Survivor Advisory Council offers support, shares lessons with archdiocese

BRAINTREE -- The June 18 meeting of the Boston Survivor Advisory Council, a support group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse that works alongside the Archdiocese of Boston, started off with a joke.

"What did the group of people yell at Edgar Allen when he was skiing and was about to hit a tree?" Kathleen asked her fellow survivors, Paul, Denis, and Bob. (Last names have been withheld for privacy). "Poe, a tree! Get it? Poe, a tree! Poetry!"

As they have done monthly since 2016, the survivors met at the Archdiocese of Boston Pastoral Center in Braintree, inside the office of Vivian Soper, the archdiocesan director of pastoral support and child protection.

"We were looking for ways to involve survivors more in planning and outreach and things of that sort," Soper said, "and I was talking to different survivors who were connected with us."

The SAC offers support to other abuse survivors and their families and advises the archdiocese on how to do the same. They meet and minister to survivors, visit parishes, and pray the rosary together. Kathleen said it is important for parishioners, especially those whose faith was shaken by the revelations of abuse, to hear from survivors.

"I don't want to be the reason why you're not going to church," she said. "Don't blame me. I'm a survivor, but don't blame me because you decided not to go to church."

The SAC does not work for the Archdiocese of Boston. Rather, it is an independent group that works with the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach.

"I don't think we're helping the archdiocese," Denis said. "I think the archdiocese is helping us."

Kathleen was one of the survivors who suggested having monthly meetings. She met Paul, Denis, and Bob at the first meeting. Now, she considers them brothers.

"I don't know what my life would be without them," Bob said. "I swear to God, this is one of the most important things that I've actually done."

At the June 18 meeting, the survivors ate pizza and chatted about various topics: The Boston traffic, Pope Francis's recent meeting with famous comedians, and the training sessions they have been doing with priests since 2023.

Every five years, clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston are required to undergo training to recognize and prevent sexual abuse. After seeing the survivors' previous work with deacons, seminarians, and parish groups, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley decided that the latest training session should focus on conversations between priests and survivors.

"The cardinal saw that there was an opportunity to build bridges among the clergy," Paul said.

During the training sessions, the survivors do not share specific details about what happened to them, but Soper is still careful to make sure that the sessions do not re-traumatize them. According to Soper, 1,500 people are known to have been abused by clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston.

"Some of those people did not survive," she said. "Some of those people have died to suicide, some have died to addiction. Some have died just to the pain of living with this and the impact that it's had on their life."

Many other survivors left the Catholic Church for good. Kathleen, Paul, Denis, and Bob remain practicing Catholics. Bob was confirmed in 2018.

"Folks who are capable of doing what the four of them have done need to be able to partner with the church to help move this forward," Soper said. "And that's not an easy thing to ask someone, because we're asking people to partner with the organization that is responsible for their abuse."

Soper and Cardinal O'Malley both felt it was important for the archdiocese to hear from survivors. In conversations with them, she hears a constant refrain: "I want to know what you're doing today to make sure that what happened to me will never happen to another child in the church."

Survivors also want the archdiocese to know that they do not blame all priests for what happened to them. They blame the priests who abused them and the system that failed to hold them accountable. The survivors at the June 18 meeting agreed that there have been bad priests in their lives, but there have been many good ones as well.

"It's very impactful for us," Bob said, "because it's reopening all those wounds when you're talking about your story and how you've been involved with the church and how you came back to the church."

The purpose of the training sessions is not to antagonize or attack priests but to keep the clergy abuse crisis fresh in the archdiocese's memory so that nothing like it happens again. Paul said that talking to the priests "taps into a different side of our common humanity."

"It isn't a group therapy session," he said. "It isn't a tell-all on Oprah . . . It really is a conversation, in its most general sense, in its most unique sense."

He compared the training to an Easter homily he heard from Cardinal O'Malley, in which the cardinal wondered what would have happened if the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus hadn't invited him in for supper.

"When you're dealing with priests and people in the church," he said, "whether they're survivors or not, it's really about reaching Jesus."

Kathleen feels a responsibility for the survivors who left the church and never returned, as well as their families.

"We're a different church," she said, "but the fallout is still the fallout, and where do we go from here? And I think we have a lot of work to do to regain public trust."

She has found that the priests who lived through the sex abuse crisis were also traumatized. Instead of "pointing fingers," she said the purpose of the training sessions is to allow both priests and survivors to heal.

Paul called the training sessions a "two-way street of understanding."

"There are many, many, many, many survivors who we'll never see in the church because it's far too painful," he said. "But what does it mean for those of us who held onto our faith in a different way? In a way, that means engaging with the church."

Bob said that opening up about their abuse was difficult for the survivors, but they have become more "seasoned" the more they have talked about it.

"Every time you go back into history, it brings up all of those emotions," he said. "So, it's kind of like learning how to deal with it. And getting through that kind of awkwardness so something positive can come out of the other end."

"The journey has been very, very hard," Denis said. "It seems like it's getting rewarding . . . Healing is going both ways, and I think that's the strongest thing for the church, and it's the strongest thing for all of us because we wouldn't do this if we didn't think it was the right thing."

When Kathleen first came forward about her abuse, she was "conflicted."

"I knew I was Catholic, and I knew I had love for the church because I had great experiences when I was a teenager in the church before the abuse happened," she said. "I said to myself, 'There must be other survivors that are experiencing the same thing. I can't be the only one, people who have been abused that want to get back to church or they want to rejuvenate their faith, and they just don't know how.'"

"I reached out to the archdiocese to see if I could get some help with my whole life situation," Bob said, "going to the lawyers and going through the process of being investigated . . . The church reacted very kindly to me."

As he became more involved in the archdiocese, Soper asked him what he thought about the idea of a support group for survivors of clergy abuse.

"I was all up for that," he said, "because it helps my healing with everything that I do. I just think that we are all trying to find a way to make something better that was so tragic and caused us so much personal pain."

He now has "tremendous admiration" for his fellow survivors.

"It's my life's pleasure that I met these people in this group," he said, "and they've helped me tremendously in my faith journey."

Paul described his experience in the 1990s, when Cardinal Bernard Law led the Archdiocese of Boston, as "alienating." When he attended Mass, he made sure to go to a parish where no one knew who he was. He began working with the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach when he saw the work that Cardinal O'Malley was doing with survivors.

"I think that there's sort of a circle that continually replenishes itself with our own healing," he said, "and also our interaction with the church through the work that we do here and our life in the sacraments."

Over time, Soper said, some survivors have returned to the church. She hopes that the work of the survivors, the archdiocese, and the clergy will bring even more of them back.

"It's about going out and saying, 'We are among you,'" she said. "'We are sitting in your pews whether you know it or not. We are there, and we want to tell you what made it possible for us to either not walk away from our faith or to return to the church.'"

Paul said that 100 years from now, people will still be able to read the Boston Globe's expose on clergy abuse or watch the movie "Spotlight." However, there will be no survivors left to tell their stories.

"All those people in the future, what will they look back and see?" he asked. "When they look back, what will they see the church doing at this time? Will they see a community of believers who are taking their cue from the transformed wounds of the risen Christ? Who are seeking to have conversations of reconciliation?"

When Bob goes to Mass each week, he is excited to find more and more people in the pews and children serving at the altar.

"We're making progress," he said. "And I think this is the way to keep that progress going."