Healing Abuse Within Religious Vocations

Church Leadership is Hurting Too


Background on Dr. Theresa Burke

Dr. Theresa Burke is the Founder of Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries for healing after abortion. The program she composed is solidly Catholic and unique in its approach. A similar format is also offered by scores of interdenominational groups. The healing journey uses “Living Scriptures” and rituals engaging the mind, body and soul in an integrated sensory based treatment. This provides an exceptionally effective healing process for victims of trauma and those who have spent years in talk therapy, but still struggled to move beyond their trauma. In the past 12 years, the Rachel’s Vineyard model has spread to 35 countries and is the fastest growing post abortion ministry in the world. In 2011, close to 1000 retreats will be offered in 15 languages… and the growth is exponential. Rachel’s Vineyard is a ministry of Priests for Life.

For many years, Theresa felt called to compose another program for those who had suffered neglect or emotional, physical, or psychological abuse, in particular, for those who had been abused in the Catholic Church. We know that any history of sexual or physical abuse and neglect makes both men and women vulnerable to accepting abortion and many other kinds of evil in their lives. Dr. Burke writes about the link between abortion and abuse in her groundbreaking book on traumatic reenactment entitled Forbidden Grief.

In fact, there is rarely a Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat where at least 60% of participants do not have histories of abuse. The unhealed wounds from the past can be recreated in the future. What is necessary for healing and reconciliation is permission to grieve and integrate the split off parts of traumatic experience into who we are and who we wish to become, so we can stop repeating the trauma in our lives.

The context of all the abuse in the church

Generations of developing vocations in the Catholic Church have been aborted, vocations abruptly terminated by the pillaging destruction of young souls through clergy abuse. There are some parallels between the experience of those who have participated in abortion and the incomprehensible response of some church leaders when abuse allegations had been brought to their attention. Like a woman in denial about her abortion, many Church leaders resorted to the same dissociated posture toward the horror of the crimes. They constructed a similar fortress of defensiveness that is quite common when we entrench ourselves in the knowledge of deep sin and its cover-up. If only Mother Church from the beginning had allowed her heart to be broken by recognizing the truth revealed in the shattered lives of her victims, and heard the pleas of desperate parents begging the Church to step in and protect the innocent lives of her children.

Grief to Grace Program

In 2003, Dr. Theresa Burke launched another healing program entitled Grief to Grace: Healing the Wounds of Abuse – Reclaiming the Gift of Human Dignity. Her husband Kevin, a clinical social worker, assisted her. Those who come are finally ready to face their grief – the kind of profound grief that opens the soul to the power of Christ in His Passion, because there is nothing else to lean upon except the promise of resurrection.

This is why people come into Rachel’s Vineyard and Grief to Grace, or any recovery program: they are desperate. Like the woman with the hemorrhage, they have exhausted all avenues for healing. Nothing has been able to repair the bleeding veins of their hearts. This rupture within the self caused by abortion and abuse has polluted their life with toxic shame and betrayal, killing the goodness and virtue that was God’s plan for their life… and His plan for the Church. People seek a healing process that allows them to integrate memory with feeling; that shows them that they are capable of giving and receiving love; and teaches them how to live what they believe in deep humility, trust and freedom.

Those who have been hurt by abuse or abortion in their families, communities and Church leadership desperately need to enter a process for healing. It begins with grief work which helps participants to be willing to stare the damage in the face; to discover that they are capable of tolerating the overwhelming feelings that are attached to deep loss and pain; to release feelings of anger, betrayal, injustice and rage; and to understand the traumatic repetitions that have occurred as they tried to hide the secrets that have felt so defective and shameful.

Healing Within the Church

In deep recognition of their need, and hearing of a safe place to heal, many religious sisters and priests have begun to make the journey from Grief to Grace along with other victims of abuse. After attending the program, one priest who had been abused as a child by another priest wrote: 

“I do not have the words to tell you how grateful I am for all I have been given this week through you and your team, by your heart so full of faith, hope and love… I never believed so powerful a journey could happen so suddenly. Thank you from the depths of my heart, now so overflowing with peace and joy.”

