Reflections on All Survivors Day

All Survivors Day is “an international day to recognize survivors of sexual abuse, bring their stories into the light, raise awareness of the widespread nature of the issue and organize for change in the culture that allows sexual abuse to continue,” according to their website. For me, it is also a day to reflect on what I’ve learned from survivors and how knowing them has so powerfully influenced my life.

Talking to survivors at the Chancery during the spring of 2018 was a truly transformative experience for me. I often say that I’m not the same person I was before that time. Those conversations with survivors opened my eyes to the reality of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in a raw, powerful and lasting way. I vividly recall the emotions I felt as I took those calls or spoke to survivors in person. It was a “no turning back now” experience. Once you know, you know…. and there is no retreating to the Land of Before.

How grateful I am to no longer need to speak to survivors in hushed tones on a Chancery phone. I vividly recall modulating my voice when a survivor would call during a time when the Bishop or other Chancery officials were afoot. The hallway behind my desk led to Bishop Grosz and Steve Timmel’s offices, so I had to be careful. I knew I’d be in quite a predicament if one of the bishops or Steve heard me urging a survivor to get a lawyer and not sign anything without legal counsel. Likewise, I tried to hide my tears as best I could because otherwise there would be talk about “Siobhan having a tough day” or “Siobhan not being able to handle it.” Why, I thought, is the emphasis on me? Shouldn’t they be worried about the survivors and their plight, which was what brought those stinging tears to my eyes in the first place? Why were they treating survivor calls and visits to the Chancery as a nuisance rather than as a plea for help and a call to action? Why was Bishop Malone more worried about “isolating” me from survivor calls than addressing the issues the survivors were raising?!

zero abuse logo

These days, I no longer have to modulate my voice or hold in my tears. Through my job as a Victim Assistance Civil Specialist with the Zero Abuse Project (ZAP), I am able to spend my entire workday helping survivors. It used to be that I would work during the day and then devote my evenings and weekends to survivor-related efforts. But now my side passion has become my full-time focus and it’s AMAZING! How deeply grateful I am to be working for this awesome non-profit organization whose mission is to protect children from abuse and sexual assault, by engaging people and resources through a trauma-informed approach of education, research, advocacy, and advanced technology. The ZAP vision is “a world where every child is free from abuse.” Every ZAP employee is zealous about making this vision a reality.

Gone are the days when I had no place to bring a survivor visitor so we ended up in an unused storage room on the 4th floor. Now I can invite survivors into a conference room where they’ll share their story in a safe, secure and comfortable environment. Gone are the days of lowering my voice to tell a survivor what I really think. Now I share my thoughts and advice freely. And even though I don’t need to hold my tears in anymore, I find that I don’t cry nearly as much as I did back in my Chancery days. Why? I believe it is because now I can actually DO SOMETHING for survivors and that makes all the difference. During my Chancery days, I was crying for a lot of reasons: the suffering of survivors, most of all, but also my inability to help them plus the moral quandary of working for the Diocese. Basically, there was a lot to cry about.

Do I still cry? Absolutely. The sorrow is still there. It always will be. It’s impossible to hear survivor stories and not be moved by them. But now, sorrow isn’t my only response. I can take action and assist survivors. I can encourage them, support them, guide them, and help them. It’s sorrow that can roll up its sleeves and get to work: tears transformed.

My work with the Zero Abuse Project has taught me so much about what “all survivors” really means. In my new role, I speak to survivors of clerical sexual abuse, but also survivors of teachers, counselors, troop leaders and others. Talking to “all survivors” has taught me two very important lessons:

  1. Predators are frighteningly similar in their strategies and techniques
  2. Survivors are amazingly similar in their strength and resiliency

Of course, every survivor has a very different path to navigate. Some are struggling more than others due to circumstances over which they have little control. Others are just coming to grips with what happened to them and the experience is overwhelming them. One survivor told me recently that, “I always thought I was okay and that was in the past, but now I realize it never went away and it’s almost harder now than it was back then.” No matter where a survivor is at on their healing journey, they are dealing with daily challenges that non-survivors cannot truly fathom.

