave. Instead, I stayed, and I cried. And, I spoke. I was able to participate, knowing others understood my pain and sadness.

Most recently, I went to another Peace Circle. I walked in, sat down, but couldn’t speak. I expected to arrive and feel comfortable after the first two experiences had been so helpful. But, this time? I couldn’t speak a word. I wanted to share; my heart was hurting more than usual. There was so much to say. I tried to speak yet the words wouldn’t come out.

To my utter amazement, I sat there still and quiet. I offered others the courtesy and attention they needed as they spoke. The time passed so quickly. Before I know it, it was time to leave. Yet, my goodbyes included warm hugs, and then I drove home, crying the whole way.

What I have come to understand and value about Peace Circles is that I know, as I walk into that room, we are all there hurting, yet to speak is to be relieved of some of the burden for a little while. This most recent Peace Circle left me wishing I could have spoken the truth that filling up my own hurting heart.

Walking into a room of complete strangers, although they are carrying the same wounds in my own heart, is a frightening experience. I give myself credit for being able to step inside, to sit, to listen. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you say anything, it’s just being there. And, that’s the hardest part of a Peace Circle; getting there.

I would like to say it gets easier, but sometimes it is still hard. It hurts me to know these other wonderful people are hurting, too. Yet, it helps me so much that their suffering makes them compassionate and able to understand my pain—and others’ pain. I wish and hope and pray that someday getting there and being there get easier for me. For now, I am grateful Peace Circles are there just as a place to try to go.

Irreplaceable Benefits

Mike Hoffman, Co-Founder

As a survivor who works with him, I welcomed the efforts of Tom Tharayil, LCSW, the victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Chicago, to bring together survivors of clergy abuse who wished to come together in discussion groups and, more importantly, Peace Circles. The Peace Circles are run by fellow survivors of clergy abuse for the benefit of each other, and that is just what makes them so important.

As it relates to my own healing from my wounds of childhood sexual abuse, I feel it is particularly helpful to talk amongst other survivors who share a similar story of betrayal, abuse of authority and loss of the innocence of our youth. Together, we share stories of how the tragic consequences of being abused as children affects us today.

For one example, sharing how I cope with various “triggers’ in my family life and workday, I find suggestions I might use or hear experiences that affirm what I thought only I was going through. Just listening to how others manage their on-going anxiety and stress, provides me with a sense of calm and peace in my heart.  This is a peace that can only come from being with others who really understand the struggles and the victories that make up life as an adult survivor of child abuse.


And the peace of God,

which surpasses all comprehension,

will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7 NASB

More information about contributors to this Round Table may be found on our Contributors page.

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