Survivors Advisory Council promotes healing, reconciliation

BRAINTREE -- Some of the most important work in healing the wounds of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston is not done by clergy, or even by archdiocesan employees, but by a small group of survivors who work to foster community and rebuild bridges of trust.

Bob, Denis, Paul, and Kathleen -- whose last names are withheld for privacy -- are members of the Survivors Advisory Council, a group of adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse who advise the archdiocese's leadership and offer support to other survivors and their loved ones.

The Pilot spoke with the council on March 24 about what their work consists of and why they do it.

They were quick to clarify that they are not "a support group," but rather "a group that supports."

Kathleen made the distinction that they do not work for the Church, but alongside the Church, "to bring more support and services to survivors in the archdiocese."

She said that when she came forward and reported the abuse she had experienced, she felt that more needed to be done in terms of outreach to survivors.

"For me, it was important to sort of tap into, just getting in touch, letting survivors know that we were here," Kathleen said.

She said that the group exists for the sake of other survivors, "especially the ones that feel that they're alone."

Working in tandem with the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection, they visit communities and organize events, such as health and wellness fairs, healing Masses and rosaries, and question-and-answer sessions. They also work behind the scenes, meeting with archdiocesan leaders to discuss different topics. A recent example is the ongoing synod on synodality.

Although they may share their personal stories with audiences, they tend not to dwell much on the past, focusing instead on the present and the future.

"The main reason why I'm involved is to take something that was so devastating in my life and try to make something for my own health as well as what I can do in the area," Bob said.

The format of an event depends somewhat on what the hosting community wants. Typically, either Vivian Soper or Kristen Gotter will be present to answer questions about their work in the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection. But the main speaker will be a survivor, who may talk about any number of related topics, such as their experience with the Church, the resources available to survivors, or the archdiocese's abuse prevention efforts. Then they field questions from audience members.

Though they do talk about the violence they experienced, Paul said, they also speak about what it means "to walk together as the people of God out of that experience."

People are often apprehensive about talking with survivors, but end up having a lot of interest and many questions. Denis said he has observed that "once you start talking, all of a sudden, it's like they've been waiting for it."

Some of their work is more private, such as when they meet and minister to other survivors. Sometimes people who attend a talk will approach the speaker afterwards and share that they, or someone they know, were abused in the past. Denis has met with many survivors to talk one-on-one over coffee.

Denis called the survivors' council "a platform to actually make a small difference in the world, maybe one person at a time."

The group was particularly active in 2018 and 2019, in the wake of multiple events related to the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church, including accusations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick; the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealing the historically large scope of abuse in that state's dioceses; and the investigation into St. John's Seminary.

These new revelations and events inspired anger, confusion, and pain, not only among survivors but also to people who had thought that the Church thoroughly addressed the issue of abuse after the scope of the crisis came to light 20 years ago.

Soper, who is the director of the Office of Pastoral Support, said she sees the anger about abuse as a good thing.

"People should be angry that our kids were abused within the context of the Church," Soper said.

Kathleen noted that some people who come to their listening sessions may not necessarily want answers.

"They just want to know that we're all in this together, we all share the same pain, we can be angry, but we can still come and participate and worship together, that we don't have to leave, that we can stay within the institution and try to make changes rather than just leave it," Kathleen said.

In addition to parishes, the survivors also visit seminaries and talk with priests, deacons, and those studying to become clergy.

"We're planting the seeds with these people that are in these positions of the future," Bob said.

Kathleen explained that they want to help priests and deacons know how to respond and take action if someone approaches them and shares that they were abused.

"That's what I want to say to these priests: don't underestimate your role in your parishes. People want that personal invite. They want to hear from you," Kathleen said.

She said she thinks it is important for sexual abuse to be addressed from the pulpit.

"It doesn't have to be ad nauseam, it can be just here and there, but think about us, pray for us, talk about it," she said.

Regarding the question of why Catholics should continue talking about this issue, when some would rather move on, Kathleen said simply, "we're here."

"We're still in the pews, we're still out there, we're still part of the Archdiocese of Boston, so it's important to not forget us," she said.

Paul commented on how Pope Francis has spoken about the duty of all the baptized to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Paul said he does not see that as "a passing of the buck," but rather as "an empowerment and a call to action and a call to community."

He said he thinks community is "the antidote to the isolation that many survivors may feel in trying to interact with the Church."

"There is a pathway forward that isn't necessarily a happily-ever-after story, but a story of honesty and engagement," Paul said.

The coronavirus pandemic interrupted the group's public speaking, but they hope to continue building trust with clergy and parishioners.

"There are good people in the Church, and there are people that are trying very hard to rebuild and help gain back some of the trust that was lost," Kathleen said.