Navigating

As a non-survivor, I’ve been pondering the fact that survivorhood is somewhat like a country with its own language, customs and culture. It is a land that no one wants to enter, but once you are there, you see, hear and feel everything differently from those who are not citizens of Survivorhood. For non-survivors, the word “trauma” might bring to mind blunt force trauma or a traumatic brain injury. For survivors, that word is deeply personal and painful. Likewise, the word “flashback” might make a non-survivor think of a narrative technique in movies or books. For survivors, flashbacks are disturbing and often daily elements of their lives.

I’ve learned to appreciate these new definitions for familiar terms and to respect the culture of Survivorhood. I now choose my words carefully and am determined to always act in a survivor-friendly and trauma-informed manner. Whenever I’m not sure of what to do or say, I pray to God for guidance and I reach out to a survivor for advice. They are always more than happy to help! I have learned so much from them, but I know that I will always have more to learn.

On All Survivors Day, I want to recommit myself to helping all survivors in every way I can. I am fortunate that my job allows me to do this on a regular basis. But no matter what your circumstances may be, you can help survivors!

anne frank.png

The first step is to be the sort of person you’d want to turn to if you were a survivor yourself. If you were dealing with the immense pain and trauma of sexual abuse, what kind of person would you turn to for help or support? Most likely you’d be looking for someone who would believe you, listen to you and show you compassion.

“I believe you.” Just knowing you believe them is a tremendous gift to survivors. Survivors have many burdens to bear – they should not also bear the burden of proof.

Listen. Listen more than you talk. Listen more than you tell. Just listen. Don’t judge, don’t analyze, don’t criticize… treat the survivor as you’d want to be treated.

You may never know how much you’ve helped a survivor just by believing them and listening to them.

From there, compassionately assist them as you’re able. Express your support for them and encourage them to find help if they need it. Maybe you’re able to check in with them occasionally to see how they’re doing. You could invite them to an event they’d benefit from or include them in an activity they’d enjoy. Perhaps you have or know of a therapist who might be a good fit for them. If you’re of the prayerful persuasion, you can keep them in your daily prayers by name. If you have compassion, it will show and it will make a difference. It will help more than you know.

Robert Shelton
Infographic created by Robert Shelton

This helpful infographic shows the progression of engagement from pity to compassion. Compassion comes from Latin and means “suffering with another.” That is what we are called to do to the extent we are able: to suffer with survivors so that they are not alone as they have so often been. We cannot actually experience their suffering, but may we do all we can to relieve it.

Sometimes survivors are told to “move on” or “get on” with their lives. These are not a survivor-friendly or trauma-informed phrases yet they are frequently used. I believe that “carry on” is a much better and more accurate way to look at it. Survivors can’t leave their abuse behind and just “move on.” They will carry their abuse and its effects with them for the rest of their lives. Yes, survivors will continue their journey toward hope and healing, but they may end up taking two steps forward and falling back three. They will have to get back up and try it one more time. Why? Because what they are carrying is extremely hard and heavy:

  • pain
  • trauma
  • fear
  • isolation
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • PTSD
  • estrangement
  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • trust issues
  • emotional distress
  • loss of faith
  • separation from God
  • loss of family support
  • financial difficulties
  • drug or alcohol dependency
  • self-esteem issues
  • problems with authority
  • anger
  • sorrow
  • physical ailments
  • self harm
  • panic attacks
  • self-blame and shame
  • relationship challenges
  • inability to concentrate
  • insomnia
  • suicidal thoughts

They are carrying on as best they can, but they are bearing burdens heavier and harder than we non-survivors can even comprehend. Let us be there to lift them up and help them as they carry on.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

The last item on the list above is a tragic but important one to remember. Many survivors are no longer with us because the burdens they carried became overwhelming. Let us remember and pray for them in a special way today. May we also pray for those who mourn them.

Before I close, I want to mention and salute survivors’ spouses, children and loved ones, who are victims of the residual effect of abuse. The ripple effects of abuse know no bounds and impact so many people. Please remember that a survivors’ family members may need support and encouragement just as the survivor themself does.

To all of my survivor friends: thank you for changing my life, helping me to become a better person, and teaching me what strength and resilience mean. Those are no longer mere words to me – they are real people with names and faces.

As you carry on, know that you are not alone. You are believed, respected and loved.

