The Worst Possible Way to Respond to a Victim of Abuse

The Worst Possible Way to Respond to a Victim of Abuse March 17, 2019

I’d like to say a bit more about how we respond to victims and their stories.

It’s a topic we’d all like to put behind us, but this really isn’t an option, given our situation in the church right now. And I keep returning to the topic myself because, the more I see and hear about what victims have been through, and the more I witness the way others within the church respond to them, the more clearly I see the nature of the moral corruption that made it possible for these abuses to happen, for the cover-ups to happen, and no one to do a thing about it.

I have also come to realize that the abuse issue is not only about clergy. It’s about institutions and persons protecting abusers who are non-clergy, as well, so long as a story of abuse would tarnish the reputation of a Catholic institution, Catholic marriage, or Catholicism as such. There are people who have invested in a marketing of catholicity, whether it be Catholic apologetics, Catholic NFP, or a Catholic education – and letting it be known that bad things happen in sacrosanct Catholic places destroys the marketing plan.

This is what happens with far-right Catholic universities such as Franciscan University and Christendom, that market themselves as the few last places where you can send your impressionable kids to keep them safe from the scary world. If it gets out that assaults are happening, their PR is shot. Especially when part of their schtick is Superior Sexual Morality – no sex happens here except happy holy married sex!

Similarly, if the mantra that Catholic married couples are happier and sexually better adjusted than contracepting secular couples it to be maintained, stories of abuse within Catholic marriage tend to be silenced by the communities that ought to be supporting the victims.

(I’m emphasizing the marketing aspect of this, by the way, because it IS a business. People make a living off selling their own variations on Catholic teaching on sex, and are thus financially invested in suppressing stories that undermine their theses. I remember when the debates about contraception and the Zika virus were going on: one white well-off individual was lamenting online that if poor women in Brazil were allowed to start using birth control to prevent conceiving children with painful birth defects, “it would undermine everything he’d been working for”).

Being shocked by the wrong things.

Recently, one of our writers here at Patheos, Mindy Selmys, told her own story of escaping from abuse. I know Selmys, have met her in person, and am astonished by her strength of character in spite of everything she has been through. I am horrified that she lived with that level of suffering for so long, and that Catholic venues offered her no escape from it. This is something we desperately need to be aware of, and remedy.

However, when Selmys told her story, a great many of people were shocked – not at the abuse she’d suffered. Not that an educated Catholic man had treated his wife so abominably. Not that she’d been unable to escape for so long. No, they were shocked that Selmys was allowed to write for a Catholic platform even while attending a non-Catholic church.

As a friend of mine,  who advocates for abuse survivors, put it:

Ex Catholic woman: I’m going to blog about my experience while I was Catholic. Somehow my husband at the time thought despite a background in theology that drunkenly coercing his newly postpartum wife wasn’t marital rape or a mortal sin. But he knew he couldn’t masturbate so he blamed me for this if he did. And I believed it at the time and blamed myself too. The Church needs to do better.

Patheos Catholic: I’m so sorry that happened to you and your experience clearly has a lot to teach those of us who are still Catholic.

Catholic pearl clutchers: Oh MY STARS! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT! That blogger isn’t Catholic anymore and she’s still on that channel! This is the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard of in my life. PATHEOS IS SCANDALOUS!

Me: THAT was the part of that story that shocked you?…That was the news worthy part of that story to you? That’s what you took away from that? What the blazes is WRONG with you people?!


And that wasn’t the worst of it.

I’ve been following the responses to Selmys’s pieces, from readers across the religious and ideological spectrum.  Most readers are grateful to her for speaking out, shocked at what she suffered, and in agreement that yes, we Catholics need to be addressing these issues – especially given that they are connected with the broader systemic abuse and cover-ups in the church. People have been sharing Selmys’s writing because she brings up important topics for church leaders and educators to be aware of.

Then there were the others. Far-right Catholics, including writers affiliated with Crisis and Church Militant,

Some of them said they didn’t believe her story. They accused her of making it up.

Others said it didn’t really sound like marital rape, since the marriage debt is real, and she had consented when she married him.

Others said she must have somehow provoked her husband’s abusive behavior herself.

Look, these are classic instances of victim-blaming and victim-shaming – and exactly the same kind of things that have been said to silence victims of clerical abuse.

Even if you have solid reason to doubt a victim’s story – and none of these people had any solid reasons at all – these are never things that should be said to or about a person who comes forward with a story of abuse, because there’s a very good chance that, if they’re telling the truth, you were their one chance for being heard.

And you blew it.

(P.S. technically, according to accurate theology, Selmys is still Catholic, anyway. And she’s certainly not the only Catholic attending church elsewhere in the present climate)

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