The new Evangelization Initiatives mandate that we invite all into the fullness of authentic love so they are free to discover their unique vocations in Christ. But abuse of any sort, given its fundamental nature of betrayal, endangers an individual’s ability to fully accept and embrace this gift. Abuse attacks the heart of our vocations as beloved children of God. Grief to Grace directly responds to this suffering by bringing the wounded soul to the very font of love itself, the Lord Jesus.

This program was created to end the isolation and secrets of abuse within a retreat process that is fully centered upon the person and presence of Jesus Christ, who knew exactly what it felt like to be an innocent victim. One victim of clergy abuse shared these words after completing the Grief to Grace program: “I notice that the sense of helpless vulnerability which seemed ingrained in me has evaporated and I have a new sense of being present to myself and integrated in body, mind and spirit as never before. Now I think, “this must be how we’re meant to feel.” It helps me understand my lack of accomplishment and direction in life up until now. How could I make goals and follow through with them when so much energy was expended in agonizing then second guessing every decision and choice I was faced with? Now I’m happy to say my greatest accomplishment is my full acceptance of humanity, wounds, scars and all, in myself and in others.”

Because the Church is the community of believers, when one of its members is healed, the Church itself is made stronger. Imagine if many are healed! Imagine if her leadership is healed! A stronger, more radiant Church is one that can’t help but engender goodness throughout all of society. Those who experience healing within the context of their faith will, in turn, invest their gifts and resources into the Church. They are inspired to serve and build upon the foundation that has been laid within the context of Church, faith and community.

One priest who suffered abuse as a child shared that Grief to Grace provided the missing piece that 22 years of addiction treatment had failed to provide – addressing the spiritual component of his own relationship with God.

 One religious sister who had been sexually abused as a child expressed the following:

“Things are so much better in terms of house dynamics with my superior. I have come to see that I not only saw God as a perpetrator but also the Sisters I live with. When I began to take off the lens of my abuse, I saw that I really am very loved by God and my Sisters. It’s funny…at any given moment, when I stop to think, I know exactly what I am feeling and why and what to do about it. In prayer, I’ve been asking Jesus to touch my heart and to hold me close. I am trying to make a habit of visualizing this in prayer. Our Lord is telling me to be not afraid.”

Cardinal Renato Raffael Martino from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace spoke these words of encouragement for Grief to Grace“Please be assured of my prayers as you continue to serve God’s people with such dedication and love. The ministry of healing that you provide to so many women and men will no doubt bring hope, strength, and a renewed faith to those who suffer the traumatic effects of abortion and sexual abuse. May the Lord who has begun this good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.”

Grief to Grace supports and assists its participants in this spiritual journey. It helps participants face the depth and tragedy of abuse while reclaiming their value and dignity as daughters and sons of the Living God. By traveling the Paschal Mystery of their own lives and uniting their suffering to Christ’s, participants share in the new life and fullness of His Resurrection and thus re-establish the font of love, tenderness, belonging, safety, joy and peace which are often missing from the stories of abuse victims.

One victim of clergy abuse shared:“I have been delivered from a great burden as a result of Grief to Grace. Resurrection has occurred in my life as a result of this experience! I can share very frankly about my experience as well as opening myself up to others about who I really am. I know the tender loving care of God in a new and refreshing way and I look forward to my life and what the possibilities are that lie ahead.”

History of the Program

Grief to Grace – Healing the Wounds of Abuse was first piloted in July 2005 in the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. Another Grief to Grace Pilot Program was hosted by The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Dr. Theresa Burke has continued offering pilot programs over the past six years as adjustments and revisions were made to the Facilitator Manual and Participant Journals. The retreats and training seminars drew Victim Assistance Coordinators and participants from throughout the United States, Ireland, England, Russia, France, Australia, and Canada.

The Diocese of Nelson, British Columbia, led by Bishop John Corriveau, OFM Cap., became the first founding partner for the work of Grief to Grace. He states:

“We wish to contribute to the healing of those who have suffered the trauma of sexual abuse in our society. The Diocese of Nelson sponsors the program, Grief to Grace. Grief to Grace brings the healing power of the Cross of Christ coupled with approved counseling methods to those who have suffered sexual abuse either by a priest or anyone else. The priests of our diocese wish to be worthy of your respect and trust. For this reason, they wholeheartedly accept and support these measures. I ask your prayers for all victims of sexual abuse…and for each other as we strive to move once again from the Cross to new life.”

