The ongoing trauma of surviving abuse in the Diocese of Pittsburgh

Content Note: Trauma, Catholic Church, Sexual Predators

Trauma unfolds differently for some survivors.

Some experiences happened in the past and when we do the work of recovery and healing, we can put an end to the traumatic impact on our current lives. That’s the hope anyway. Trauma isn’t just in the past, it is an experience survivors continue to experience in real-time because of how our brains are rewired by these events. Still with historical events, knowing intellectually that they are over can be useful. The most vile predator in my own life has been dead for nearly twenty years so while the horror is still alive for me, I don’t have to worry about seeing him at a family event or even hearing his name. That helps. A little bit. It helps a little bit.

When it comes to the secondary trauma of being an 80’s Catholic kid, there has been a cascade of new disclosure of abuse allegations seemingly every week. I have a small Facebook messenger group with some of my childhood friends, the rest of the Catholic kids that were in my circle. When I learn about a new disclosure, I tell them. Some don’t watch or read the news. Some don’t live in the region. And for some, I have determined that they would rather hear it from me rather than a random Facebook post.

These ongoing revelations keep the trauma active for us, especially those of us who experienced other types of childhood trauma. There’s no safety in knowing that it is chronologically over. The potential number of new disclosures is hard to predict. And this has an impact on us.

Trauma produces “a re-calibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity” and, also, “compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive,” Mr. van der Kolk writes. For survivors of sexual assault and other traumas, the amygdala, which initiates the body’s fight or flight response system whenever it perceives danger, can remain activated long after the threat has subsided. In the present, survivors relive their traumas in the form of fragmented images, sounds and emotion that the brain can’t register as belonging to the past. Many people also experience dissociation, which can manifest as literal desensitization in parts of the body or the inability to describe physical sensations.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s refusal to put an end to priest abuse of children and other parishioners is one of the most cruel examples of the complexity of recovery. When I read last night that Fr. Robert (Bob) Cedolia has been placed on administrative leave by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh following an allegation of sexually abusing a minor in the ’90s as pastor of Our Lady of Joy Parish in Holiday Park, my heart sunk. I’m not familiar with the man, but I just knew what I was going to read next –  Cedoila, the priest-administrator of St. Claire in Clairton, Holy Spirit in West Mifflin, St. Thomas a Becket in Jefferson Hills and St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Pleasant Hills.

Holy Spirit is my home parish, the one where I grew up and hit all my Catholic milestones. It has been tough to cope with the reality that this parish was staffed by predators from 1983-2006, nearly half of my life. Now I must expand that horror to include five additional years while Cedoila has been assigned to the parish, from 2014-2019.

One of the problems with any attempt to heal is that the Church continues to harbor predators. Some I believe are known to the Diocese and Bishop Zubick; others perhaps not. But there’s no excuse for any individual with knowledge of this type of abuse to stay quiet until the victim(s) come forward.

Except there is – the Diocese won’t remove Zubick. As long as he retains his power and influence, he sets a precedent that accountability is fluid. If he were a man of genuine decency and morality, he would understand that he needs to step down to move us closer to the point where all incidents of abuse are made public. But that’s the last thing he wants – he’s an amoral superpredator who has something to hide or someone to protect.

The new disclosure about my home parish where I experienced atrocious examples of predatory behavior and cover-ups are very hard to process. I certainly expected it to happen. And it hurts a lot. It takes me right back to my childhood and young adulthood to memories and experiences and conversations with my friends, especially my young male friends, that are deeply disturbing.

When I wrote this piece for the Pittsburgh Current last week, the responses were swift – other people who also felt that the media focus on parish buildings being sold as a betrayal of the faithful was a huge disservice. It was hard to write this and also hard to anticipate the fall-out. Having another disclosure break in the media the same week, especially one involving my home parish, is like being kicked in the gut.

We need someone to pay attention to our experiences as secondary trauma survivors. We could probably do everything from unmask unidentified predators to participate in conversations about healing and recovery. But most of us are smart enough to know that as long as Zubick remains enthroned in the Diocese, it would be pointless to try.

 

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