The abuse survivor who reminds me that we are supposed to be a light to the world

Abuse survivor Dawn Eden

Last week I met an inspirational Catholic: Dawn Eden, an American survivor of sexual abuse as a child who has turned this trauma into an apostolate to bring hope to others who have experienced similar abuse. Dawn is a convert from Judaism; her abuse happened at the hands of an adult at her local synagogue and from her mother’s boyfriend after her parents split up.

I asked her what led her into the very Church which the media has been delighted to portray as the villain of the piece regarding the abuse of children. Her reply surprises me. She admits that at first she was put off by news of the scandals besetting the Church; but that she then witnessed the grief that ordinary Catholics, as well as members of the hierarchy, showed when they learnt of the crimes and cover-ups. Above all, she was moved by the compassion for the victims that she saw in the Church. Here was a Church that acknowledged its wounds but which also knew that only the light of Christ could transform the darkness within.

This is the point of my blog: instead of focusing on the obvious and negative aspects of this shameful episode in the Church’s recent history, Dawn witnessed to the deeper wellsprings of the Church’s sacramental charity and was thus able to distinguish between the appalling sins of individual members and the loving compassion of the Church as the “mystical body of Christ”. This was the Church she has chosen to join.

In his blog for 7th March, William Oddie did a fine job of defending the Church’s record in rooting out paedophilia within her ranks (and showing how it has been unfairly been made a scapegoat by the media). Dawn’s apostolate, eloquently argued in her book “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints”, complements Oddie’s robust defence. Instead of fixating on the past she wants her audiences and readers to understand the theological virtue of hope. “People keep repeating that abuse is soul-destroying” she said to me, “but Christianity is about hope. The temptation is to continue to live in past pain – but this accentuates it; it doesn’t bring about healing.”

I found our conversation immensely cheering. Instead of being constantly wrong-footed by the press and thinking breast-beating is the only response, here is a woman on fire with her message. As she points out, the Church has led the way in caring for AIDS patients when they were largely shunned by society; further back in history, the Church was behind the building of the first hospitals and places of refuge; now it is her task to lead the way again, by bringing her wisdom and her spiritual resources to bear in the healing of abuse victims – and also the wider society.

Dawn reminded me that the Church doesn’t exist only for her own members; she witnesses to the world about the dignity of each human being. This includes the unborn, the elderly and sick, those wounded by pornography as well as victims of sexual abuse. To paraphrase Nietzsche, nothing human is alien to the Church. Dawn has spoken to women in prison in the States, and to prostitutes who have chosen treatment in order to lessen their sentences. She is scheduled to speak to Catholic staffers in the House of Representatives when she flies home. While in the UK she has been talking not just to victims of abuse but also to students, priests, chaplains, seminarians, religious and lay pastoral caregivers. In Birmingham her talk was sponsored by the diocesan safeguarding department. On several occasions survivors came up to her to share their own stories. She leaves me with the invigorating message: “We are to be a light to the world!”

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