Grief to Grace UK turns ten this year. Our mission is to support abuse survivors, particularly survivors of clergy abuse, by running a specialist retreat programme, support group and counselling outreach. There can be no triumphalism about this anniversary, even less so in the midst of a lockdown which prevents us running our residential programmes. However, the milestone definitely points to the ongoing need for such a ministry which understands that abuse trauma leaves not just a devastating psychological impact but also an embodied, spiritual impact which can only be healed by integrating these different elements.
Hopefully the anniversary is also a sign of God’s blessing on our work, since from the first it has had to battle considerable obstacles.
What does a Grief to Grace retreat programme offer? A safe space to explore the wounds inflicted by abuse. It is a safe space because it is curated by a team of mental health professionals, priest spiritual directors and trained volunteers, all of whom understand how the trauma of abuse impacts every aspect of one’s identity and relation to God, to others and to one’s own true self. (Many of the team are, in fact, survivors of abuse themselves).
Though initially it might seem counter-intuitive to explore such wounds in a group setting, the group quickly bonds to increase the safety, ending the secrecy, isolation and shame which are the legacy of abuse. Working in a group also avoids the kinds of exclusive transference which occurs if counselling from a therapist or priest is the only vehicle for healing. Such a transference often replays aspects of attachment to an abuser which though it similarly promised mentoring and safety, ended up in betrayal, bought at the price of huge trust.
A retreat group normally comprises 15 men and women and half as many team. Would-be participants are offered an interview and a series of sessions with a therapist and complete a detailed questionnaire about their history to make sure the programme is appropriate for this person at this time. Not everyone is ready for group therapy, and people come at different stages of their healing journey.
The five-day retreat programme is underpinned by an expert understanding of the psychology and neurobiology of abuse trauma, but in essence it is simple. To heal from abuse you need to experience a community of safety in which your voice can be heard and your story believed. If faith was ever important to you, then this community must be one in which your spiritual beliefs are given due weight.
Survivors need not just empathy but compassion, including compassion for what each may have had to become in order to adapt and survive. Survivors need to voice the shame, anger and grief, the lingering doubts about complicity, and the confusion about why they tolerated or returned to the abuser. Such feelings are fearful to confront but lose some of their power when normalised as proportional responses to highly inappropriate circumstances and overwhelming emotional pain.
To process such emotions requires being grounded and soothed in their telling, not just with words but with techniques which help regulate the autonomic nervous system and prevent instinctive survival reactions from taking the executive, rational brain offline and activating more primitive brain circuitry designed to deal with extreme threat by fight/flight or freeze/fawn type survival responses which quickly overwhelm.
We use different ways to process the stories of abuse safely through artwork, journalling and body work. The unique and central feature of the programme we call “Living Scriptures”. In each of these, some aspect of Salvation History is proclaimed in a Gospel or biblical passage. This is followed by a carefully designed guided meditation on the Scripture which seeks to involve the participant in the drama (not unlike an Ignatian meditation), and finally there is a ritual associated with it.
For anything which cannot be adequately expressed in words, it is necessary to use ritual.
These rituals provide a way of telling the story in an embodied way. At a psychological level, one could say that the Scriptural stories function as archetypes: narratives of the loss of innocence, escape from the bondage of slavery, and most of all, the compelling story of a wholly good and innocent man betrayed and abandoned, brutally tortured, humiliated, stripped naked and apparently annihilated by corrupt religious authorities.
That story ends with evil being conquered and suffering winning a new life in which the wounds of the past are now glorified.
Reliving the scenes of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery provides a kind of psychodrama in which participants explore their own loss of innocence, bondage, betrayals, suffering and longing for redemption and new life. But for the person of faith these become something far more powerful than psychodrama.
The psychological identification with the content of these stories facilitates a deeper, spiritual interiorising of God’s solidarity with human suffering, with my suffering. To explore my own wounds as I journey through the horrific abuse that was Christ’s Passion is no play-acting, but an invitation to unite the abused and tortured self with Christ on the cross and to bury it in the tomb with him.
This provides not just psychological “closure”, but spiritual renewal as grief is emptied out to make way for grace, the grace of resurrection and a reclaiming of my true identity not just as the “inner child” of psychology, but as the baptismal child, the child of light whose true identity is hidden with Christ in God.
The Child of God who survived can then be embraced not as “damaged goods”, but as a beloved son or daughter of God the Father, redeemed by Christ. This true identity allows a participant to wrest their life from the perpetrator’s hold and shed the limitations of the identity formed by suffering and by the defence mechanisms it engendered. One participant described the programme thus: “The Church’s field hospital operating at its professional best, deep behind enemy lines.”
What of the next ten years? The UK team is currently involved in training G2G teams for Europe and Australia. We are in advanced negotiations to lease a large house in London from a religious order which would provide us with a “garden enclosed” – our own designated safe space in which to run retreat and support programmes as soon as lockdown permits.
Until recently, reluctance to confront the scale and impact of clergy abuse has made it hard to engage interest or garner publicity for what we do within the Church. Survivors’ anger is not always recognised as the product of disenfranchised grief, but rather as a threat to harm the Church. The damage to the institution can now only be ameliorated by prioritising concrete measures for healing, not by more inquiries and policy reviews. Even so, we are criticised by some who think it inappropriate that priests are involved in the work of trying to heal clergy abuse.
Yet the Church has “a divine mandate to bind up wounds”.
It has been a struggle to fund G2G in a culture unaccustomed to paying for healthcare or psychotherapy. Because our ministry is grounded in a Catholic anthropology and integrates the Sacraments, many assume our work is financed by the Hierarchy or from the Vatican’s putative riches. In fact, we do all our own fundraising in order to offer our programme at a fraction of its true cost. But largely through the testimonies of our alumni, our work is spreading. Typically Catholic survivors react to our work by saying, “At last, someone finally gets it.” We hope so.
We surely want to, for the sake of anyone who has suffered the unspeakable pain of abuse and who needs the healing of the Divine Physician.
For more, visit grieftograceuk.org
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