This past week, I was honored to have the opportunity to speak as part of a breakout session at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders. The breakout session was titled, "The Silent Voices: Reaching Out to the Victims of Violence, Abuse and Trafficking." Here is the full text of my remarks:
My name is Joseph White. I am a clinical psychologist specializing in work with children and families and a National Catechetical Consultant with Our Sunday Visitor.
I am passionate about this topic because of the number of children and families I have worked with affected by abuse and violence. I have seen the deep pain that abuse and violence brings in the lives of everyday families. Because I am known as a Catholic psychologist in my community, many of the families referred to me are Catholic. I see that abuse and violence affect families who are active in our parishes, as well as others in our community. In addition, I have worked with survivors of human trafficking, both in the United States and in Southeast Asia. I have witnessed the deep and all-encompassing wounds that come from treating people as commodities. This is an issue that touches at the very core of our Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person.
Violence and abuse are widespread problems in society as a whole, and this touches many people in our parishes and communities as well. For example, estimates suggest that up to one out of every 3 to 4 females and one out of every 5 to 6 males are victims of sexual abuse.
There are psychological and spiritual correlates of abuse that are intertwined, such as feelings of hopelessness, doubts that God exists, and at times, doubts that the Christian community cares or is able to provide help or support. This is especially true when the violence and abuse we know is so widespread in our society is not openly discussed in our Catholic communities.
As Pope Francis states in The Joy of the Gospel (24), "the Church which 'goes forth' is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive."
What does it mean for us a Church to "take the first step," when it comes to survivors of abuse and violence? It means finding creative ways to meet two primary needs of these survivors -- the need for appropriate professional services and the need for a supportive social community. What systems are in place to refer survivors of abuse and violence to qualified trauma-informed professionals? It is important to keep in mind that trauma is a specialty, and professionals providing services to survivors should be well trained in the core trauma competencies identified by experts as necessary for effective treatment. “Trauma-informed interventions,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, are those that “are delivered in a way that is influenced by knowledge and understanding of how trauma impacts a survivor’s life and experiences long term.” Access to services for persons of diverse cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds should also be key considerations. In addition, there is a need for connecting people who have perpetrated abuse to appropriate services in order to help them find healing and break the cycle of abuse.
Mental health researchers have identified social support as one of the most important factors in mental health and an essential part of resiliency for survivors of trauma. For example, a 2017 Centers for Disease Control Guide to Preventing Domestic Violence emphasizes the importance of social support and community resources in mitigating long-term negative health consequences for survivors of intimate partner violence. In The Joy of the Gospel (46-49), Pope Francis speaks of the Church as a "mother with an open heart." Do survivors of abuse and violence find in our parishes a welcoming and supportive community that is willing to accompany them? A community that affirms their dignity and allows them to discover and share their gifts as well as having their needs met? How might we strive to make our communities more welcoming of people with diverse, and often difficult past experiences? How can we welcome survivors of abuse and violence as fellow sojourners in need of healing and grace, as we all are? Pope Francis, echoing Pope John Paul's "spirituality of communion," speaks of accompaniment as the proper disposition of missionary disciples. Rather than talking a patronizing approach of simply "doing for" others, we are called to "walk with" others and share their experiences, their hopes and fears, their sufferings and their joys. In this way, we truly love one another as Jesus has loved us.