Pictured outside her North Plains home, abuse survivor Patsy Seeley, 67, said her reclaimed faith is the compass in her life. “It’s my life blood. It’s like air and water,” she explained. 

(Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Pictured outside her North Plains home, abuse survivor Patsy Seeley, 67, said her reclaimed faith is the compass in her life. “It’s my life blood. It’s like air and water,” she explained. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

Revealed to her in the middle of the night, they were singsongy, bewildering and horrifying. 

The poems would total more than 50 — composed from memories she at first could not understand. 

They were a “nice and tidy way for little Patsy Jane to tell her story,” said Patsy Seeley during an interview in her North Plains home. With them, said the 67-year-old, came “an overwhelming sense of evil and darkness.”

The nightmares articulated in verse unveiled what had long been hidden: sexual abuse — first inflicted by her grandfather and then by a priest in Tillamook — starting when she was 4 and ending at age 11, when the priest was transferred. 

A family friend, the priest “used the sacraments and liturgy to inflict the abuse,” recounted Seeley, who said for years she had “spiritual amnesia.” 

Though individuals abused by clergy regularly flee the church for good, others, like Seeley, eventually make a painful and circuitous journey back, finding the homecoming a transformative piece of their healing and a source of sustenance, peace and strength. 

But the return has countless hurdles, some of them inadvertently placed by the church itself. Survivors often find priests insufficiently trained to minister to them, and there are a limited, if increasing, number of programs that integrate faith with healing. Many survivors say they don’t feel welcome in their parishes.

“People in the pew don’t want to hear about abuse because it’s difficult, it’s sad,” said Sister Michael Francine Duncan, a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon and a licensed counselor who works with victims.

Bigger than evil

To heal from any kind of childhood abuse requires therapy, but some survivors of sexual abuse by clergy say therapy alone cannot bring spiritual wholeness.

The sacraments — foremost the Eucharist — are what draw many victims back to the church, according to Robert Orsi, a professor of history and religion at Northwestern University. Orsi, a Catholic, has been researching survivors of abuse by Catholic clergy and has interviewed hundreds of adults. “It’s hard for many survivors to be away from Communion,” he said.

“Therapy did a lot of wonderful things in terms of processing the past and how to cope, but ultimately it lacked fulfillment of what my calling as a human being is, which is embodied in Christ in the church,” said Teresa Pitt Green, a Virginia-based writer who was sexually abused by Catholic priests for 10 years and now works with dioceses and priests to integrate faith with recovery.

Green, in her 50s, has great sympathy for those who can’t return to the church and said it’s neither a path for everyone nor is it easy.

For Deborah Rodriguez, who was abused by priests as a child and left the church for a time, the choice to be Catholic is a daily decision, “sometimes an hourly one,” she said. “The Mass is the source of healing but it comes with reminders of previous evil.”

Yet Christ and his church “are bigger than the abuse and the evil that occurred to me,” said Rodriguez, now residing in the Seattle Archdiocese.

A physician, 52-year-old Rodriguez meets people of all ages trying to heal from abuse. “I’ve seen that we need to not just avoid the pain or just encounter what happened but to get beyond it,” she said.

“When you heal, you want to reclaim what you have lost,” added Seeley.

Sixteen years after the memory-jarring poems first made their appearance, Seeley, then 61, began to yearn for the faith of her childhood.

Father Dave Gutmann, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, listened to her story with compassion and empathy. He suggested she pray regularly and participate in a reconciliation service. Seeley later attended Grief to Grace Oregon, the retreat she now helps lead with Sister Michael Francine for victims of numerous forms of abuse.

“It was a gradual, at-times painful process,” Seeley said of her return to the church. “But looking back on my life, I don’t know how I survived without my faith. It’s my life blood. It’s like air and water.”

A gap in priestly formation?

For nearly all survivors of abuse who wish to return, even if tentatively, to the Catholic Church, the initial encounter with a priest or representative of the church is a potential-packed moment. Survivors feel that many priests are not prepared for that encounter.

“The first words are so important, but many priests don’t know how to receive a survivor,” said Rodriguez. Some fear lawsuits, others believe the abuse crisis is now in the past, and we as a church “should get over it,” Rodriguez said.

But far more frequently, “I meet good priests who want to know what to do, how to help,” said Rodriguez, who educates priests on ministering to victims of clergy abuse and conducts outreach to survivors of abuse, trauma and violence through the Maria Goretti Network.

“There is a hole in training,” agreed Green, adding that the church has done an excellent job in its paramount responsibility following the abuse crisis — keeping children safe.

“It is now a leader in the world with its child protection programs,” she said.

The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, helped initiate child-protection programs across the country. In addition to procedures for addressing allegations of abuse and guidelines to prevent future abuse, it contains basic requirements and guidelines for the pastoral care of victims.

“Through pastoral outreach to victims and their families, the diocesan/eparchial bishop or his representative is to offer to meet with them, to listen with patience and compassion to their experiences and concerns,” reads Article I of the charter.

According to the USCCB, there are no national requirements for training seminarians or priests on how to minister to victims of clergy sexual abuse; it’s up to individual seminaries to decide how best to prepare men.

