Victims of abuse are ready to talk if ordinary Catholics are willing, said abuse survivor Lea Karen Kivi. Photo courtesy of Lea Karen Kivi

Abuse victim starts parish on the road to healing

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  • September 18, 2018

Parishioners at St. Luke’s Parish in Thornhill, Ont., like Catholics around the world, have been wounded by the Church’s sexual abuse scandals. Now they’re ready to apply a little talk therapy to the wounds.

The parish invited abuse survivor Lea Karen Kivi, the founder of Listening Place — an online community for those touched by abuse — to speak to parishioners on Sept. 19. She has spoken at a number of churches about abuse and contributed articles on the topic to the Jesuit magazine, America

Given the summer-long drumbeat of abuse scandals hitting the Church, the freelance technical writer has a feeling she’s about to receive a lot more invitations to talk.

“It really does feel this time like it’s really major,” Kivi told The Catholic Register before her presentation at St. Luke’s. “The intensity of the exposure is very, very hot in the States. I really feel that because of that momentum, that will help get real conversations going.”

Real conversation is just what St. Luke’s is hoping for, parish youth minister Greg Garda said.

“People are itching to explore this more and speak about it,” he said.

Garda put together the weekday evening program for the parish so that it would begin with prayer and conclude with adoration of the blessed sacrament. He wanted to get parishioners together to talk about the scandals in part because his own reaction to this summer’s headlines has been so visceral.

“I was really heartbroken and angry when this information was brought to light again,” he said.

Conversations with older parishioners showed him he wasn’t alone.

“They expressed that they never had the opportunity to openly speak about this. They were never in an environment where they felt that it was welcomed to speak about this openly,” Garda said. “I don’t think we as a Church should wait for this to pass by, or brush it under the rug.”

Victims of abuse are ready to talk if ordinary Catholics are willing, said Kivi.

“I got trained in mediation so that at some point I might get to be a voice of reconciliation when there’s a need and a desire between survivors and Church communities,” she said.

As the revelations about past sex abuse continue, Kivi is concerned that parishes be included in the conversation.

“There’s obviously primary trauma if you yourself have experienced abuse, but there’s secondary trauma that is affecting people. That involves innocent priests, innocent nuns. It involves people in the pews. There’s a great need to deal with their hurt as well,” she said. “This time around, because of the intensity of the crisis in the States, I do feel hope that the ministry side of it can be launched to the parishioners.”

It’s important to Kivi that the St. Luke’s talk is done in the context of prayer. She came to Catholicism from a Protestant church in the early 2000s, while living and working in Silicon Valley in California. She had experienced what she characterizes as a serious episode of sexual predation as a Protestant, but then something “less serious” in the form of an attempted seduction in a Catholic context.

“I would say I experienced clergy misconduct,” she said.

Kivi said the experience had a serious impact on her growing enthusiasm for the Catholic faith. In California she had enrolled in theology courses at Santa Clara University and later took up studies at Toronto’s Regis College.

“It (the attempted seduction) did affect me. It made me sort of withdraw emotionally. I didn’t feel I could be close to anyone emotionally after I had that kind of violation,” she said. “When I started actually making it known that I felt called to minister in the area of clergy sexual abuse, I just found that all of a sudden in my Church community, people sort of put up a wall of silence. I felt actually kind of intimidated and frightened by that. So for a time I stepped out of the Church.”

Talking and meeting with other survivors has shown Kivi that healing is possible. She would like to see her Church take a more visible and public role in promoting healing for survivors and wounded parishes.

“Right now we have, for instance, the Southdown Institute in Aurora, which provides professional care for perpetrators of abuse. But so far we don’t have any professional services, centralized, set up for survivors of abuse. I’m kind of hoping to be a catalyst for that,” she said.

Southdown is a psychological health-care facility that treats Catholic clergy and religious for a variety of conditions from depression to addictions. Over the years many priests found to have sexually abused children or people in their care have been treated at Southdown. 

Diocesan abuse protocols across Canada, including in Toronto, provide independent therapists for victims at the expense of the diocese.

“If there is a credible accusation, the counselling is offered right away,” explained Archdiocese of Toronto spokesperson Neil McCarthy. “Whether it is accepted, when it commences and how long it goes on would be dependent on the individual case.”

The goal should be to reunite survivors with their faith, Kivi said. 

“Practically speaking, it’s hard to find a survivor in a church, because who do you tell? Will you be believed? Will you be scolded for speaking against the Church?” said Kivi.

When victims seek spiritual direction or conversation, as opposed to professional psychotherapy, the Church readily responds, said McCarthy.

“They may be connected with a retreat centre, religious woman, brother or other professional with training in a particular area,” he said.

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