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‘Close to the wounds of Jesus’ — Survivor, advocate aims for Church’s healing

Teresa Pitt Green is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse.

She is an advocate for abuse survivors, an expert in restorative justice, and a witness to the harm of clergy abuse, and the possibility of healing.

Teresa Pitt Green. Courtesy photo.

Pitt Green is a co-founder of Spirit Fire, which “is a fellowship of survivors of abuse within the Church who share, as part of our ongoing recovery, a spiritual practice which permits us to offer our wisdom, experience, and faith to all others who seek healing, growth, and reconciliation in the wake of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in a faith setting – in particular in the Catholic Church,” according to the group’s website

In November 2018, she addressed the U.S. bishops’ conference, during a prayer service in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal. 

“This is my story,” she told the USCCB. “Long ago — five decades ago — where the innocence of childhood was entrusted to the holiness of priests, evil struck. And that wounded relationship — that ruptured relationship — has yet to heal.” 

On May 11, Pitt Green will receive an honorary doctorate from The Catholic University of America. 

She spoke with The Pillar about her honorary doctorate, her work, and her hope that abuse survivors will find healing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Teresa, what does it mean for abuse survivors that you’ll receive this recognition? What does it say about their place in the Church?

In general, I never feel like I represent survivors, because there's so many different types and we have so many different ways of engaging the Church.

But on the other hand, I think that this is a way in which the bishops’ own university, The Catholic University of America, is acknowledging that our lived experience has an important value. 

And I really think about that a lot as I come here, because as survivors know, we have to put a lot of time and treasure into getting better. My 20s were spent shaking with post-traumatic stress, and then [related] medical issues, and all of the cost of therapy and things like that. 

For survivors, there's not always time to do the degree that we had hoped for. 

And so this honorary degree also tells us that what we lived through has some kind of value — some very important value — to the overall body of knowledge of the Church. So that means a lot to me. 

I share this with survivors, but I’m not worthy to represent all of them. 

You became well-known in the Church when you addressed the USCCB in 2018, as the Church was reeling from the crisis of the McCarrick scandal. 

At that moment, it seemed like the Church was listening to survivors. 

We’re now more than five years past that moment. Is the Church still listening to survivors?

I think there's two ways to answer that: Yes and no. 

When you had something like a Theodore McCarrick crisis in the news, there was a lot of attention, I think all corners of the Church were riveted, and so they were listening, much more attentively.

But I think I want to encourage people to know that change in an institution of this size isn't going to look neat. And I will share my my own sense of being disheartened by certain issues, like the Rupnik issue.

On the other hand, I work in so many corners of the Church, with parishes, survivors, families, and leaders and clergy, and I see that people are really internalizing what survivors have to say. 

In my work, I have also experienced in the past few years places in the Church that are resistant to hear survivors.

So I don’t think we can be surprised or troubled that change will be uneven in the Church. 

And if you wander into this kind of work — and I'd love more help — you're going to find places listening and places that are not — you’ll find incredibly devoted bishops, and you're going to find bishops who are really struggling to find a way to help the Church heal in this area. 

You are a survivor of clergy abuse, and you have found healing in the Church. But there are a lot of survivors who were hurt in the Church, and have not found healing in the Church.

What would you want to say to them?

I would want them to know the most important thing is their relationship with God, the God of their understanding. 

And that if the Church can help with that, great. 

And, at the same time, I am truly sorry if the wound of the Church makes them feel safer away [from the Church]. And I’m willing to talk to them about that if they want to, and I won’t try to make them come back. 

But the most important thing is that whether they’re in the Church or not, whether they’re doing the sacraments or not, that God wants to be with them, and help them heal, and help them have new life. 

If they can’t do that in the Church safely anymore, I just want them to know that the institution may have failed, but God never will. 

There are people who see what you’ve accomplished, and how you speak for survivors, and likely suspect that you’ve found healing, that your experience of woundedness is in the past. But my guess is that healing isn’t quite so linear as that.

No, no, no. And I would encourage people to be careful to distinguish between what they see and what really is.

Part of healing is coming to respect the role your wounds have in your life. 

A lot of people think that when we heal, there won't be mental illness, or that when we heal, there won't be residual physical impact, or there won't be triggers. 