Seminaries appear to be making an effort to equip those in formation. Typically, such training is addressed in pastoral counseling courses, as it is, for example, at Oregon’s Mount Angel Seminary, Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, New York, and Moreau Seminary for the Congregation of Holy Cross in Notre Dame, Indiana.

A missing piece in formation might be the regular testimony of victims, who can provide would-be priests with concrete suggestions and personal accounts that no classroom discussion can capture.

Two years ago, Seeley shared her story at Mount Angel. The response was overwhelming. “The men were so hungry for information,” said Seeley. Seminarians spent three hours asking questions.

Green observed that when priests are properly trained, healing ripples out into the church. “When a priest really gets it, … the wound against priests in the scandal begins to heal.”

Listen and affirm

“Maya Angelo wrote, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,’” said Seeley. Victims of abuse first need their story to be heard, she said, as hers was by Father Gutmann of Holy Trinity.

Green said the No. 1 thing a priest should do for a victim contemplating a return to the church is listen. “There is nothing you are going to say in that moment that will make it better,” she said. “So, center yourself in prayer and listen.”

“Don’t debate them but accept where they are,” added Father Peter O’Brien, a Grief to Grace retreat leader and pastor of St. Edward Parish in Lebanon.

Next, said Green, priests should tell victims they are sorry they have been hurt and that it wasn’t the victims' fault. Eventually, you can say sorry on behalf of the church.

“It’s amazing they are standing there and that they survived,” Green said. “Affirm them. This may be one of the bravest things they’ve done.” After that first encounter with a priest, a victim may disappear for several weeks, six months, even a year. At different points in healing you vacillate between “feeling brave and being scared,” said Green.

They can teach us

The entire body of Christ, not solely priests, can help victims feel more welcome in the church, but survivors say there’s often a lack of outreach.

“Many Catholics want to believe the sums have been paid out and we can move on,” said Orsi. “Survivors are an uncomfortable reminder of something that went very wrong.”

Seeley said fellow parishioners have asked, “Why do you have to bring up that abuse topic?”

Efforts to welcome fallen-away Catholics back to the church, such as Lenten campaigns that stress forgiveness toward the individual, may not resonate with victims of clergy abuse, said Orsi. Instead, survivors may need the church to extend a welcome while asking for forgiveness on behalf of the abusers.

Orsi encourages all Catholics to be open and attentive to survivors in their midst and to listen to their stories.

Not only can we help survivors feel loved, but they also have things to teach us, he said. “I’ve really appreciated the intensity of their faith and their ongoing, questioning conversations with God,” said Orsi. “The great spiritual teachers of the church, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, had a spirituality that involved periods of light and darkness. It can be powerful to similarly watch survivors struggle with spiritual dryness and richness.”

Healing help

There is a small but growing number of ministries that seek to integrate therapy with faith for survivors of abuse, although most are not focused specifically on victims of clergy sexual abuse but on abuse generally.

Green has helped fulfill the need for integrated offerings through The Healing Voices Magazine, with a mission to reconcile faith “with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm” inflicted by clergy. She recently launched Spirit Fire as an online hub to connect priests, parishes, dioceses, families and survivors with available resources.

Other programs include the Maria Goretti Network, which Green calls a kind of 12-step program for survivors.

In Oregon, Grief to Grace retreats (independently organized and managed but based on Grief to Grace Ministries founded by Catholic psychologist Theresa Burke) can bring “a lot of resolution and healing,” said Father O’Brien. Drawing from Scripture, participants “find their healing by uniting their pain with the passion of Jesus.”

Reconciliation and anointing of the sick services offered in some dioceses also can “sacramentally help survivors readjust their spirit,” said Green.

Though there is still a lack of resources, the variety of different approaches is a good thing, said Rodriguez. “Because no one type fits the needs of all survivors.”

‘A holy transfusion’

The men and women who come back to the faith — who re-enter the sacred space that for years was contaminated by memories of pain and perversion — say they experience a newfound joy and understanding of God.

“I used to see God as just waiting for me to screw up, as the God of hell and damnation,” said Seeley. “Now he’s like this dear friend who only has my best interest at heart.”

The mother of three said her reclaimed faith has changed her relationships. “I didn’t truly cherish my husband until I had my spiritual healing,” she said. She is less critical of her children, seeing them “each as unique and trying to nurture them instead of change them.”

Along with Green and Rodriguez, Seeley urges the church and its priests, who offer something precious and irreplaceable, to improve their outreach to victims.

As a doctor, Rodriguez deftly employs Pope Francis’ often-quoted image of a field hospital. She said she’s happy, through her work with victims, to “be out on the battlefield triaging.” But she wants to be able to send the broken back to “the main hospital, the church.”

The first step, she said, is to identify the wounded and to understand the whole church has a role to play. “Don’t be afraid of us,” said Rodriguez. She tells priests she’ll reach out to survivors, but they “need to recognize the hurting, to welcome them in and give them a holy transfusion — the sacraments.”


Grief to Grace retreat

Grief to Grace Oregon will hold a five-day retreat for survivors of abuse and trauma Sept. 13 at Our Lady of Peace Retreat House, 3600 SW 170th Ave., Beaverton, starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and concluding at 6 p.m. Sunday. For more information, go to grieftograceoregon.org or call 541-357-7501.