Church leaders attend trauma training session

Priest offers ways for church ministers to help trauma victims of sexual abuse

HOWARD — Priests, deacons, religious sisters, pastoral leaders and parish ministers gathered Jan. 31 for a training session that focused on understanding and building skills in assisting victims of sexual abuse. The workshop, held at St. John the Baptist Church, was presented by Fr. Ken Schmidt, a licensed counselor and co-founder of the Trauma Recovery Program in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich.

Fr. Schmidt opened the training by defining trauma.

Fr. Ken Schmidt, a licensed counselor and co-founder of the Trauma Recovery Program in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich., leads a training session for parish ministers Jan. 31 at St. John the Baptist Church in Howard. The session focused on understanding and building skills in assisting victims of sexual abuse. (Sarah Gietman | For The Compass)

“Trauma is an event or series of events coupled with vulnerability,” he explained. “What that does is it leads to an interruption in childhood development. Any kind of abuse can constitute the event.”

General rules about trauma include the younger it happens, the more often it happens and the more significant the relationship, the more serious the effects, said Fr. Schmidt.

To provide understanding of the effects on abuse victims, Fr. Schmidt, who serves as pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Portage, Mich., presented information from units of the Trauma Recovery Program, a 10-week program with a 16-year history in the Kalamazoo Diocese.

Grounding, being present fully in the moment, is often a struggle for abuse victims, explained Fr. Schmidt. When victims are not grounded, their feelings tend to be at zero (numb) or 10 (extremely intense) on the spectrum.

“They look for anything to escape the present moment,” said Fr. Schmidt. “When that becomes a pattern in our life, it becomes a problem.”

“Attachment Ambivalence” refers to a victim who will not leave or not tell because they feel that they need the attachment to the abuser to survive, he said.

“It tends to show up in relationships as adults in two extremes,” said Fr. Schmidt. “They may have the attachment extreme where they stay in an abusive relationship rather than separate. The other extreme is they recoil. ‘I’m going to be on my own. I don’t need anybody.’ Their relationships are often intense, but brief. What happens in childhood becomes the pattern for how they live the rest of their life.”

Avoiding feelings is common in trauma survivors. Addictions and bad habits may develop to avoid feelings, said Fr. Schmidt.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to keep me at zero,” he explained.

“They think they are managing their lives because they are not feeling these troublesome feelings,” he added. “When we think we are evading our feelings, we are losing the capacity to feel all of our feelings, not just the negative feelings.”

A participant at the Jan. 31 trauma recovery training session for parish ministers holds a flyer for an upcoming “Journey of Hope” healing retreat for those affected by sexual abuse. (Sarah Gietman | For The Compass)

Cognitive distortions are also an issue for many abuse victims dealing with trauma. Fr. Schmidt provided the example of a woman who was abused by a man as a child.

“‘This man hurt me, so I’m going to avoid all men because all men are unsafe.’ It becomes generalized,” said Fr. Schmidt. “There is a link between cause and effect. When dealing with trauma, you hear some things that don’t make sense. It’s hard to change cognitive distortions in trauma survivors.”

The courage to share their stories can take a long time. Fr. Schmidt said that he was contacted by a woman in her 70s from his parish who was raped by a priest when she was 6-years-old. He also received a call from a woman in her 80s who told him about her abuse as a child.

“When we think we’ve heard so much, there’s a lot more that we have not heard,” he said.

“Locus of Control Shift” occurs when victims hold themselves responsible for actions and consequences. It puts the child in the place of control. The child feels at fault for the abuse, which can lead to shame. The self-blame is carried into adulthood.

“In therapy, this is my most difficult situation,” said Fr. Schmidt. “You have to have empathy. ‘I understand that you couldn’t protect yourself.’

“Priests, when you are hearing confessions and someone says, ‘Father, I was sexually abused.’ I won’t absolve that,” he added. “It’s not their sin. If I absolve them, I’ve colluded in the locus of control shift.”

Many know it’s not their sin and just feel the need to tell the priest, said Fr. Schmidt. He recommends guiding them out of confession to talk.

Fr. Schmidt clarified that the Dr. Colin Ross model used in the Trauma Recovery Program is not for children.

“They don’t have the capabilities. They are not at that place yet,” he said. “You can start planting the seeds with children and tell them, ‘It’s not your fault.’

A sub group of trauma victims flips to the other side from those abuse victims who blame themselves: Some blame everyone else. “Where was God when I was being abused?” is a common question, said Fr. Schmidt.

“Years ago in my office, I would have given a nice theological explanation,” he said. “It doesn’t work. Instead tell them, ‘That is an incredibly important question.’ Praise them for the courage to ask the question. Say to them, ‘I will walk with you as long as it takes for you to figure out the answer.’”

Why do some abuse victims become abusers?

Fr. Schmidt explained that it is often due to a feeling of power.

“I’m going to exercise power over someone else so I feel power not vulnerability,” he said.

The two most important steps in helping an abuse victim with trauma is to give the person a sense of safety and a sense of hope for the future, explained Fr. Schmidt.

“It can be as simple as. ‘This can get better. You don’t have to live this way the rest of your life. There are things that you can do that will make your life better.’ That is giving them hope,” he said. “They really believe they are stuck in this and it’s never going to change. If you can give people a sense of hope, you’ve accomplished a lot.”

Fr. Schmidt offered strategies for the diocesan and parish leaders to use when walking with victims of sexual abuse. The first step is to validate their experience. Do not minimize their experience, he said.

He also emphasized the need to resist the desire to understand the situation.

“The goal is not for you to understand their history,” he said. “The goal is to listen to them. Do not ask questions to try to understand their experience. Let them be in control. You don’t have to determine if it’s true. We don’t have to decide. We don’t have to ask those questions.”

Fr. Schmidt offered tips to help ground a person with trauma including to speak in a calm, soothing voice, encourage the person to take slow breaths, make eye contact and ask for the person to stop any habit that helps to keep them ungrounded such as twirling their hair, biting fingernails or tapping their feet.

Another essential strategy is to help the victim plan the next step. Make sure the person is getting home safely or that it is safe to return to their place of employment. Also, ask if they already have a therapist.

“Every pastoral person should have in their drawer a list of referrals,” said Fr. Schmidt. “If there is one takeaway today, you should have a list of referrals ready.”

The workshop was held two weeks to the day that the diocese released a list of names of diocesan priests who have a substantiated allegation of abuse of a minor against them. Deacon Dan Wagnitz, diocesan safe environment coordinator, said that the list was published in “hopes of bringing out into the light that history.”

In the two weeks, “Twenty-three people have called the diocese to tell their part of the story,” he added.

When being informed of abuse, Deacon Wagnitz explained to workshop attendees that they should “keep in mind the level of emergency.” If the abuse is current and the child is in danger, call 911 immediately.

If someone calls to tell a story about the past, the diocese should be contacted.

“We will make sure that authorities are notified,” said Deacon Wagnitz.

A flow chart with the different steps to follow will soon be sent to diocesan leaders.

The workshop, co-sponsored by Catholic Charities and Trauma Recovery Associates, is part of Bishop David Ricken’s seven Action Steps to Accountability, which includes improving pastoral care for victims. A second free workshop for licensed mental health professional was held on Feb. 1 at the Tundra Lodge in Green Bay.