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What are abuse survivors like? How do they feel? Why can't they put the abuse behind them?

These questions must surely be the most commonly asked questions - both of abuse survivors and by abuse survivors.  Perhaps the easiest way to show just how difficult it is to "put it behind us" is with this quote from a re-marriage preparation course: "A loss is a broken emotional bond with a prized person, relationship, activity, place, ritual, or belief."  If you think about that in terms of the results of clergy abuse, survivors have generally suffered the loss of a bond with ALL of those things in one go—prized person (the abuser, who is lost either/both through the abuse ending and/or in the victim facing the loss of the ideal she thought he was), relationship (both with the abuser and often with parishioners, friends and family when the victim discloses), activity (church attendance and other social activities in the parish), place (the place where the abuse occurred—often church ground—becomes a place of pain instead of pleasure, and where abuse disclosure results in leaving the parish there's also loss of sense of belonging), ritual (many of the church rituals are so entwined with the abuser and the abusive relationship that any similar ritual can be too triggering to cope with) and belief (where beliefs were taught or exemplified by the abuser, loss of faith in the abuser often results in loss of faith in the beliefs too; frequently this is not evident until the victim discloses, when the church system is also found to be abusive, thus denying the victim the "he was just one bad apple, but the church is still a refuge" comfort).

So the loss that clergy sexual abuse engenders is a profound one, affecting so many areas of our lives that the effects themselves compound each other by being so indivisible.  Yet many of us don't even understand, in the first decade or two, why we feel pain at all, because we don't understand it was abuse.  For many of us, the abuse was by someone we admired or loved, and appeared to be an expression of the clergyperson's love for us.  And when the realisation does hit, it is no less intense for being delayed several years.  No-one says to a grieving widow "just get over it" while the pain is still fresh—what people don't understand is that the pain of abuse is so profound, and so intrinsic to our being and sense of identity, that it remains fresh for decades, unless and until it is addressed with intensive psychotherapy.

So, bearing that in mind, I hope the following will make more sense :-)


Survivors of clergy sexual abuse often have great difficulty with everyday life. The following story - by a clergy abuse survivor, about the pain that we live with, and the unanswerable questions we carry - and the information below it, may serve to give some understanding to others - to "walk a mile in our shoes". Below the story are some explanations about our difficulties, and a list of issues common to abuse survivors. More writings by survivors can be found here.

Once again, today is such a struggle. Five more minutes, ten more minutes… just another hour. I’m OK for ten more minutes. I’m still here, I’m OK right now. Just ten more minutes.

I noticed outside the window, how beautiful it was today. I headed outside, and as I started walking, I wondered how could anything possibly be wrong. The sun is shining on my face. A cool breeze blowing through my hair, and so many beautiful birds singing to me from the trees as I pass underneath. The abuser is hundreds of miles away and twenty years in my past. He (can’t?) hurt me anymore.

There are several large, open fields between my office and the large mountain that serves as our backdrop. As I was walking, I worked my way through some shrubs and bushes into a large partially cleared field. You could still see the tracks and wide pathways left from a bulldozer, although the moved dirt was now covered by grass and small shrubs. At one side of the field was a very large oak tree. Large, but not tall. It had fallen over… or perhaps it had been pushed over by the bulldozer years before.

Half of it’s roots were exposed at it’s base, torn and gnarled. It’s long trunk was arched for twenty feet where a large branch had found it’s way into the ground and had now started it’s own root structure and served as the tree’s new base. It was still alive, and in fact, looked as if it was thriving. At the same moment that it struck me with it’s beauty and uniqueness, I started to cry. That’s the third time today. I cried on my way into work, and then again while sending a letter asking for some help with my fear…and now once again while I admire the strength and passion for life shown by this old oak tree.

It’s not like me, to cry so much. Perhaps once a week, maybe even twice. But three times in a day… there’s a break in my cup.

I decided to sit against the tree. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but wonder how the tree might feel about it’s life. What would it say if it could speak? Did it know how wonderful and unique it was, or did it feel broken, like me? And if it did realize it’s beauty in it’s uniqueness, was it enough compensation for never being able to see above and beyond the other trees, or reach as high as it was designed by God to reach?

Compensation, is there such a thing, really? I wanted the tree to know how beautiful I thought it was. I wanted to be able to tell the tree how sorry I was that it had been injured, but how happy I was to encounter it’s beauty and unique gifts, and how it offered me a joy that all the other trees could not. I wanted to tell the tree these things, because I was afraid that possibly, just like me, it might be unable to see these things for itself.

I wondered that even if the tree saw me as a friend, would my words of praise and thanks matter? What words of love and encouragement could ever ease the pain of knowing that you are not what you could have been if someone hadn’t intentionally hurt you? How painful it must be to look down everyday and see your twisted and broken roots. An everyday reminder of the injury you have suffered.