But the fact is, there is something remarkable about integrating your wounds into who you are. It won’t always be easy, but it’s finding the beauty and the love and the light that can come from them, and finding other people to share that with. 

And the world is cruel because the world won’t always give you permission to do that. And the Church can be cruel on this. I know that firsthand. 

I am grateful. I do function compared to what other people struggle with, but I want everyone to know that we should be careful about how we think of healing. That healing doesn’t mean going back to being some healthy, athletic, perfect person. 

We’re asked to be broken and that’s why we love. 

That’s big. 

Where, for you, has been the Lord in your brokenness?

It’s faith, actually. My recovery started without him, I was still very much against the Church when I was trying to heal. But once God became a part of my recovery, all I could do was chase God.

I’ve had a lot of storms, and still, even now, a lot of storms, but I’m after that sniff of ozone after the storm. 

And from there on out, for 20 years, everything has become secondary to going for that experience of seeing somebody connect a little more with God in a safer Church. 

What still needs to be done for safety in the life of the Church?

I can tell you what Spirit Fire wants to do from here on out, for the next 20 years, until I’m really old.

I’d like to see clergy and religious become more confident and fluent in how all of our traditions and beliefs can actually address trauma in sensitive ways, unlike anything else. 

I’d like survivors to have some relationship with the Church, even if it’s closure.

I’d like their families to be able to talk about the pain and reconstitute relationships in such a way that family members heal too, because I think we need to see that more.

And I’d like to see more bishops also to heal; I think they’ve been very wounded.

I’d like to see them find ways to navigate the difficulties of the legal issues that they've mostly inherited, and yet, and at the same time, empower people to be bold about keeping children and also vulnerable adults very safe. 

I'd like to see more lay people realize that they play a role in safeguarding. And I’d like to see some of the dusty corners in the Church which have escaped taking the culture of safeguarding seriously, begin to do so. 

I’d like to see it dawn on them how critical safeguarding is in every corner of the Church — because something happens in some little far-off podunk place, and the whole Church suffers. 

So I’d like the Church to see that we're all in it together. 

Now, that’s a big order and I don’t do all the work — My work is just talking and helping other people talk to each other. But it has to come from the heart of the Church.

And it’s not just the bishops who are to be a part of that change. You look at some of the most ridiculous things, like Alex Crow — I’m not faulting the different people who didn’t say something, I’m not trying to pick on them — but that situation illustrates that people need to share their Spidey Sense, and know how to deal with it in a Christian manner, so that kind of stuff doesn’t happen.

You are a clergy abuse survivor, and you spend a lot of time walking with clergy abuse survivors. That probably keeps your own wounds close to the surface. And you have the hard job of speaking — prophetically, I think — about a topic that people don’t always want to think about.

How do you care for your own mental health, your personal life, and your spiritual life as you do that work?

Yes, in this work, I am staying very close to my wounds, and sometimes I have to be really careful because it hurts a lot.

Prayer is just everything. There are days when I have an hour in the morning and an hour at night where I am devoted to prayer, and where I used to live, I could even do Eucharistic adoration once or twice some days. So that's huge for me.

And by prayer, I mean attending God, not necessarily talking.

I definitely stay close to a supervisory therapist to make sure I don't get my stuff mixed up with other people’s stuff. I think if you’re in this area, you have to have a supervisor. I stay very active in my 12-step program, Al-Anon. I definitely have a very, very strong spiritual director, who is very good with me. 

All of these people are very trauma-informed.

And, I don’t recommend this for all survivors, but I feel very close to the wounds of Jesus.

I didn’t start out there. Ten years ago, I would have thought it was crazy to be saying that to you. But I just feel close to those wounds. 

I feel like sometimes when it really hurts, I can carry other people's wounds to him — people who can't get there yet because it so hurts. And through that, I can just kind of be with that person’s hurt and my hurt and the Lord’s hurt. 

And one would think that sounds masochistic, but it's actually just a flood of love, and everything makes sense. That's the best way I can put it.

Of course, you end up leaving a lot behind — certain friendships, and certain social ways of being, because that consumes everything. 

It consumes everything, and I have no regrets about that at all.

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