By Brian D. Wallace
BRIDGEPORT— Forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary for those trying to move their lives forward after abuse, but it’s a difficult journey, said members of the diocesan survivors of sexual abuse group at the recent Day of Hope, Healing and Recollection held at St. Margaret Shrine in Bridgeport.
In a day of prayer and conversation that began with Mass and included a powerful outdoor Stations of the Cross on the grounds of the shrine, survivors shared their struggles with abuse and their individual journeys toward recovery and healing.
“We are blessed to be part of this ministry of healing,” said Erin Neil, Director of Safe Environments and Victims Assistance Coordinator, who introduced the speakers. “Those wounded by abuse find healing through faith and through sharing with each other.”
Those who participated in the conversation said they could not move forward in their own lives and the healing process until they could work toward forgiveness for their abuser. Through much hard work they now think of themselves as survivors rather than victims.
However, they were quick to point out that some young people did not survive the abuse because their lives and relationships spiraled out of control as a result of the abuse.
One of the most powerful symbols of healing was found around the altar of the St. Margaret Shine chapel where the newly ordained Father Jim DiVasto, himself a victim of clerical sexual abuse, celebrated Mass alongside Shrine Rector Father Peter Lenox, and Deacon Donald Foust.
DiVasto also led the Stations of the Cross with readings by members of the survivors group. The powerful reflections that accompanied each station were taken from “The Way: Stations of the Cross for Survivors of Abuse,” written by Sue Stubbs MS, NC, Victims Assistance Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. They combined a profound insight into the suffering of victims with a deep faith in the power of God’s grace to heal.
The reading for the 12th Station, “ Jesus is nailed to the cross,” included this prayer: “Lord, here at the foot of the cross is where I can choose to give up crucifying myself for the abuse I suffered, stop putting myself down as mattering less than others, cease condemning myself for what I had to do to survive, and stop blaming myself for not feeling able to change. Here I choose to nail the abuse I suffered to the cross with you and allow you to take on my pain, my wounds and heal them.”
The first of two “Courageous Conversations with Survivors” included two or the founding members of the diocesan survivors group, Peggy Fry and Peter Philipp, who discussed the trauma of their own abuse and the steps they’ve taken on the road to hope and healing.
In reflecting on his own abuse that began in grammar school, Philipp said that at some point he asked himself, “Are you leading the life that God wants you to lead?”
He believes it’s a question that all survivors of abuse must ask if they seek to free themselves from the harm done by the abuser and begin to rebuild their lives.
“Being abused doesn’t mean you get off the hook,” he said, as he urged survivors to live their lives fully, even if they have more to overcome than those who did not suffer from abuse.
Phillip, who taught at Notre Dame High School in Fairfield for years, said that victims of abuse may have a hard time believing in themselves, and that he spent many years in therapy to come to terms with the abuse.
“It never should have happened, but it did,” he said. Speaking of his volunteer work as an advocate, he said, “I’m happy to supply the bridge to help others move from victim to survivors.“
Both Philipp and Fry help out with diocesan “Virtus” Safe Environment program that is designed to create awareness and prevent abuse. Through the survivors group, they also continue to reach out to all victims of sexual abuse.
Fry described herself as a “happy and outgoing girl” until she was abused by a priest in her early teens. She felt embarrassed and ashamed, but like other victims she did not say anything right away because she didn’t really have the words to say it, and didn’t think anyone would believe her.
However, she learned later that family members noticed a change in her, when her sister pointed out that there was not one photo of her smiling in her high school yearbook.
“I really believe God saved me,” she said, adding that she never lost faith in God or the Church, and she gained strength by being able to share her story with other survivors.
Both Fry and Philipp point to the historic 2014 meeting with Bishop Frank J. Caggiano that took place at Fairfield University. For two hours the bishop listened intently as survivors and family members revealed their stories of abuse.
“We said things that we had never said to anyone or each other,” Philipps recalled. Out of that meeting the first healing committee was formed and the survivors of abuse began to play in important role in the diocesan response to the crisis and to the reconciliation effort.
In the second conversation Mary B., a new member of the survivors group, discussed her abuse by a beloved family member. She didn’t want to hurt her parents or disrupt the family, so she told no one until she went to college and shared it with a boyfriend. He urged her to come with him and speak to one of the priest’s at school, who recommended that she tell her parents. It was the beginning of her healing process, which ultimately led her to forgive the abuser.
“I experienced a great hurt and relied on God’s help and grace. Through that I was able to forgive someone who caused me great pain,” she said.
Mary recalled that finally telling her parents felt like “a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I thought everything was fine and it was over,” but at that point, she wasn’t ready to forgive her abuser.
“Not forgiving was hurting myself,” she said, citing a retreat she attended years later, which led her to pray for his soul. She cried at his funeral and was able to move on because she thought that God had forgiven him.
“I remembered him not for one horrible incident but for all the good he did in life. He was not a monster, he was wounded. By embracing the abuser’s brokenness we too embrace our wounds. Pope Francis said forgiveness is not easy, it’s a grace we have to ask for. My path to forgiveness was unique to me. Each person has to ask God’s help in the journey of forgiveness,” she said.
Father DiVasto, who was ordained by Bishop Caggiano in May, spoke of the impact of abuse on his life, and his own unlikely faith journey to ordination after losing his mother when he was 12, marrying, raising a family and caring for his late wife in her long illness. In his talk he described the hard work of moving forward and seeking reconciliation.
Reflecting on his own healing journey, Father DiVasto said that as he tried to come to terms with the impact of abuse on his life, he was terrified. “I knew that I wanted to walk through that door despite the pain I knew it involved. And I realized I couldn’t do it alone. I needed help from a mental health professional and family support.”
He realized that the healing process involved discovering God’s grace, letting go of the anger, and taking the next step in his healing by “learning to forgive and experience reconciliation.” It was a process that changed his life and ultimately led to his ordination after a 37-year career at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Office.
In her closing remarks Erin Neil , thanked everyone for having the courage to speak and share their stories, and she said it was important for people to be aware of sign of abuse and to speak up in order to save lives.
“This was an amazing experience to be in the presence of real grace and blessing. The survivors have found strength in knowing God is with them and has not left them. A monumental task of forgiveness is not an easy journey, but they can forgive with God’s grace.”
To watch the homily delivered by Father Peter Lenox at the Day of Hope and Healing, please visit www.facebook.com/watch/live/?extid=CL-UNK-UNK-UNK-IOS_GK0T-GK1C&mibextid=l2pjGR&ref=watch_permalink&v=249086074496056
For more information, about the Safe Environments program of the diocese and the survivors group, https://www.bridgeportdiocese.org/safe-environments/home/ . Contact Erin Neil, L.C.S.W, Director of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance Coordinator with the Diocese of Bridgeport. Phone: (203) 416-1406 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org