The Healing Power of Survivors’ Stories

Georgetown University Campus

Georgetown University

Project Description

This study attempted to 1) determine the best format for telling a clergy abuse survivor’s story and 2) to measure the effect of that story on various variables. These variables were religious practices/coping, intrinsic spirituality, and institutional betrayal, and some aspects of moral injury. Contrary to popular beliefs and common myths that engaging with survivor stories “destroys faith”, in our study, it actually does the opposite. Religious coping, beliefs, spiritual practices did not change but stayed the same for those who saw a survivor’s story. Most importantly, the levels of spirituality increased, while levels of institutional betrayal and aspects of moral injury (< loss of trust, self-condemnation, difficulty forgiving, and loss of meaning) actually went down. These scores are associated with better long term health outcomes. These preliminary findings indicate that exposure to survivors’ stories might be one important way to increase healing while decreasing a sense of institutional betrayal, mistrust, and injury in communities that struggle with this clergy sexual abuse atrocity. The implications for future educational and catechetical training seems to be quite promising and significant.


Participants (n=158) were a national, representative sample, with a large majority of abuse survivors (around 80%). They were asked to choose between two options as to how to view the survivors’ stories – to engage with just one format of a story (3 to 5 minutes) or all four at once (18 to 20 minutes). Formats included video, written, and listening, with both shorter (2 to 3 minutes) and longer (5 minutes) of the audio files available. They also filled in pre- and post- surveys accordingly. Additionally, extensive pre-screening was also necessary in order to be sure that no participant would be re-traumatized while viewing an abuse story. The time commitment was a major factor in recruitment of participants and had limitations in the data set (pre-screening, reading, accepting, and signing an informed consent took an average of 15 minutes). 

Key Findings

  1. Video format where viewers could both see and hear the person telling their story in their own words seemed to be most effective in comparison to the other formats with multiple variables (being helpful, powerful, memorable, inspiring, meaningful, and valuable).
  2. After interacting with the stories, there were significant differences in the levels of moral injury and institutional betrayal among the participants, regardless of the form in which the story was being told. This means that stories were able to decrease these realities in these individuals, providing a means of healing that had not been seriously considered beforehand. The < p. values or significance levels were quite high on these variables.
  3. Engaging with these stories did not decrease church attendance, beliefs or prayer practices, and instead increased a sense of spiritual groundedness within participants.
  4. Overall, the research indicates that survivors’ stories can help individuals heal when injured and betrayed by the institution, especially in this sample wherein over 80% of the participants reported that they were survivors of some form of abuse and that they still practiced their faith. Interestingly, and initially, there seemed to be no difference between survivors and non-survivors, nor men and women. Improvement seemed to occur in both groups at the same levels.


The way forward might be to embrace difficult stories.  One can imagine how survivors’ stories when done well, with safety always in mind, could be integrated into the fabric of high school and university/college courses or teaching; university-wide, diocesan, and religious leadership trainings; and the catechesis of this faith community in the future. It is core to our belief in the paschal mystery, event, and story. If we accept the hypothesis that cultural/ systemic/ institutional change is necessary, restorative justice might demand a new focus on the stories that allow us to enter the pain, the hurt, and woundedness in order to find redemptive healing, justice, accountability, and hope. Future research might well start with these possibilities, realities, and further attempt to recruit a non-survivor, non-practicing survivor pool of participants, a clearer clergy versus non-clergy survivor pool, and a sample that encompasses more expansive demographics, particularly, regarding age, gender, ethnicity, and the marginalized communities.

Principal Investigator

Fr. Gerard “Jerry” J. McGlone, S.J., Ph.D., is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He is a survivor of childhood clergy sexual abuse, as well as adult harassment and sexual misconduct. He leads the Towards a Global Culture of Safeguarding Program, Georgetown University. Over the past two years, the program has offered over 14 different events highlighting survivors’ stories, with particular emphasis on women survivors’ voices, families of survivors, and the crisis in France. Fr. Jerry is a Jesuit priest and trained in both clinical and counseling psychology. He was previously an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at Medstar Georgetown University School of Medicine. He has served as executive director of several major treatment centers for clergy and religious in the United States. He is the author of many peer-reviewed articles and the lead author of over a dozen nationally and internationally recognized sexual abuse prevention programs for male religious in the United States.