Survivors Hold the Key, Bear Witness to the Renewal of the Church

By Sooz Jeson, Founder

God calls us to be doers of the word
and not hearers only.

James 1:22
This year, and always, being a “doer” entails performing works of mercy, which are common practices in the Catholic Church as acts of penance and charity. When I am able to carry out these actions for others in need, I am extending God’s compassion and mercy to the recipients—and to my own heart.

Have you ever found yourself in need of an act of mercy?  As a victim of abuse by clergy, I can tell you I have; in fact, I felt in desperate need of all of them. Yet sometimes need is not obvious to the eye. No one saw the scars inside me. No one could hear what I could not speak. No one knew that anything was wrong until I attempted suicide. By then I was gone, not to this life, but in a coma. Finally I didn’t feel the pains of abuse; I was actually at peace until I came out of the coma. Then, all I felt was confusion, because I did not expect to be back where slowly, very slowly, I began to remember why I wanted to leave. I was, over several days, hungry and thirsty, homeless, sick, in a prison, and dead. I felt like an abused thing, less than human. I felt these things for days, months and years. And now I am here to suggest that I, a survivor of clergy abuse, somehow have something to offer to the Church. I have something to share with (maybe even contribute to) the renewal of our Church. And, not just me, but many of us who have been abused by clergy. I am here to say that many of us have feel called to bring our unique gifts of compassion, mercy, love and faith to you and our Church.

The word “leper” did not always refer to the contagious disease. Rather, the lepers in both Jesus’ and St. Francis’ time represented the excluded ones, the ones whom society had decided were unacceptable, unworthy, or unclean for a number of reasons. St. Francis told us to go to where Jesus went–to where there was pain, to the excluded ones.[1]

After so many years of our invisible pain, the word “abuse survivor” seems to come before our own first name, but, it is not our identity. This group of founders of Healing Voices is as diverse a group of individuals as all of you. Often, we hear in church “You are the Church!” Yet, we are often guilty of not listening to everyone, valuing everyone—including abuse survivors—as Church.

I am guilty of something similar. At first, after meeting all the founders of this newsletter last fall, I knew the group as “survivors” but continued to forget or confuse names. For a long time, I believed we only had one commonality: we were all abused by clergy. But over months that changed. Working through this edition especially, I have come to see how, deeper than the rotten pain of abuse, there is a unique level of faith that binds us. I was certain that in my life and in theirs there wasn’t anything bigger than the pain of abuse by clergy. I believe now, I know now, our faith is what God acknowledged in us and used to bring us together. As a “whole” He has plan for His “lepers of abuse” working on this newsletter—and everywhere in His Church.

Richard Rohr helps shed some light on the darkness that hangs over our Church and its need of renewal when he noted Pope Francis’s description of today’s Church as a “field hospital….a Church that goes forth toward those who are ‘wounded,’ who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness and love.”[2]

Do you ever worry about your children or grandchildren coming to you with questions about our Church and clergy abuse?  What or how will you explain to them where those victims are now, and why we left or why we stayed? The knowledge they learn that we stayed and why can only deepen their confidence in faith, and perhaps in our Church.

How do you teach, explain to the young what faith is, what forgiveness is, what mercy is, if you have not witnessed it, have not given it—have not needed it and received it freely?  In Archbishop Cupich’s letter he notes “that many of the parishes in Chicago have or will need to close and that is a loss.” The same is true of many Catholic parishes throughout our world. But this loss, while difficult, is not only about buildings. Just as St. Francis came to understand, the Church is greater. St. Francis faced challenges within the Church when Jesus called upon him to “Go rebuild my Church.” At first, St. Francis tried to fix what he could see; he begged for stones to rebuild a building in disrepair. What God saw was the sacrificial effort by St. Francis, but also a greater need of ministering and pastoral ways in His Church beyond the buildings.

Isn’t that what Pope Francis is calling us to do as well? To reflect on the Franciscan tradition where St. Francis teaches afresh how love in action is more important that buildings? Does our call for today’s Church renewal require hammer and nails, or acts of mercy? As a Catholic I know comfort for grief is found in comforting the grieving as an act of mercy. So, I find enormous hope in hearing that a new group of cardinals, while in the presence of Pope Francis, “were saying that Church authority is the ability to ‘author’ life in others, not the mere exercise of juridical power.”[3]

I close with this: I believe those of us who have been abused by clergy are valuable to the renewal of our Church today.  We too are the Church. We were before the abuse, during the abuse, and are now. Our faith is what gift we bring, not the pain of what was done to us. Pope Francis said to abuse survivors during his meeting with them in Philadelphia, “As we anticipate the Jubilee Year of Mercy, your presence, so generously given, despite the anger and pain you have experienced, reveals the merciful heart of Christ. I humbly beg you and all survivors of abuse to stay with us, to stay with the Church, and that together, as pilgrims on the journey of faith, we might find our way to the Father.” Now, it’s up to the rest of the Church to realize we are more than our wounds, and our wounds have created in us gifts we wish to share.

Lord, allow us all to be instruments of your peace.

[1] As seen in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True 2010), disc1 (CD).
[2] From Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, A Conversation with Andrea Tournielli (New York: Random House, 2016.
[3] As seen in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True 2010), disc1 (CD).

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