Grief to Grace offers healing to abuse survivors

Thursday, February 07, 2019 - Updated: 12:44 pm

By Ann Rodgers General Manager

Among the steps that Bishop David Zubik intends to take in response to last year’s listening sessions on child sexual abuse by clergy is to make an international healing ministry for victim/survivors, Grief to Grace, available in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

While no date has yet been set for a local Grief to Grace retreat, survivors of physical, sexual or emotional abuse are invited to participate in a Grief to Grace retreat near Philadelphia in March. The retreat will be March 17-22 in Aston, Delaware County. For details or to register, contact info@grieftograce.org or call 1-610-203-2002.

Grief to Grace was founded in 2005 by Theresa Burke, a Catholic psychotherapist who had earlier founded Rachel’s Vineyard, a retreat for women who have had abortions. Each Grief to Grace retreat is led by a team including psychotherapists, medical personnel, clergy and abuse survivors, with a focus on spiritual recovery and restoring a relationship with God. Participants reflect on Scripture about their bodies as the dwelling place for God.

“Scripture has that image of our bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was angry when the Temple was abused for profit, and so, too, Jesus is angry when peoples’ bodies are abused,” said Helene Paharik, an adjunct professor of theology at Saint Vincent College, who has known several people who benefited from Grief to Grace.

Too often, she said, victims feel profound shame, even though they were not at fault.

“Through this retreat, people were able to hear God’s voice and know that God delights in them and that the abuse was never their fault,” she said. “They are able to experience his profound love, which is unconditional and more powerful than any experience we can have, no matter how traumatic.”

Although the March retreat is several hours away by car, some survivors may prefer that, Paharik said.

“Often people don’t want to do this too close to home because they want anonymity. Participants come from all over the country,” she said.

The retreat is open to any survivor of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, whether or not the abuse took place in a church-related context.

Father Dominic Allain, a British priest who serves as international pastoral director of Grief to Grace, first participated in the ministry as a survivor. He said the retreat allowed him to “complete all the work I had previously done in therapy and in spiritual direction.”

The retreat integrates spiritual and psychological healing, he said.

“The human science of psychology is used to clear the space for the action of the Holy Spirit,” Father Allain said. “Actually, the deepest wounds of abuse are not to the psyche — the human person is much more than that — but to the deepest identity — in biblical anthropology, to the heart.”

Those who have not been abused often wonder why survivors don’t “just get over it,” he said.

“I think too often in the church there has not been the necessary understanding or knowledge of the precise way in which abuse leaves a legacy of trauma which victims live with day to day,” Father Allain said.

“Someone who has trauma from sex abuse is actually living with a permanently altered state of body and mind. You are dealing with … a wounded child, not someone who has a problem with their thought process.”

The anger of abuse victims is a normal, healthy response to danger and to sin, he said.

“There is a righteous anger in abuse survivors which needs to be received and heard, not shut down or dismissed. Anger is a stage of grief,” Father Allain said. “They are angry in many cases because they loved the church, served it, and it was the place where their love and innocence were abused. We have to let the anger be expressed so that it can make way for grief, and then they will begin to heal.”

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