Abuse solution that includes the Church

  • May 5, 2023

What happens to children sexually abused by priests as they grow older? Some, tragically, commit suicide. Some fall into alcoholism and drug addiction in an attempt to cope with the enduring pain caused by such profound betrayals of trust. Serial failed relationships, career catastrophes, depression and hopelessness often follow.

After decades of surviving such after-effects, one abuse survivor has risen out of the ashes to reach out to others still living amongst the ruins of their own lives.

In 1963 at age 11, Robert McCabe endured sexual abuse at the hands of a newly-ordained priest assigned to his boyhood parish in Scarborough, Ont. Decades of alcoholism followed, resulting in several failed marital relationships. At one point he found himself homeless, fighting rats for pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken in a bin at the back of a restaurant.

Early one morning in December 2010, wondering what sort of booze to buy next, McCabe saw a vision of all the people he had loved in his life glaring at him with disgust. He then asked God to help him. Miraculously, instead of buying booze, he opted for a “pack of smokes” and went to a 12-step meeting.

In March 2019, after winning a civil lawsuit about his childhood abuse, McCabe used part of the money awarded to found the charity Recovery Speaking Initiative (RSI — recoveryspeaking.org). This foundation aims to provide support to people who have been sexually abused by anyone in a position of authority over them, whether the abuse occurred in school, sports, Church, the family or elsewhere.

Established in 2020, RSI has provided online peer-level support for men and aims to add a women’s online group in the next couple of months. The group has other events planned online and in-person at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Guelph and Toronto for the week of May 14-20 within Sexual Assault Awareness Month. McCabe will be speaking at The Gatehouse in Toronto on May 17, and a number of new videos will be posted to RSI’s YouTube (@recoveryspeakinginitiative) and Facebook accounts.

In addition to providing online support, McCabe has spoken one-on-one with wounded souls and sometimes accompanied them to mediation or court sessions. His team has also sought to help people “in the pews” to heal from the secondary trauma that they have experienced by hearing about cases of clergy sexual abuse in the Church. Partnering with other organizations, he has worked with parishes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines and the Guelph area to help educate parishioners about abuse and to listen to the pain of parishioners themselves struggling to make sense out of the abuse crisis.

Not only at the parish level, but also at the episcopal level, McCabe would like to have discussions on how to bring about healing. He finds that the current adversarial stance pitting survivors against Church leaders isn’t working. Although he admires and appreciates the work of SNAP and other survivor organizations, McCabe has adopted a different approach, declaring: “My solution includes the Church.” He believes Pope Francis truly wants to do something significant on this issue and wants to help break down roadblocks to progress with “a seat at the table.”

In the longer term, McCabe would like to set up a fund to help the many men and women who need clinical trauma counseling and can’t afford to pay for it. Another need is for trauma-informed improvements to legal processes. Going through a trial can be terrifying. Having to speak about abuse to a complete stranger who doesn’t have lived experience of abuse is extremely uncomfortable. He sees the need for an intermediary role between clients and their lawyers to help explain legal processes and to spot trauma overload on the part of a client.

Finally, McCabe encourages survivors to work together to determine what they want from the Church. Lists of credibly accused priests alone won’t solve the issue. They need to ask themselves, “What is the depth of damage done to my soul?” and determine what can assist in its healing.

(Lea Karen Kivi is president of Angela’s Heart Communications Inc.)

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