I know these questions and comments from my heart are really directed back to myself. But I asked them of the tree anyway. There were no answers. All of my questions and comments remained true, just as I had stated them originally. I am uniquely gifted and loved and broken and in pain. I will never be what I could have been, but am now what I would not otherwise have been if I was never hurt.

As solid and strong as the tree now appears, perhaps life is still a struggle and as questionable as that day that it fell. Perhaps it IS strong and happy and content with it’s life just the way it is. I suppose that I will never know. I guess that I will just accept that I have oddly enough, become friends with a tree, and that I am thankful for what my new friend offers. Strength, beauty, and someone else to share my pain with.

-- N.B.

Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse: some things we would like you to understand

1. We grew up feeling very isolated and vulnerable, a feeling that continues into our adult lives.

2. Our early development has been interrupted by abuse, which either holds us back or pushes us ahead developmentally.

3. Sexual abuse has influenced all parts of our lives. Not dealing with it is like ignoring an open wound. Our communication style, our self-confidence, and our trust levels are affected.

4. Putting thoughts and feelings related to our abuse "on the back burner" does not make them go away. The only way out is to go through these emotions and process them.

5. Our interest in sexual activity will usually decline while we are dealing with this early trauma. This is because: •we are working on separating the past from the present. •pleasure and pain can sometimes be experienced simultaneously. •it is important for us to be in control, since control is what we lacked as children. •Sometimes we need a lot of space. Pressuring us to have sex will only increase our tension.

6. We often experience physical discomforts, pains, and disorders that are related to our emotions.

7. We often appear to be extremely strong while we are falling apart inside.

8. There is nothing wrong with us as survivors -- something wrong was DONE to us.

9. Sometimes others get impatient with us for not "getting past it" sooner. Remember, we are feeling overwhelmed, and what we need is your patience and support. Right now, it is very important for us to concentrate on the past. We are trying to reorganize our whole outlook on the world; this won't happen overnight.

10. Your support is extremely important to us. Remember; we have been trained to hold things in. We have been trained NOT to tell about the abuse. We did not tell sooner for a variety of reasons: we were fearful about how you would react, what might happen, etc. We have been threatened verbally and/or nonverbally to keep us quiet, and we live with that fear.

11. Feeling sorry for us does not really help because we add your pain to our own.

12. There are many different kinds of people who are offenders. It does not matter that they are charming or attractive or wealthy. Anybody -- from any social class or ethnic background, with any level of education-- may be an offender. Sexual abuse is repetitive, so be aware of offenders with whom you have contact. Do not let them continue the cycle of abuse with the next generation of children.

13. We might not want or be able to talk with you about our therapy.

14. We are afraid we might push you away with all our emotional reactions. You can help by: listening, reassuring us that you are not leaving, not pressuring us, touching (WITH PERMISSION) in a nonsexual way.

15. Our therapy does not break up relationships - it sometimes causes them to change as we change. Therapy often brings issues to the surface that were already present.

16. Grieving is a part of our healing process as we say goodbye to parts of ourselves.

taken from

The following two lists may be of help to both victims and their supporters, for both to better understand how much of a victim's current behaviour may be a result of their abuse.

Core issues common to survivors

1. Fear of abandonment
2. Low self-esteem
3. Control
4. Trust
5. Being real
6. Feelings
7. Dependence
8. Grieving our ungrieved losses
9. All-or-none thinking and behaving
10. High tolerance for inappropriate behaviour
11. Over-responsibility for others
12. Neglecting our own needs
13. Difficulty resolving conflict
14. Difficulty giving love
15. Difficulty receiving love

Cognitive distortions common to survivors

1. All-or-nothing thinking: we look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories
2. Over-generalisation: we view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat
3. Mental filter: we dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives
4. Discounting the positives: we insist that our accomplishments or positive qualities "don't count"
5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) mind reading - we assume that people are reacting negatively to us when there is no definite evidence for this; (b) fortune-telling - we arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly
6. Magnification or minimization: we blow things way up out of proportion or we shrink their importance inappropriately
7. Emotional reasoning: we reason from how we feel: "I feel like a loser, so I really must be one"
8. Should statements: we criticise ourself or other people with "shoulds" or "shouldn'ts", "musts", "oughts" and "have tos"
9. Labelling: we identify with our shortcomings. Instead of saying "I made a mistake", we tell ourself, "I'm a jerk" or "a fool" or "a loser"
10. Personalization and blame: we blame ourself for something we weren't entirely responsible for, or we blame other people and overlook ways that our own attitudes and behaviour might contribute to a problem.

Main page * Site map * My story * Survivors' bill of rights * Who we are * Info for survivors * Motivating thoughts * Forgiveness and apologies * Protocols * Protection skills * News and laws worldwide * Statistics * Post-traumatic stress disorder * Books * Contacts * Links * Email me