“I’m convinced that there’s a lot more hope than people dare to feel.”
Teresa Pitt Green spoke of experiencing unbridled Easter joy despite her own history of sex-abuse as a child by agents of the Church.
“If I can turn all the suffering and darkness of my life into a testimony that even in that place, Jesus was there and Jesus heals me, then that’s not such a bad way to use having been abused,” said Ms. Pitt Green.
She is cofounder of Spirit Fire, a Christian Restorative Justice initiative and fellowship of survivors of abuse in the Church.
People who associate with Spirit Fire call themselves survivors and friends.
They find healing by integrating their therapies with their efforts to grow in their relationship with God. They share wisdom, experience and faith with all others who are seeking healing, growth and reconciliation.
They work with Church leaders to deepen pastoral care for survivors, their family members and all Catholics, including priests, deacons, consecrated and religious persons.
“There is simply no darkness where you’re not going to find light,” Ms. Pitt Green insisted. “Not because there’s a lamp, but because of Jesus.”
She and the other Spirit Fire survivors are committed to holding the entire Church — hierarchy, clergy and laity — accountable for protecting its most vulnerable people, and for tragic failures to do so in the past.
“Anger isn’t a bad thing as long as you don’t let it define you,” she said.
Survivors and friends are also committed to helping all Catholics — priests, laypeople, victims and bystanders — find healing and reconciliation in this life and the fullness thereof in the next.
“Even after His resurrection, Jesus still had His wounds,” Ms. Pitt Green noted. “We also still have our wounds, but they are different — transformed by the new life that He offers us after His own suffering.”
“I don’t have to wait until eternity for that,” she said. “I can have that now!”
“Can’t go back”
Ms. Pitt Green grew up in a devout, Irish-Catholic family in the Northeast.
Her mother started working in the parish rectory when young Teresa was 5 or 6.
Her father drove 40 miles each day so she could attend a Catholic school.
The family regularly entertained priests as guests in their home.
The couple had no idea that priests they knew and trusted were abusing their daughter.
“I had no safe place,” she recalled.
She wasn’t abused every day, “but once you’re under the spell of being intimidated and dominated, you spend your life in that time between each instance of abuse.”
The trauma affected her physically, emotionally and spiritually. Symptoms of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) persist to this day.
She took to reading poetry and literature by World War I veterans who had found words to describe a life permanently altered by trauma.
She read and reread Night, Elie Weisel’s haunting memoir of his time in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“I got to where I could recite whole pages of it,” she said.
She finally left home at age 19, losing access to her parents and everyone she knew, and never returned.
“Something that is”
She wandered around New York City for a number of years, trying various group programs and forms of alternative medicine, searching in vain for someone or something to make the pain go away.
“I knew I needed a savior,” she noted. “And there’s only one Savior.”
Being separated from the Church hurt deeply.
“Through all those terrible years, at Mass every week, even with my abusers saying (the Mass), I knew the Eucharist was real,” she said.
While wandering, she would spend time alone with the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“I remember just sitting for hours in Adoration,” she said. “It was the only safety I knew.”
She believes that anyone who doesn’t “get” the Eucharist is missing out.
“It’s not something we believe; it’s something that is,” she said. “You either get it or you don’t, but it doesn’t need us to believe for it to be.”
She would return to Mass many times over the years, only to leave again. Her therapist viewed this as a “repetition complex” — a failure to heal.
“She wanted me to stop going to Mass,” Ms. Pitt Green said. “I knew it was really painful, yet I was still drawn there.”
One Sunday morning, she sat in her car on the church parking lot, with a Sunday Missal and two dogs — “a companion dog and an attack dog.”
“At least I felt that I could be close to the Eucharist,” she said.
The lingering trauma affected her career, because she couldn’t bear to be in a room with anyone who had power over her.
Her health suffered.
At age 25, still thinking the abuse was her fault, she turned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confessed everything to a priest.
“He would have none of that!” she recalled. “He said, ‘What happened to you is not a sin on your part. Now let’s talk about getting you the help you need.’”
“He’s the judge”
That desperately needed affirmation set her on a grueling road to healing.
“I had to realize I’m innocent but that I’m still accountable for how I manage this,” she stated.
She eventually went about reconciling with her family.
“You can’t go back to the old relationships,” she noted. “Those are busted. They’re gone.”
Rather, they worked to create new relationships, “and our lives are now so much richer for our having done that,” she said.
She acknowledged that a survivor’s journey is never easy.
“Healing, itself, hurts,” she said.
“You spend your lifetime with this,” she added. “One of the reasons I can be happy is that I’ve accepted I will always feel the pain I feel. I just have to manage it.”