Retreats have also been offered in the Diocese of Palm Beach; Corpus Christi; Oklahoma City; Kingston, Jamaica; and Philadelphia. Archbishop Eusebius Beltran declared “I strongly approve and recommend this new group model for healing.” The ministry continues to grow rapidly with more retreats occurring each year.

Victim Assistance

Dr. Theresa Burke presented an overview of the Grief to Grace Program at the National Victim Assistance Conference in San Francisco, CA in August 2009. Attending was Diane M. Knight, the Chair of the USCCB National Review Board, which was created to be a consultative body for the Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. Diane, visibly moved, came up to Dr. Burke after her presentation. She shared that Grief to Grace gave her incredible hope for the church.

Barbara Elordi, the Victim Assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, expressed her own gratitude: “Thank you for all the work you do in giving people who are hurting the opportunity to move towards healing and reconciliation.” After hearing about the Grief to Grace program, Suzanne Healy, the Victim Assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was so convinced of the power of the program that she sent the information to a client and offered to sponsor his attendance.

One Victim Assistance director who attended the retreat stated: “Grief to Grace is an amazingly spiritual experience. A journey involving safety, bonds, connection, merging of hearts, grieving together towards transformation. A wonderful instrument for healing of those with sexual abuse wounds! This is an extraordinary opportunity to live through Christ’s redemptive work.”

Another acknowledged that “Grief to Grace is a gift to the church.”

A Letter From a Victim of Clergy Abuse who Became a Priest

I am just so full of the grace and healing. For me the retreat was an experience of grace as palpable and as powerful as my ordination. I have never been more sure or aware of the effects of the Holy Spirit in my life. The healing was immense, the joy is so wonderful. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

God continues to pile grace upon grace. What a grace and a sign to arrive back on the last day of the Year for Priests so full of joy and healing and love. I have so strong a sense of God’s presence, filling me with joy. Several people have commented on how different I am and even that I look different. I feel it already unlocking things in others, making my ministry more fruitful.

What amazes me is a sense that I have been allowed to reclaim something that was always there, but was somehow so deeply hidden and protected that it was not able to be accessed in any conscious way. In other ways I was very in touch with it – it amazes me thinking about my devotions all these years were pointing me in exactly the right direction. It is as if someone has switched the lights on and I can see that in some depth of my soul all was kept safe but also somehow sealed, to be freed after so long by the wonderful work of last week, like the woman in the Gospel breaking her jar of ointment and releasing its fragrance. It is as if instead of looking at the back, the worked side of a tapestry, I can see the perfect picture on the other side which God’s Providence has been skillfully crafting through the circumstances and trials of those years.

I am overwhelmed by the exquisite kindness of His love which out of so much that seemed so chaotic and wasted can bring such a feeling of joy and purpose and connection. Even something as apparently insignificant as kissing the altar at the beginning of Mass has suddenly acquired a whole new beauty and meaning. The whole idea of the reverence for the liturgy which some people seem to think is rather like a kind of outmoded Victorian formality, now strikes me as being intimately connected to a more fundamental attitude of reverence for the mystery of what it means to approach the personhood of any other person, let alone our Divine Lord, and that the liturgy must make such an attitude visible. In other words I am more in my body, even when celebrating Mass.

Jean Vanier wrote somewhere that the Word became Flesh that the flesh might become word, and that I think is what feels different. I feel the message I believed so strongly and the priesthood I believe to have been the saving of me, the best of me and the real expression of my deepest aspirations, can now be more “incarnated,” more real at every level of my being. I feel my flesh is no longer something of shame and hindrance to the “holy” part of me that was somehow my ideas, my mind.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the work of Grief to Grace is a charism for the church which she desperately needs right now. I will close with renewed thanks. Your great skill, care and kindness in Faith to the work of the Holy Spirit have been the means of miraculous healing and immeasurable grace to me. For this you have my heartfelt prayers and love in Jesus.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the work of Grief to Grace is a charism for the Church which She desperately needs right now.