What Does Forgiveness Look Like for Survivors of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church?

November 2, 2022

In March 2019, a group of Catholics living in Milwaukee began to gather and talk about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Grieved and infuriated by the leadership failures that protected abusers while abandoning victims, these people began to imagine what it would look like to work for change, healing, and most importantly, accountability.

These necessary conversations led to the creation of Awake Milwaukee, an organization that acknowledges the pain and trauma of abuse victims while being a committed voice working for change and accountability. Awake offers resources and support for survivors, as well as ways to be more informed and support their work.

Sara Larson, the Executive Director of Awake Milwaukee, was gracious enough to give an interview to FemCatholic discussing what forgiveness looks like when we talk about the painful reality of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

When discussing what forgiveness looks like practically for abuse victims, you will hear the voice of a brave survivor, Esther Harber. It is critical to listen to the stories of survivors, and we feel so grateful to hear and receive Esther’s experience.

And if you or someone you know has experienced abuse in the Catholic Church, please know that Awake Milwaukee will hear you, support you, and walk alongside you in your healing journey.

For someone who has experienced sexual abuse by clergy, what does forgiveness look like? And more importantly, what does it not look like?

Sara Larson: Forgiveness is a beautiful gift, but in relation to those who have experienced abuse by a Catholic leader, it’s almost easier to say what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not saying that what happened wasn’t a big deal, or letting an abuser off the hook. In fact, to truly forgive someone, you have to look at the depth of the harm and acknowledge how profoundly you have been hurt. 

Forgiveness does not mean forgoing any pursuit of accountability or justice. You can forgive someone and still work to put them in jail or have them removed from ministry, for their own good and for the safety of others.

Forgiveness does not mean having warm feelings towards someone who hurt you deeply. Forgiveness is a choice, which may or may not be accompanied by a change in how you feel.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or restoring a relationship. A survivor can make an internal choice to forgive an abuser and have no intention of ever seeing them again. In fact, forgiveness can actually be a way for a survivor to break the ties that make them feel bound to the perpetrator.

Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened, or pretending there are no ongoing effects of the abuse. Healing from trauma is a lifelong journey, and forgiveness does not mean an end to that difficult work.

Forgiveness is so much more than a spiritual principle. What other parts of the human person come into play here?

Sara Larson: It’s important to recognize that humans are not simply spiritual beings. Catholic teaching tells us that our bodies matter, and we can’t simply brush away the physical realities of our existence. This is especially true when we think about the way that trauma impacts the human person and rewires our brains. So, when we talk about forgiveness for a trauma survivor, we need to be conscious of the way that trauma might be impacting their reactions.

How can forgiveness sometimes be used or weaponized against abuse survivors?

Sara Larson: Some abuse survivors call forgiveness “the F word.” For many, this is not because they reject the possibility of forgiving their abuser, but because the idea of forgiveness has been weaponized against them as a way of dismissing their pain or their desire for accountability. Some Catholics often tell survivors, “You just need to forgive,” as a way to end a hard conversation or avoid difficult questions about justice and accountability. It can sometimes feel like these words serve the same function as harmful commands like “keep quiet” or “move on.”

All forms of abuse are primarily about a misuse of power and taking away a victim’s ability to choose for themselves. For some abuse survivors, the choice to forgive can be an act of empowerment, a choice to move forward after deep harm. This individual choice is not something that can be commanded, especially by those in the institution that has caused the harm.

What does the journey of forgiveness look like practically for abuse survivors?

Esther Harber: This is an important topic to examine closely. Forgiveness will look a little different for each person because how we respond to trauma is different. One phrase that has always been helpful for me is, “Taking them off of my hook and putting them on God’s hook.” Ultimately, I want to strive to free myself from the need to get retribution or revenge. A large part of my healing journey is learning to trust that God’s justice will be done, but it is not up to me to make that happen. I have found deeper freedom and healing through forgiveness. For me, it was also empowering and ultimately joyful.

Forgiveness is not a rejection of justice or neglecting holding a perpetrator accountable. In fact, that is a perversion of forgiveness and mercy. If we ignore someone’s sin and allow them to continue to sin, we are not acting mercifully. I firmly hold that bringing perpetrators to justice is the most merciful thing we can do for their soul.

In terms of forgiveness, what do Catholics need to understand from the experience of abuse survivors?

Sara Larson: To forgive someone who has caused deep and lasting harm is a courageous and deeply meaningful act, but it must be freely chosen, not imposed by others. If you are ever given the sacred opportunity to listen to someone’s story of abuse, the first words out of your mouth should be, “I am so sorry. I believe you. How can I help?”

I have also heard many survivors say that they have been able to forgive the person who abused them, but it’s more difficult to forgive those in the Church who have responded to their abuse with minimization, blame, covering up, or simply silence and apathy. Often, the original abuse has ended, but this institutional betrayal continues for years (even decades) after a victim comes forward. It’s important that all Catholics work to not only end abuse, but also to transform the way that our Church responds to those who have been harmed.

Patty Breen

Patty Breen has been working in lay ministry for over ten years and writes online for various publications including Verily, Blessed is She, and Catholic Match. A Midwestern girl from the Mitten state, Patty finds joy in running, strong cups of coffee, Ignatian spirituality, and writing. Having gone through a divorce as a young Catholic, Patty has a heart for speaking to and supporting divorced Catholics and women dealing with sexual addiction in their dating relationships. She is passionate about messy conversations at the intersection of faith, culture, and ministry.

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