She emphasized that everyone is different, and there’s no set timetable for healing.
“If I could be over it by now, you better believe I would be,” she said.
She pointed out that the peace she has found has not come from forgiving her abusers — something she’s still working on.
“Rather, I’ve survived by turning it over to Jesus,” she said. “I know He’s the judge.”
“If it makes Jesus happy that my abusers would be in heaven, then I really hope they get there somehow,” she said.
The Church’s past failures to protect its most vulnerable members has shaken people’s faith to the core.
“But just because some bishops and in some cases, laypeople, didn’t have the faith to face down this evil, that doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t,” said Ms. Pitt Green.
Only in the context of her faith could she understand the existence of such evil.
“You can understand pathology,” she said, “but here, I also understand evil and that it has been vanquished, once and for all. I stake my whole life that Christ is the victor, and it in some way works out when I’m rejoined with Him.”
Referring to the Church, she believes “it’s time to for the family to heal.”
“There’s great hope — enormous hope — in healing,” she said. “It’s what our whole faith is about!”
That’s why she and Luis Torres, another survivor of abuse, founded Spirit Fire: to help restore what has been broken in themselves, their families, the Church and their society.
She and Father Lewis S. Fiorelli of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales are co-authors of Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse — A Guide for Integrating Faith with Recovery.
It’s a helpful resource for ministering to survivors of sexual abuse and their families.
It also helps survivors explore the subject without talking to anyone before they’re ready.
“They can take it to the priest and say, ‘I can deal with this if you can do what the book says,’” she stated.
Engaging in this ministry has made Ms. Pitt Green aware of how wounded the scandal has left everyone in the Church.
“Our position is that all Catholics’ hearts are broken by this,” she said. “All priests’ hearts are broken by this, although most of them have carried the burden unbelievably well.”
Finding ways to help is painful but ultimately freeing for everyone, she said.
“For me, that’s what I like to do the most,” she stated. “I see so much joy come out of that.”
“A very safe place”
A group of abuse survivors and concerned bishops attended a daylong gathering in May 2019 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The theme for the event, convened by Spirit Fire, was: “Pushing Back Against the Darkness: Cultivating Relationships for Pastoral Care for Abuse and Trauma.”
It included prayer and a great deal of listening.
“The whole day was about exploring what a new relationship might look or feel like in a safe Spirit Fire-facilitated dialogue,” Ms. Pitt Green said. “It was a really powerful time.”
Among the participants was Bishop W. Shawn McKnight.
“I can’t say enough about Bishop McKnight and his capacity to understand,” she said. “He just knows how to talk to a survivor. He’s got the heart for it.”
She believes such a God-centered approach to dialogue will bring healing, reconciliation and renewed vigor for protecting children and other vulnerable people from abuse — in the Church and in all of society.
“We deeply believe that faith and spirituality is part of our healing,” she said. “But we believe that engaging in a constructive dialogue with the Church can help bring more pastoral care to survivors who need it and can’t find it.”
She and other Spirit Fire survivors have been facilitating similar low-key gatherings, including with members of the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors.
The pandemic has required many of these gatherings to be virtual, but they are still God-led and effective.
Participants return to their dioceses or curial roles with renewed conviction to help past victims and their families and prevent any such abuse from happening again.
Ms. Pitt Green and her Spirit Fire associates help priests learn how to become trauma-sensitized and minister to victims without taking on the role of a therapist.
Contributors have also posted 20 years’ worth of resources on the Spirit Fire website: spiritfirelive.wordpress.com.
Ms. Pitt Green serves on numerous diocesan review boards that advise local bishops on allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
She also works with several programs for priests that have committed abuse.
She has witnessed from all sides the Church’s remarkable progress in reforming how it protects children from abuse and how it helps survivors of past abuse.
Nonetheless, she emphasized, this is a dangerous time for children and young people.
“I can talk to you about ways the Church failed at it, but it is really important that people realize that this isn’t just the Church. It’s everywhere,” she stated.
As chairwoman of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, she sees how many young people are being lured by technology into abuse and exploitation.
“The threats are much bigger now,” she asserted. “People need to become aware of child abuse and the signs of it.”
She’s convinced that preventing sex-abuse of minors throughout all of society is the primary evangelical topic for this moment in history.
There are ways to empower young people without scaring them.
There are ways to empower adults to help protect them.
“There’s a lot to be done and a lot of reason to really stay close to our faith,” she said.
There’s also tremendous reason for hope.
“It’s so incomprehensible that there could be so much hope,” she said. “But it’s there. You just have to walk people through it.”