Content Warning: This article discusses clerical sexual abuse. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
The Roman Catholic Church, as well as society at large, has a responsibility to create networks of support and foster empathy for survivors of clerical sexual abuse, panelists said at an Oct. 25 event.
The virtual event, titled “Lifting Up the Voices of Female Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse,”
invited four survivors of clerical sexual abuse to share their perspectives on preventing future abuse. The event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, the Office of Mission and Ministry, the Georgetown Law Office of Mission and Ministry, the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and Awake Milwaukee.
Survivors of sexual abuse need to know that their body’s traumatic response is a form of protection, according to panelist Kathryn Walczyk, a spiritual companion, writer and survivor of clergy sexual abuse.
“It’s natural to me to share what happens to the body and to know how my body was not against me,” Walczyk said at the event. “To learn the trauma science, that my body was learning to protect me. It wanted to save me from this spiritual injury. That’s why I responded in trauma.”
Sexual violence can have psychological and physical effects on a survivor. Post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of anxiety, stress or fear are typical after a traumatic event and can make adjusting afterward difficult, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Dr. Deborah Rodriguez, a pediatrician with expertise in trauma-informed care and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, called for greater societal attention to supporting survivors.
“There are superheroes everywhere in the world, but they have the worst superpower, and that is invisibility,” Rodriguez said at the event. “In other words, we can’t see these beautiful gems of people right in front of us. Much like the survivors before us, we are hidden in plain sight.”
In December 2018, the Illinois state attorney general office identified child sexual abuse accusations against at least 500 Catholic priests or clergy members not publicly named by the church, many of which were not properly investigated. In July 2020, the Vatican published guidelines for clergy to report cases of sexual abuse.
Georgetown University has reckoned with its own connections to clerical sexual abuse in recent years. There are currently 16 publicly known church officials accused of sexual assault that are affiliated with Georgetown. In September 2021, multiple survivors came forward against former Provost Donald J. Freeze, following initial allegations from an individual survivor in June 2021 that resulted in administrators revoking Freeze’s honorary degree.
The Catholic Church must have empathy for survivors in order to solve the clergy sexual abuse crisis, according to panelist Carol Longsdorf, an elementary school teacher and survivor of clergy sexual abuse.
“Few people in the world respond with empathy,” Longsdorf said at the event. “So few people, especially within the church, respond to trauma with empathy. Empathy must be trained and taught because it’s not being taught in our culture.”
In order for women to feel comfortable reporting sexual abuse by clergy officials, the patriarchal nature of the church must be changed, according to Rodriguez.
“I cannot ignore the big elephant in the room,” Rodriguez said. “We live in a church, a Catholic Church, that is male-dominated. And no matter how holy or wonderful or well-meaning that male person is, there’s still a hierarchy. So imagine if female voices came out sharing our talents and our voices. That would be amazing for our church.”
The Catholic Church does not allow women to join clerical ranks, resulting in an all-male hierarchy. In November 2016, Pope Francis stated that the rule against women’s ordination is likely to last forever. Church reform organizations globally have been pushing for women’s ordination for decades, including the Women’s Ordination Conference, which staged protests at the gates of the Vatican in October 2018.
Rodriguez called on society at large to create a safe environment for survivors of sexual abuse by inviting them to tell their stories when they are ready.
“What can we do?” Rodriguez said. “First of all, just listen. I’d use Kathryn’s word ‘invite.’ Invite. We don’t have to wait for the bishops and the priests and everyone else. Just, as one another, invite. Invite stories. Invite safety. And then recognize that those of us who have a trauma history are coming with a wound that may still be unhealed.”
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-7080); additional off-campus resources include the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (202-333-7273) and the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiner Washington Hospital Center (844-443-5732). Individuals can also report sexual misconduct by a Jesuit by contacting the province’s victim advocate at [email protected] If you or anyone you know would like to receive a sexual assault forensic examination or other medical care — including emergency contraception — call the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. at 202-742-1727. To report sexual misconduct, you can contact Georgetown’s Title IX coordinator at 202-687-9183 or file an online report here. Emergency contraception is available at the CVS located at 1403 Wisconsin Ave NW and through H*yas for Choice. For more information, visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.