Clergy abuse: Priests are the antidote

Clergy abuse: Priests are the antidote
Teresa Pitt Green

My work with clergy is a long way from the old days. Then, when I spotted a Roman collar on a random passerby mixed in the throng of a Manhattan Avenue, I would crumble into the nearest doorway with a mix of anxiety and grief known as ‘beginning to remember’. Now, I offer the story of my recovery to sensitise clergy to issues which victims of abuse face, so that diocesan and religious priests and brothers may create, with grace from the Holy Spirit, their own unique pastoral approaches to the suffering which the faithful bring into the pews every Sunday.

Even as the Church in the United States has implemented reforms that have greatly reduced child abuse within Church settings, the world is far more dangerous for children and vulnerable adults than when I was a child enduring abuse by a series of priests. The incidence of violence in homes and public spaces is on the rise, with catastrophic increases in sexualised violence being enshrined in media and normalised in social interactions.


Many people bear a private hell in their hearts at Mass each weekend, tucked safely behind a neutral public persona. We cannot forget, either, the victims who are alienated from the sacraments, adrift without graces for spiritual healing so terribly needed. For all these people, it is hard to find a sense of sanctuary and safety – and a hope for healing. The situation is dire, but the solution is near.

As a survivor of clergy abuse, I understand how a priest or religious brother can offer a unique antidote to the wounds of abuse, particularly for people alienated from the Church, and especially for survivors of abuse by clergy. Doing so, he will become more of himself. That is a daring sacrifice given the rage and risks involved in caring for people who have become alienated from God and have even rejected Him. It leads a priest to stand in a seemingly impossible breach, quite alone in the middle of an uncomprehending society, with one arm stretched toward the soul who hides within a cringe of pain and the other toward the Eucharist – his very existence a way home as proxy for Church and as stand-in for Christ.

The challenges are real because the hope is great. Some priests choose to ‘wing it’ when they encounter a victim of abuse. Others, who are not gifted in this pastoral area, choose not to refer victims to others. The problem is that, despite their best intentions, uninformed priests often re-traumatise victims, who then disappear without reconciliation. Other victims voice reasonable objections but are dismissed as malcontents, and nothing is learned.

“It doesn’t take much for priests and religious brothers to learn to help victims of clergy and other abuse reconnect with God and with our faith”

When a victim dares to explore reconciliation, it tends to be a one-shot experiment without rehearsal. This is true of clergy abuse survivors and many other people wounded by abuse or trauma who have a shame-based relationship with God. It doesn’t take much for priests and religious brothers to learn to help victims of clergy and other abuse reconnect with God and with our faith, but the process often surprises these men as they realise what they alone offer. This has something to do with the nature of abuse itself.

Few people in the Church understand the nature of abuse, so they do not understand the role clergy plays in healing survivors, families, parishes and the whole Church. In response to news of child abuse in the Church, people seek me out to offer ideas about ‘fixing’ the priesthood, as if the priesthood is itself flawed and inclined to producing abusers. Most commonly, people tell me that abuse will end only when priests can marry, ignoring both that the preponderance of abusers are married (or living in couples) and that a common setting for abuse is the family.

Others claim that abuse will end when women are priests, suggesting that women are less capable of evil and revealing unawareness that prosecutions of women as abusers are on the rise. Along with other ideas that suggest priests are guilty by association with predators — who (let’s remember) abused the Roman collar to gain access to prey — there seems to be a widespread ambivalence toward the priesthood shared among people who even consider themselves close and loving friends with one or more priests.

Some researchers have argued that the priesthood as an institution is flawed. Without analysing their methods, I notice these experts only studied what I experienced firsthand. My firsthand experience runs contrary to their findings. The abusers whom I knew were not simply stumbling into a temptation for human intimacy. Instead, they were, through myriad small choices, using their authority intentionally to groom children as well as their would-be protectors. They were choosing progressive levels of depravity. These actions are the opposite of human intimacy. Abusers whom I knew were not flawed versions of priests and religious brothers whom I now know, but the opposite of these men. The difference is not in degree. It has never been about degree. It is a difference in kind.


My conviction in this regard has only grown throughout my recovery and ministry. Where the abuser destroys free choice, the priest informs and empowers free choice. Where the abuser dehumanised me by isolating and using me, a priest points to the fulfilment of our humanity through an intimate relationship with the divine. The abuser forcefully sacrificed my childhood, potentially killing all spiritual life, but a priest sacrifices his life to lead people to eternal life. The list could go on and on.

“It is an unimagined evangelical moment when victims and clergy engage in safe dialogue, creating a safe home”

This is the white martyrdom of which I was taught when I was a little girl. Its truth runs counter to my experience then. Priests and religious brothers, serving in a milieu of ambivalence toward their radical self-sacrifice, are living contradictions to the wounds of abuse. It is an unimagined evangelical moment when victims and clergy engage in safe dialogue, creating a safe home for all who are wounded, whether they are praying in the pews or drifting alienated and homeless in a dark and troubled world.

Teresa Pitt Green is an internationally known author, speaker, and advocate for trauma-informed pastoral care. She co-founded Spirit Fire, a Christian Restorative Justice Initiative, whose ministry is to facilitate recovery from the lasting impact of abuse, especially clerical abuse, for survivors, their families, parishes, clergy and church leadership.