Bearing Witness When “They” Are Us:

Toward a Trauma-Informed Perspective on Complicity, Moral Injury, and Moral Witnessing at Jesuit Institutions and Beyond

Project Description

This seed of this project was planted in 2018, on the day the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse was published. Like many others, I experienced shock, horror, and heartbreak at another such significant revelation of childhood sexual abuse and the elaborate efforts over decades to cover it up. But why the shock? Despite decades of exposure of abuse and its coverup, its devastation has faded from the forefront of my awareness—and that of much of the Catholic and non-Catholic world—again and again, only to explode anew with the next investigative report. Along with the shock, I felt shame. I am a psychotherapist who works with sexual abuse survivors, yet I didn’t insist on centering the stories of survivors in my own institution at every opportunity. I realized that the “shockwave” of my own reaction and that of many others echoed a phenomenon often observed in the wake of trauma. The cycle of remember-forget-remember-forget is familiar to those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse and those who work clinically with them, but it also appears in communal dynamics and in those who are indirectly affected by abuse. The shame I felt was a sense of both being betrayed by a church which was still in denial of the impact of the sex abuse crisis, and betraying my own convictions by not naming that. Clinicians know that in order for trauma to heal, there must be truth-telling and a witness who can receive the survivor’s pain with compassion and recognition. This grant project provided the opportunity to explore the questions raised my intense reaction to the Pennsylvania report: how can those of us in Jesuit and other Catholic institutions become authentic witnesses in such a way as to create space for genuine healing?

I have used a relational psychoanalytic approach to create a trauma-informed framework for a practice of authentic moral witness in Jesuit institutions. As part of this framework, I explore the relational dynamics of moral injury and betrayal among those who are “implicated subjects” in the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. The betrayal of trust and moral standards by a trusted institution or its representatives affects all those who have internalized and relied on this narrative of “goodness” as a center of identity. This would include those of us who are part of Jesuit or other Catholic institutions. Although we may not be perpetrators (or even Catholics), we are faced with the dilemma of being in part dependent upon a system that perpetrates abuse. This internal conflict can generate moral injury, a shame-based response to violation of one’s moral code, either by oneself or a trusted authority figure. Unpacking the underlying shame dynamics of moral injury (shame being connected to what analysts would call narcissistic wounding) can shed light on the tendency toward deflection, projection, silence, and denial on the part of the institutional church, but also on the part of the various “implicated subjects” in the complex web of relationships created by clergy sexual abuse. Shame in part fuels the inclination to create a rhetoric of condemnation of “them” (offending priests) that often serves to gloss over complex implication and failed witnessing.

Finally, the project draws on the concept of betrayal and the role of the “moral witness” as described by Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. The moral witness is one who has something real at stake in receiving and sharing the survivor’s truth. For those who work at Catholic institutions, the risks (financial, personal, and more) may be very real, but they establish a position from which to stand as a moral witness that can stimulate real change. The moral witness holds remembering as an ethical obligation, which in the case of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, can combat our desire to forget.

Whatever positive measures have been taken to curtail clergy sexual abuse, any approach to taking responsibility that is not genuinely trauma-informed cannot foster transformation or healing. Committed to placing the experience of victim-survivors at the center, a trauma-informed approach will always be grounded in truth-telling, compassionate and authentic witnessing, and empowerment of survivors. It will account for moral injury and make space for the acknowledgement of disillusionment, narcissistic wounding, and loss. Institutional action can include the establishment of an “office of moral witnessing,” or an “institution of ethical memory” to hold space for taking responsibility.

Key Findings

  1. Solutions to problems created by trauma cannot be fully effective unless the traumatic element of the problem is addressed. Healing cannot take place, individually or collectively, without addressing trauma and its long-lasting, pervasive, and even permanent effects: personal, communal, and systemic.
  2. Healing of trauma requires truth-telling and witness. Situations of oppression require a “moral witness” who will testify to the suffering of the victims and who has something at risk in doing so.
  3. Genuine moral witnessing challenges participants (faculty, staff, students) in Jesuit and other Catholic institutions to confront our implication in the clergy sexual abuse crisis. This necessarily challenges us to tolerate a sense of moral injury and loss (of our shattered ideals and trust, and our illusion of moral superiority).
  4. Efforts toward safeguarding are vital, but they are not a substitute for accountability. True accountability rejects the easy rhetoric of condemnation and the projection of badness onto the “other.”
  5. An institution committed to moral witnessing will create and pursue opportunities for specific accountability beyond general apologies and the publishing of lists. It will prioritize truth-telling and the experiences of victims and survivors.

Further Research Suggestions:

  1. Development of a model of an “office of ethical memory” or “institute of moral witnessing” in Catholic institutions.
  2. Exploration of the “rhetoric of condemnation” through which perpetrators become a “them” as distinct from a morally good “us,” potentially through an examination of the public statements of bishops, cardinals, university or high school presidents, board chairs, or others in positions of power

Principal Investigator

Lisa CataldoLisa Cataldo, is Associate Professor of Mental Health Counseling  and Spiritual Integration at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University. She teaches courses in trauma, clinical integration, psychology and religion, and professional ethics to students entering the fields of spiritual care or professional counseling and she is the creator of the Advanced Certificate in Trauma-Informed Care to be launched in the Graduate School of Religion in Fall 2023. . Her research interests focus on the intersection of relational psychoanalysis and religion/spirituality, and include issues of trauma and multiplicity, intersubjectivity, and experiences of the other in clinical and religious perspective. Lisa is a faculty member and supervisor at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies in Manhattan, and is on the faculty of the Stephen A. Mitchell Center for Relational studies. She is the recipient of the NIP Educator’s Award, and the Stephen A. Mitchell author’s award for writing in the area of psychoanalysis and religion. She maintains a private practice in New York.