There was a time when Deborah Schiessl struggled to attend Mass.
As an adult survivor of clerical sexual abuse, she was grappling with the Church and her place in it.
“I continued to attend, but I sat way in the back. I felt very much like if the people here knew, they would not want me here,” Deborah told The Pillar.
“I felt like I really questioned, do I belong here anymore? I really had to pray about it and struggle with it.”
Today, Deborah has gone through a process of healing, although she still struggles with trust issues and does not like to confide in priests. Her abuser received a jail sentence and was laicized. She is active in her parish.
But she knows that many fellow abuse survivors are at a different place in their journey of healing. For some of them, the trauma of their abuse leaves them unable to attend Mass, even though many of them still hunger for the Eucharist.
Deborah wanted to do something about that.
“I thought, ‘We're the Church. We are the Church. It's not just the hierarchy, it's the people’,” she said.
She had previously been trained as a Eucharistic minister, and thought that perhaps she could bring Communion to other abuse survivors, just as she could to the ill and homebound who could not attend Mass.
So Deborah worked with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where she lives, to launch a new ministry in which sexual abuse survivors who struggle with attending Mass can receive Communion in their home from another abuse survivor.
Paula Kaempffer, Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told The Pillar that the archdiocese began working on forming the new ministry last fall.
“People really want the Eucharist. They want to be fed by the Eucharist and healed by the Eucharist,” she told The Pillar.
Paula said that in working with abuse survivors, “many of them have expressed to me their hunger for Eucharist, except for who dispenses it. And they can't go into a church and have a priest give them Communion. They just can't. It’s just too much for them. There's too much trauma there.”
“Many of them say, ‘I am Catholic to the core. I will always be Catholic, but I cannot walk inside a church’.”
Some survivors may also feel guilty for missing Mass, fearing that they are sinning by failing to meet their Sunday obligation. But Paula stressed that trauma from abuse is a valid reason to miss Mass, just as those who are sick and homebound cannot attend Mass, even if they may want to.
And just as a ministry exists in the Church to bring Communion to the sick and homebound, the new ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis seeks to bring Christ in the Eucharist to those who have been sexually abused.
For now, Deborah is the Eucharistic minister tasked with bringing Communion to people. If the ministry grows, more ministers might be added, she said.
Deborah said that survivors ministering to other survivors bring with them a unique compassion and sensitivity.
“We could reach out to them without judgment and with understanding and compassion, and we can journey with them and we can be present to them right where they are without requiring something from them,” she said.
“Just to assure them wherever you are on your journey, whatever way you are able to express and live your faith as it is, I am very welcoming of that. I'm very understanding of that.”
“Really we're just accompanying Christ, who wants to go to meet each of us where we're at,” she reflected.
To date, Deborah has brought Communion to one person who is also an abuse survivor. Doing so, she said, was a powerful experience of healing.
“It's very humbling. It's so wonderful that Jesus could use me that way. I know it sounds silly, but I feel like I'm the donkey that Jesus is riding on,” she said.
“And it made me feel good that, hey, I have something I can give. There's something I can do.”
“To think that we'll have a ministry that survivors can minister to survivors, I just see the Spirit working through this and transforming this horrible experience into a preparation of a way of making us credible to other survivors so we can reach out and heal others and be a part of healing,” she reflected.
“So I'm just watching God work and just trying to move to where he tells me to move to or stand where he tells me to stand and be a part of it.”
Deborah herself thought about leaving the Church after her abuse. But ultimately, she felt that Christ was calling her to stay.
“I recognize that Jesus brings us the sacraments through the church, and if this priest….performing the transubstantiation here, if he's complicit in any way with abuse, then he has to face God with that,” she said.
“The only thing I can do is trust Jesus' promise that only he can resolve this mess. It's just such a huge mess, there's no humans that can really resolve what's happened completely. And the only thing we can do is choose to be part of his work in any way we can.”
Deborah hopes other survivors of clerical sexual abuse can come to see the parallels between what they have gone through and how Christ was treated by the religious leaders in his own time.
“It's like, wow, you are Christ in that suffering. You're suffering with Him. He's suffering with you. He's gone through the same crap, and so still he's trying to reach you.”
Deborah also hopes her ministry opens the door for other survivors to be able to stay connected to the Church.
She said she understands why some people end up leaving the Church after experiencing abuse. But she doesn’t want them to feel like they have no other options.
“Reclaim the Church. If you feel that that's where you want to be, I think you ought to be able to reclaim the Church as your own home.”
She compared the situation to an abusive spousal relationship.
“The abuser [needs] to leave the house, not the rest of the family and the children,” she stressed.
“I really think that when someone's credibly accused, when there's a priest or a minister [who is] credibly accused of abuse, they need to be out of the ministry. The people shouldn't have to leave their church. The abuser should leave the church. And I'm really trying to be open to whatever I can do to move us in that direction.”