 

Those We Cannot See

[This is a two-part reflection… the first half focuses on the living – the second concerns the dead.]

A great deal of the work of life goes on behind the scenes and is accomplished by people who are not often seen or always acknowledged for it. These behind-the-scene folks are so often extremely humble and hard-working. Please allow me to introduce you to two such people. 

Yesterday was a difficult day for the I-Team at WKBW-Channel 7 as it marked the last day for Jeff “The Wizard” Wick. Jeff has been an integral part of the I-Team investigation into the Diocese of Buffalo as well as the other award-wining investigations they’ve conducted over the past several years. You may never have seen Jeff’s face since he’s always behind the camera – not in front of it, but you’ve certainly seen his work. The stellar graphic design and impeccable production value of the I-Team’s reports are all a credit to Jeff’s skillful talent. As a Catholic and former altar boy, Jeff shared Charlie’s commitment to the Diocesean investigation as well as the sorrow of covering such a dreadful story. Charlie and Jeff have something else in common: humility. Despite being enormously talented, Jeff never made a big deal about it. He and Charlie were always focused on getting the truth out and, in particular, sharing survivors’ stories. It was never about them – collectively or individually.

Although I didn’t work with Jeff as directly or frequently as I have with Charlie, I certainly came to appreciate his talents and his temperament. If you could define an adjective with a person, Jeff would be in the dictionary under “chill.” He remains calm and easy going no matter what time constraints or deadlines he may be facing. “Yeah, sure – yep, I can get that done” would be his relaxed response and then he’d work his magic and make it happen. I so enjoyed watching Jeff and Charlie work together. Theirs was a collaboration marked by congenial, harmonious camaraderie. Jeff was a true teammate to Charlie – keeping up with the Diocesan doings while also covering completely different stories for WKBW. It’s really a wonder that he was able to do it all and do it all so well.

When Jeff mic’d me up yesterday morning for my interview with Charlie, it was a bittersweet moment to know he’d be behind the camera for the last time. I was deeply grateful that I could do one last interview with the two of them, but it saddened me so much to think of Jeff making his departure. Ultimately, gratitude got the upper hand as I considered how fortunate we were to have Jeff on the I-Team especially for these last 18 months. His contributions were extremely significant and made a lasting impact on our diocese and community. It was a privilege and a pleasure to work with Jeff. I know that he will be successful in his next endeavor because talent, skill and humility are always a winning combination. Please join me in thanking Jeff for his amazing work and in wishing him well as he heads off to DC to work for Newsy!

I can’t talk about Charlie’s behind-the-scenes guy without highlighting his behind-the-scenes girl… his wonderful wife, Shannon. In fact, I’ve been waiting for just such an opportunity to express my gratitude and respect for her. During the course of Charlie’s work on the DOB story, Shannon has made truly innumerable sacrifices while her husband has been devoted to this difficult and time-consuming work. Especially last summer and fall, Charlie’s I-Team responsibilities resulted in a lot of late nights and weekend work. I remember thinking of Shannon so much during those tumultuous months. A year ago, I wrote this to her in an email: “It’s almost as if you’re a military wife whose husband is engaged in a very unusual battle that keeps him away for extended periods of time. Charlie has the greatest work ethic I’ve ever witnessed, which is awesome and so crucial for our cause, but a real sacrifice for you. Thank you for making that sacrifice for the greater good. You are one of my heroes!” I certainly feel exactly the same way a year later.

Thank you, Shannon, for sacrificing you and your family’s time with Charlie so that he could complete the investigations and reports that have had such a seismic effect on our diocese. Thank you for your crucial input on the stories especially #3 last fall! Thank you for being selfless when it would have been quite easy (and very understandable) for you to have a different reaction. Thank you for helping your three sweet children to understand why Daddy was working so much even though you couldn’t explain the substance of his work due to its dark nature. Thank you for enduring the frustrations, challenges and even harassment that have come your family’s way over the past 18 months. The Mom is like the flight attendant of the family – if she remains calm and composed, everyone takes comfort in knowing that it’s going to be okay. Thank you, Shannon, for keeping it all together through all of the turbulence of this past year. You are the definition of a behind-the-scenes hero and we all owe you more than we realize!

Read more