Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, author of Together We Heal.

Archbishop offers a unique 12 steps to recovery

By  Leah Perrault, Catholic Register Special
  • May 16, 2014

The man behind this book is perhaps just as important as the book’s content. Retired Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie is a northern Canadian bishop and a missionary Oblate priest. He has spent most of his life and ministry working among Canada’s aboriginal people. He has extensive experience and an incredible reputation with those who have struggled with addictions, generational trauma and abuse. He is in demand as a retreat leader, spiritual director and pastoral presence.

Together We Heal flows out of Lavoie’s experience with a remarkable humility and trust that those who receive it will be able to take what works in their ministry and allow the rest to fall away.

More a booklet than a book, it will be particularly useful in pastoral settings where people are familiar and experienced with 12-step spirituality. For pastors or pastoral workers who are unfamiliar, the resource would have to be accompanied by other books, resources or experiences to be useful. So much of the 12-step process is difficult to understand without an experience of its power in real lives. For example, Lavoie’s 12 steps call for survivors to start with their own moral inventory and then to seek out reconciliation with an abuser, if possible. Not all pastoral workers or pastors are going to be comfortable with such a recommendation.

Lavoie acknowledges that not all social workers or psychologists are comfortable with this either. Yet, this is what the steps recommend. In his experience, many survivors have used this process to overcome their suffering and find new life. He acknowledges that the process may not work for every person or caregiver, but offers it with its gifts and limitations to those who might nonetheless find it of value.

Lavoie explains that the 12 steps have been adapted and applied to many situations that demand healing — among them gambling, overeating, co-dependency and emotional addictions. His adaptation has been approved by the world service office of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The archbishop outlines how a caregiver or pastor, approached by a survivor of sexual abuse, might accompany a survivor through a process of recovering from the effects of sexual abuse using these adapted 12 steps. After a prologue and note to the reader, Lavoie works his way systematically through the 12 steps. He explains succinctly and simply how each step applies to a survivor of abuse and what successes and challenges can lie between each step. His aim is to provide a systematic way for caregivers to accompany survivors through surrendering their lives and experiences to God, facing their own reactions and responses to their abuse, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness where possible and then moving the survivor into a future that is not controlled by the experience of abuse.

Together We Heal is not an introduction to or defence of the 12 steps. Nor is it a psychological support, or a scientific explanation of abuse and recovery. The author acknowledges as much and indicates that others have done that work. This resource is offered to those in a pastoral setting who find themselves working with people suffering from the lifelong effects of sexual abuse.

For some, the very presence of a resource on healing from sexual abuse, offered by a Church with a legacy of abuse, will seem at least confusing and at worst another step in the line of abuse. But Together We Heal is not an attempt to insert the Church into the forefront of abuse recovery. As the title acknowledges, the Church has also been wounded by the legacy.

For those who look to their pastors, religious communities and spiritual leaders to accompany them through healing, Lavoie offers a way for the Church to journey with those who have been wounded — for their sake and for the sake of those who have been perpetrators of abuse, within the Church and outside it.

(Perrault is author of Theology of the Body for Every Body and co-author of How Far Can We Go.)

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