Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Understanding Impact of Trauma and Supporting Survivors is Focus of Annual Clergy Day

Father Kenneth Schmidt, director of the Trauma Recovery Program from the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the guest presenter for Clergy Day. He spoke to the Diocesan priests about the impact of childhood trauma and why its effects are so long-lasting.
Father Kenneth Schmidt, director of the Trauma Recovery Program from the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the guest presenter for Clergy Day. He spoke to the Diocesan priests about the impact of childhood trauma and why its effects are so long-lasting.

Consciously or unconsciously, survivors of trauma seek safe places to reveal their pain and seek healing. When priests are trained to effectively receive and respond, survivors can find the help they need and desire.

That’s the message Father Kenneth Schmidt, Director of the Trauma Recovery Program, told priests of the Diocese of Harrisburg during a recent presentation on ministering to survivors of trauma.

The Trauma Recovery Program, sponsored by the Diocese of Kalamazoo, was established in 2002 as an initial response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the subsequent Charter for the Protection of Children and Young people, which set forth procedures and guidelines for prevention of abuse and healing for survivors.

Before long, the 10-week program of small-group sessions for survivors of abuse by clergy attracted many others who were suffering with other types of trauma from childhood events, and so the program expanded to help restore the lives of those individuals as well.

More than two decades later, Father Schmidt has offered more than 250 training sessions. On May 16, he brought his experience, messages and best practices to the Diocese’s annual Clergy Day.

“We are expanding the capacity for the Church to be involved in healing,” he said. “The opening paragraph of the Dallas Charter commits us to be healers. We are very focused on the prevention of abuse; but not so much on healing. We need to be healers for a group of people who are in a great amount of pain.”

The Trauma

Statistically in the United States, 50-70 percent of adults experienced a traumatic event in their childhood; neglect, abuse, abandonment, and the illness, addiction or death of a family member are just a few examples.

If children don’t have a support system and healthy resources to work through those traumatic situations, those events can become trauma that, in turn, evolves into dysfunctional and destructive attitudes and behaviors, Father Schmidt explained.

“There is a difference between a traumatic event and trauma itself,” he pointed out.

“Our goal at the Trauma Recovery Program is to help the survivors understand the impact of the traumatic event and how it has affected them, and to teach them new skills or how to improve their skills that will contribute to their recovery,” he said in an interview with The Witness. “Recovery doesn’t just happen because we get older, or because our values change, or because time passes. It takes deliberate work; but the good news is that recovery is certainly possible.”

The Training

While Father Schmidt and his colleagues have trained various organizations and Dioceses in implementing the TRP model in their own communities, his presentation for the clergy of the Diocese of Harrisburg zeroed-in on three of the total twelve training units.

“The goal was to help the priests understand the impact of trauma, to understand what they’re seeing when they’re encountering people with trauma, and then how to support someone when they come and tell their story,” he said.

Specifically, Father Schmidt focused on ambivalence to attachment, the disconnect from feelings and the concept of Locus of Control Shift.

According to Trauma Recovery Associates, “Children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused place the locus of control for the abuse with themselves…. This mindset helps the victim avoid feeling helpless, vulnerable and powerless in the face of the abuse. For victims, if the abuse is happening because ‘I am bad,’ they can always hope that, if they change, the abuse will stop. In its original context this is a protective illusion. When that illusion is generalized across experiences, it keeps the victim locked in a cycle of bad feelings, self-abuse, and destructive relationships.”

Contradicting the locus of control shift is a major focus of the Trauma Recovery Program.

“Priests are in a position to give the correct message, which is, ‘It was not your fault, you are not a bad person, and you were not a bad child,’” Father Schmidt stressed.

The Take-Away

A better understanding of the impact of trauma on the part of the person hearing about another’s experience leads to more compassion for survivors and ultimately a road toward their healing.

“The goal is to have empathy, compassion and understanding for trauma survivors. Sometimes their behavior is difficult and they get our attention in negative ways, but if we understand where that behavior is coming from, it’s easier to be empathetic,” Father Schmidt said. “The old phrases of ‘Just get over it,’ ‘Put that behind you’ and ‘Just forget that’ – they don’t help, and are harmful.”

“When we have that understanding, we are better equipped to receive those accounts. It puts us in a better position to help people who are looking for a place that is safe,” he added. “I told the priests, ‘When someone tells you their account, receive that as an incredibly large gift of trust. They just trusted you with something that is very important, sensitive and painful in their life, and you can make all the difference.”

Father William Forrey, Diocesan Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, and pastor of Holy Infant Parish in Manchester, said Father Schmidt’s presentation was a helpful look at the ways in which trauma impacts people spiritually and physically.

“As a Church that seeks to create a culture of healing and protection, it is really important for clergy to be equipped to hear, understand and respond to the stories we hear from parishioners who have experienced trauma and abuse in their lives,” he said. “Healing takes place when the Church takes responsibility and acknowledges where she faltered; compassionately listens to survivor victims who want to tell their stories; and is able to offer genuine apologies, assistance and accompaniment.

“Father Schmidt shared that we grow through the relationships developed with survivor victims, learning how to journey and accompany and how to better minister to them. In some cases, it is the survivor who ministers to us,” Father Forrey said. “It is important to remember that we grow stronger if we have the self-awareness of our own limitations – knowing what we can and cannot do and when to refer someone to a counseling professional.”

(Photo by Rachel Bryson, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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