In recent years increasing numbers of survivors of childhood sexual abuse have sued their perpetrators for damages. Litigation serves to punish those responsible for the abuse, focuses society’s attention on the problem of sexual abuse, and provides the victimized person some financial compensation for suffering experienced. Since the process by its very nature is adversarial it can be time consuming and emotionally costly for the survivor. The attorneys representing the alleged offender often seek to deny that any abusive act took place, to minimize the impact of any abuse that may have taken place, and to discredit the survivor as insane, lying, greedy, or experiencing false memories. The survivor must repeatedly retell the horrors of childhood abuse to hostile strangers who attempt to find contradictions in what has been said in depositions which were taken over many months. Too often the survivor’s psychotherapy effectively grinds to a halt for the years that the case is in the court system because the survivor is too preoccupied with the responsibilities of the legal action, or because the therapist is intimidated by the likelihood of being called into court to testify. Useful therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis are abandoned for fear that opposing legal counsel with ask the court to dismiss the case because the use of hypnosis renders the victim’s testimony unreliable. In short, such suits are messy. Even when the final verdict is rendered the victim may not have received an apology and admission of responsibility from the guilty party even if court order payment is made.
There are alternatives to legal action that can be just as empowering for the survivor and yet are much less emotionally costly. I have been involved as a psychotherapist in several cases where clients have elected to take part in a ritual of reconciliation rather than file law suits. One such man (who asked to be called C.A.) came to me because he was having trouble staying sober even though he had completed chemical dependency treatment and attended a weekly support group. When he described his past he disclosed as an adolescent he had been sexually abused by a clergyman. At my suggestion C.A. joined a group for men who had been sexually abused as children and continued to see me for individual psychotherapy. After approximately one year he began to discuss the possibility of suiting the perpetrating clergyman’s church for damages related to the abuse. After meeting with several attorney’s C.A. was less enthusiastic about the legal process which would be involved. During the next psychotherapy session he decided to contact representatives of the church and directly ask for a specific dollar amount which represented the money he had spent on treatment and had lost in wages due to his mental disorders.
The church official he contacted by letter asked him to return to the State where the abuse had taken place. C.A. insisted that any officials who needed to be involved in determining if the church would make payment meet with him in my office. Several weeks later a clergyman met with C.A. and myself. During that session C.A. told the clergyman the sexual abuse which had taken place in his home town church those many years ago. The clergyman listened respectfully and inquired if there was anything else which the church could do to atone for the sin which had been committed. C.A. agreed to develop a ritual of reconciliation and recontact the clergyman. Although it was a painful process for C.A., he came away from that session empowered for having asked for what he wanted and for being heard by a representative of the church.
A few weeks later the clergyman contacted C.A. to report that his supervisor had authorized him to make financial restitution in the amount requested. He also agreed to take part in the ritual of reconciliation at the very church where the abuse had taken place.
On the allotted day C.A. and I flew to his home town. As the church came into sight he began to cry. “It’s just like I remembered it. I hate this place” he sobbed. For the next few hours C.A. took his mother, his significant other, the clergyman and myself on a tour of the church and described in detail what had taken place. Many tears were shed and more than a few curses made that afternoon. At last we found ourselves in the prayer room where the perpetrating clergyman had gone after committing the abuse. We gathered there and each person read a thoughtfully prepared statement to C.A. His mother apologized for allowing the offending clergyman to take C.A. from the house the day the abuse took place. His significant other offered her support. As his psychotherapist I read a statement (See Document on the Witnessing of Reconciliation). Finally the clergyman accepted responsibility for the abuse in the name of the church, and offered a blessing. Photographs of those present were made so C.A. would have physical proof of the event and then we gathered for a fine meal.
Words can not describe the powerful effect that this ritual had on everyone who took part in it. Each person was changed in a positive way. The church was able to make amends to someone who had been mistreated by one of its clergy. C.A. was able to stand up for himself and demand justice in the very place where he had been abused. His pain was recognized and he was comforted. In the weeks that followed C.A. was able to take action in a number of areas of his life in which he had been procrastinating. Rather than spending years in court being emotionally reassaulted he was listened to, and treated with respect. He obtained justice.
I sincerely hope that other’s who have been abused will seek this course of action if it is available to them. I think it could revolutionize the relationship that sexual abuse survivors and organized religion have had in the past.
Document on the Witnessing of Reconciliation
Let it be know to all gathered here within and to all others with interest in this matter that I, Mic Hunter, have been privileged to the most personal aspects of C.A.’s life for a significant number of months. During this time I have found him to be a worthwhile young man who has suffered under a burden of shame and other emotional distress. A major source of C.A.’s pain was the misuse of authority by a trusted representative of his religious community. This mistreatment caused C.A. to reject the teachings of his church and the support of those within any religion which lead to him leading a lonely existence. This same abuse resulted in C.A.’s relationship with his creator being severely damaged to the point of being spirituality isolated.
Let it also be known to all who share an interest in this matter that C.A. has chosen to reach out in the spirit of justice and forgiveness to those who represent the one who harmed him. He has chosen to be believe that there are some crimes which are better handled by the laws of God and morality than by the laws of human courts.
I, Mic Hunter, by the authority invested in me by the Minnesota Board of Psychology, and Minnesota Board of Marriage and Family Therapy do hereby publicly declare that C.A. is sane and honest. Therefore, any reasonable person ought to accept what C.A. has disclosed concerning the events which he has described to us.
As a member of the human family it is my sincere desire that C.A. be at last freed of his painful burden by whatever psychological and spiritual means necessary. On this date I ask that any and all blocks that prevent C.A. from obtaining and maintaining a joyous, intimate relationship with the God of his understanding be removed. May his soul, sexuality and mind be healed so that he lives a long life filled with serenity. May this be so from this day forward until the last minute of the last hour of the last day of his life.
Mic Hunter has a solo psychotherapy practice in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of Abused Boys:The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse and Joyous Sexuality:Healing From the Effects of Family Sexual Dysfunction .
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