When the Archdiocese of Santa Fe revealed a list of 74 priests and religious leaders found guilty of sexually abusing children this month, it forced a wave of painful reactions among the many deeply Catholic communities that have existed in New Mexico for centuries.
But for the victims, abuse perpetrated within the Roman Catholic Church is a reality they have had to live with for many years and, in some cases, through lives that have been cut short by traumatic experiences that have gone unrecognized until only recently.
“It doesn’t need to be a life sentence of suffering,” said Michael Boyle, a child therapist and director of Tri-County Community Services Family Center in Taos, who works with victims of early childhood abuse. “It does leave a mark, but it is one that can be healed.”
Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester said that he hopes releasing the list of priests will be one step in bringing healing and restoring trust among victims and their religious communities.
Experts in Taos believe that process will likely be a shared experience among victims, whose experiences are finally coming to light, and parishioners, whose faith may have been rattled by Wester’s recent naming of pedophile priests.
A total of 12 priests on Wester’s list worked at one time or another in Taos County parishes. At least 18 lawsuits have also been filed related to abuse cases within the Roman Catholic Church in Taos County. Some were settled, while others remain open.
But monetary recompense likely only serves as a small adjunct to the deeper, emotional healing process many victims require to avoid a path through life that can be marked with potential pitfalls, experts say.
Boyle says that abuse of any kind is a traumatic, life-altering experience. “We’re talking varying degrees of awful here,” he said this week. But he added that abuse at the hands of a priest can be intensely disturbing, particularly among communities and families that raise children to associate men of the cloth with a “quasi-God-like status.”
One barrier to healing, Boyle said, can be a fear of retaliation, of bringing shame upon a deeply religious family when a victim comes forward regarding abuse perpetrated by a priest. “‘Did I just tell on God?’” Boyle said, as he voiced what some victims might fear.
That apprehension may contribute to the many cases of abuse that have been shrouded in secrecy – not only by the church, but by the victims themselves. Some may remain buried in repressed memories, while others might haunt an individual through adult life.
Boyle and other therapists who specialize in child abuse in Taos County refer to the “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Pyramid,” which tracks the various stages an abuse victim might follow as they move through life, as well as certain “scientific gaps,” which researchers say may contain variables that can lead a victim into more severe health and social problems. The pyramid model was created as the result of a collaborative study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, California.
Mary McPhail Gray, board chairwoman for Nonviolence Works, a Taos nonprofit that provides services to youth, also refers to a stage outlined by this model, stating that abuse can manifest itself as unexplained anger or outrage at one end of a spectrum and “shutting down” or entering depression at the other.
Boyle adds that the deep lack of trust one can feel following abuse by a trusted individual can cause a victim to avoid relationships entirely and turn to substance abuse and alcohol to cope. “These are absolutely situations that are ripe for substance abuse and self-medicating,” Boyle said.
According to a study compiled by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, many child abuse victims may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for which a huge percentage of victims turn to “hard drugs,” such as prescriptions opioids and heroin, to cope.
Boyle says that the effects of abuse might not just be psychological, but also physical, which can cause a victim’s nervous system to become overwhelmed, like a “smoke alarm that gets turned on and keeps smelling smoke,” Boyle said. “Neurobiologically, their adrenaline system is always running. That system was meant to fight a saber-toothed tiger; it wasn’t meant to be going off 24/7. So when it does, things start to shut down and not work.”
Both Boyle and McPhail Gray do say, however, that there are other victims of abuse who are able to survive and even go on to lead normal lives.
But for victims who can’t heal on their own and do come forward regarding abuse, Boyle said there are resources available here in Taos County that can help. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, too, has promised to contract with other counseling programs in coming months.
The first point of contact, however – usually when a victim tells a friend, family member or other loved one – should be the start of a slow, step-by-step healing process, Boyle said. “The reaction that works the most is acceptance in the moment of whatever it is they’re saying,” he said. “Then pause, and if your own questions and doubts and fears and insecurities rise up, just try to say to yourself, ‘We have time to sort that out in the future. The most important thing is that this person feels accepted, loved and safe.’ ”