Men who abuse minors are called “Slayers of the Soul.”
The implication of this designation is clear and accurate: sexual abuse not simply harms, it kills something.
Some victims of abuse can eventually work through, to acceptable degrees, the psychological trauma of abuse. They can free themselves from addictions, sustain adequate relationships, and maintain employment, but an important part of their life experience cannot be revived.
Clinicians who have interviewed and treated victims of sexual abuse of clergy verify over and over that one of the common consequences of abuse by a Catholic priest is the complete loss of the comfort, support, spiritual sustenance, and meaning in life the victim previously experienced.
Those who do not understand the nature and depth of this deprivation think that the victim can merely “forget about it,” “move on,” or “find another religion.”
Some victims cannot. A part of them is dead - their faith.
Three analogous situations can help one understand the depth of this victim’s dilemma. First, the loss of a child: the death of a child is the one loss that is eternal in experience. A parent can never fully recover from this loss. Certainly life must go on, but there is nothing or no one who can substitute for the lost child. The parent cannot forget.
Second, the loss of an integral part of one’s body: if one loses a limb - arm, leg - or a sense of hearing, sight, touch - he or she can compensate, substitute and get along, but every accommodation is just that, an adjustment, but not a revival. A part is gone, dead.
Third, the loss of belonging and of patriotism: if through betrayal one were to lose citizenship, and a sense of patriotism, that loss cannot be revived by aligning oneself with another country. It is one thing to find a better place by choice, quite another to be ripped from ones origins.
Those who doubt that some men and women can suffer the deprivation of their faith as acutely as the loss of a child, the loss of a limb, or the loss of citizenship have not had the experience of treating victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
A person who has been grounded since childhood in one faith, where their self worth, acceptance, spiritual identity, and salvation were vested cannot simply forget, put it behind him, or join another faith. They can go on with their lives, but the part that is missing cannot be restored. Something is dead; something has been truly killed.
A.W. Richard Sipe
December 10, 2002
* Leonard Shengold, M.D. wrote SOUL MURDER - Yale University Press, 1989 - in which he asserts that to abuse or neglect a child, to deprive the child of a separate identity and joy in life, is to commit soul murder. Children desperately need to maintain a mental image of a loving and rescuing parent. Torture and deprivation under conditions of complete dependency elicit a terrifying combination helplessness and rage - feelings that the child must suppress in order to survive. The child therefore denies or justifies what has happened, deadens emotions, identifies with the aggressor, and even takes on the guilt that is appropriate to the abuser.
This dynamic and all of the elements that Shengold mentions are operative when a priest betrays a child.