Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks with fellow cardinals during the third day of the meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican in February. Cardinal O’Malley was one of the speakers at a May 1 conference for survivors of clergy abuse and U.S. bishops. (Paul Haring/Catholic News Service)
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks with fellow cardinals during the third day of the meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican in February. Cardinal O’Malley was one of the speakers at a May 1 conference for survivors of clergy abuse and U.S. bishops. (Paul Haring/Catholic News Service)

WASHINGTON — Starting when she was about 7, Teresa Pitt Green was sexually abused by a series of priests for more than a decade. Yet years later, it was another clergyman's words that broke the temptation to kill herself.

“On the edge of the ledge where you go in depression, there’s a place where you start sliding and may not come back,” Pitt Green told the Catholic Sentinel. “It’s a place with no voices.”

She found herself near that edge more than once.

Then in her tentative return to the Catholic Church, Pitt Green met a bishop who in his outreach to abuse survivors would tell them repeatedly, “Jesus loves you.”

These simple words and his support helped her accept that “suicide wasn’t the escape hatch I could keep on reserve for relief from the memories of agony,” said Pitt Green, a Virginia resident. “I had the voice of this bishop in my brain, like a buffer against the worst of the impact — where a survivor is convinced he or she deserved the violence of being abused.”

As factions in the church debate the reasons for the abuse crisis, a May 1 conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., emphasized the role both victims and clergy can play in spiritual healing and the need to view the church as a suffering family. The gathering, spearheaded by Spirit Fire, a ministry founded by Pitt Green and Luis A. Torres Jr., was the first of its kind in the country to bring together abuse survivors and bishops around the principle of restorative justice. Restorative justice pursues a just response by addressing the crime but also the relationships affected. 

“I asked participants to think of us not as an institution, although we are that,” said Pitt Green, a founding member of a virtual Survivor Advisory Panel for the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors. “We were there as a family, and we were there as a family where there’s been dysfunction and the fathers have failed.” 

Host CUA helped plan the conference, entitled “Pushing Back Against the Darkness: Cultivating Relationship in Pastoral Care for Abuse and Trauma,” and CUA President John Garvey offered a welcome. It drew more than 120 attendees, among them 25 bishops, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, and a dozen survivors. Victim assistance coordinators, priests and CUA professors also attended.

The daylong, retreat-like format mixed talks, informal discussions, breakout sessions and prayer. Among the topics were trauma-informed pastoral care and how survivors wed suffering to their Catholic faith.

Organizers said they recognize that institutional changes are needed, but they believe this person-to-person dialogue is a key part of healing as a church.

At several points, small groups of about three survivors and three bishops met privately to talk.

The one rule governing the day, where both bishops and survivors felt vulnerable, was “to assume the best intent,” said Pitt Green, who with Torres offered testimony at last year’s general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.

Pitt Green said victims and bishops have more in common than people might realize.

“Survivors don’t deserve the abuse at all, but we are stuck with the responsibility to recover from it. The same is true of bishops in a way. Few are responsible for complicity, yet all are now responsible for leading the church institution and family through reform and reconciliation.”

Drawing on an image described by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author, Pitt Green said survivors at the conference came as “wounded healers.”

“They came out of a living hell — of dealing with the abuse and, frankly, with rejection from the church — and yet they each came back with all the graces and these hearts that, saved by God, are full of love. Some have had an awful time with a bishop, but they were willing to put that down. They come to console and not to be consoled. They come to speak of the healing Jesus offers us all. It’s hard and brave of bishops to attend, too, but for survivors — how heroic.”

The conference began with a concelebrated Mass in the crypt church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located on the CUA campus. The homilist was Bishop Chad Zielinski of Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.

According to Pitt Green, Cardinal O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, opened the session by articulating how in the struggle to overcome the current crisis, survivors are the church’s greatest asset.

She recalled the cardinal’s words that survivors “speak truth to power.” This advocacy comes despite the cost, she said, as Cardinal O’Malley and many bishops present had heard countless stories of victims not being believed and suffering more for sharing their horrors.

Pitt Green said the cardinal added that survivors aid the church through their anger, something they’ve been demonized for. But like Jesus as he turned over tables in the temple, survivors have a right to be angry, and it can galvanize the church to act.

Torres and Pitt Green said many victims understandably feel that, in order to heal, they must leave the Catholic Church. But for others, including those present at the conference, therapy is critical but insufficient and the Catholic faith has been central to healing.

“I’m alive because of Our Lord,” said Pitt Green, who helps connect clergy abuse survivors who remain or have returned to the church.

Torres, a New York lawyer, shared with attendees that he still struggles daily with depression and will sometimes disappear from family and friends for days at a time.

His message at CUA echoed his speech at the fall general assembly of U.S. bishops. “Part of my journey has been coming together with other people and encountering Christ,” he told the Sentinel, even when “I couldn’t feel Christ within myself.”

During the conference, survivors had the opportunity to tell bishops and those who teach social work, psychology and theology that from the point of view of the victim, the nature of clergy abuse “is not really sexual; it’s violence,” said Pitt Green. “It’s shrouded in lies and deceit. It’s about violence and it’s annihilation.”

Now-retired Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde, the bishop Pitt Green thanks for making the church safe for her again, attended the conference and shared his experience ministering to clergy abuse survivors. For more than a decade he met several times a year with victims at Masses and retreats. Pitt Green smiled when she recalled how Bishop Loverde “admits he likes being a fixer, a problem-solver, but he always knew it was more important to listen and simply be with us.”

“Bishops hear survivors explain how important this is, and they can be surprised, as if just being with us could hardly be enough,” she said.

Pitt Green believes that survivors in many ways know “the real beauty of priests, because we encountered their exact opposite.”

“Abusers destroy free will, while priests inform and empower free will,” she said. “Priests and bishops tell me that when we talk about all those differences, they start to see how they have a very important role in caring for survivors.”

A number of bishops expressed interest in the conference but were unable to attend.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, said he would have liked to participate but was unable due to his confirmation schedule.

“Gatherings such as this are extremely important for the healing of victim/survivors and for the deepening awareness on the part of bishops of the tremendous harm and consequences of clerical sexual abuse,” he said.

Mike Hoffman, author of a book on recovering from clergy abuse and a board member of Spirit Fire, said the ministry hopes to offer similar conferences, though the format might be adjusted.

“We have an ongoing goal to get bishops together with victims and work with the laity,” he said. “We don’t take a one and done approach.”

The gathering ended with a prayer service that included a reflection by Bishop Edward Burns, head of the Diocese of Dallas and past chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

Pitt Green said she was astonished by the kindness and joy visible among participants throughout the day. “We were talking about difficult wounds directly, but in a setting of mutual esteem and charity. It made all the difference for both sides to be listening to each other, not just one side talking at the other.

“Ultimately,” Pitt Green added, “it is in that dialogue that we make each other more holy.”