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Center for Organizational Reform offers process to help congregations heal from pain, anger about clergy misconduct

Knowing that issues of clergy misconduct and sexual abuse leave crisis and pain in their wake in any faith, the Center for Organizational Reform (COR) has been concerned for some time that congregations and individuals in them need to deal with their pain and to make sense of what happened.

While the anger and hurt of primary victims of abuse is evident, the center finds that family, friends and colleagues of both victims and perpetrators—even congregational members who are not closely affiliated—have experienced side-effects of the abuse but have been overlooked.  They lack channels to deal with their reactions, said Nancy Isaacson, executive director of COR.

Nancy Isaacson and Center for Organizational Reform healing proces
Nancy Isaacson

“Without attention to healing these people, their unprocessed pain and anger may fester over time, undermining a congregation’s ability to live its mission fully,” she said. 

“There is need for public healing, because the widespread nature of the events has had impact on many of us, not just Catholics,” she explained.

At a recent meeting of the Catholic Diocesan Pastoral Council, COR was invited to present information about what is involved in planning a healing process to address such pain in parishes.

COR, an independent nonprofit organization, is offering training on the healing process to address the need not only in the Catholic Church but also in other denominations, all faiths and the wider community.

 COR began in Gonzaga University’s doctoral program in leadership studies in the early 1990s.  As part of its mission to facilitate organizational health in organizations of all kinds, COR formalized its work with religious organizations by establishing the Institute for Congregational Leadership (ICL) in 2006.

Through the institute, COR offers workshops and programs to “facilitate healthy relationships, address conflict and crises, and strengthen congregations’ leadership resources,” Nancy said.

The ICL shares principles from its research on repairing and healing betrayals of trust.  It then supports congregations as they translate these principles into rituals, sacraments and liturgies of their faith tradition.

Nancy, whose background was in public education before teaching at the graduate level 13 years at Gonzaga University, said the healing process is described in the center’s 37-page paper, “How, Then, Do We Heal?”

Resources of the center also include a workshop series called “Coming to the Table,” which includes four types of workshops for individuals, Catholic parishes and other congregations to address different needs and interests.  Workshops will begin in May.

In addition, COR is conducting narrative research projects on the experiences and spiritual pain of individuals affected by congregational crises. 

It is also promoting a community initiative, “Compassion Across the Fences” to develop support and education for all faiths.

“The Catholic Church now is center stage for something that happens in many churches. It also happens in schools, businesses, human services, health care, mental health, government and media,” said Nancy, who earned a doctoral degree in organizational development and education at the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1981. 

“We need to come together to challenge abuses of power in our society, recognizing the harm to victims, organizations and society itself,” she asserted.

Speaking on the pain she believes many Catholics in the Spokane Diocese face, Nancy said:  “Their trust was betrayed on many levels.  People have to name that betrayal, acknowledge that others may have had different experiences and work through what that means before their parishes can be whole again.”

Aware that the organizational healing process is complex and that some people are tired of hearing about the issues, she realizes some may prefer to “put it behind them and move on.”

“Emotions and reactions vary to the point that whatever the choice—doing something or nothing—will upset someone,” she said. 

Because faiths advocate compassion for people who suffer, Nancy said that many are open to explore how their pain in this situation deserves compassion and can be a “powerful part” of their faith journey.

She pointed out that applying the word “healing” to an organization may seem counter to a culture that considers organizations are mechanisms to manage or fix, not living organisms needing and capable of healing.

COR identifies three stages to healing—be it a cut knee, a relationship, a congregation, a community, a nation or a planet.  They are: 1) cleansing to remove toxins, 2) recuperation through waiting, resting and therapy, and 3) re-adjustment with renewed health, a time that can include “transformative action.” 

Nancy said an injured organization needs a cultural version of these phases to address instability in or after a crisis.

She has observed from research that sweeping aside what happened may result in more inward focus, boundary violations, role confusion, poor communication or difficulty finding purpose.

Four faith-based responses to suffering are compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation and the pursuit of justice, interwoven with tools of truth telling, lamentation, prayer and dialogue, she said.

Because, for some, clergy abuse and some hierarchies’ responses violated a sense of “internal sanctuary” or safety people expect in their churches, Nancy explained, congregational healing begins with individuals sharing their experiences—truth telling—in “a setting of compassion and safety, that can bring individual and collective clarity to what has happened.”

For example, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission became a vehicle for truth-telling after apartheid—naming the people’s pain as a way to cleanse the nation’s wounds.

Nancy pointed out that such a public, large-scale process is not appropriate in congregations, but it is possible for people to tell their personal truth in one-to-one or small group settings, based on their needs and religious rituals.

The listening does not involve debate, evidence, disagreement or agreement, she said, but compassionate listening that honors the truth or pain a speaker shares.  Because of strong feelings involved, she advises safeguards for speakers and listeners by using trained facilitators.

“Silence may further damage trust in an institution, making it seem to be in collusion with a perpetrator of abuse,” said Nancy, recognizing that talking about pain is not easy.

Validating the value of healing, despite the anguish, she referred to theologian Walter Brueggeman’s belief that truth telling can transform societies and “is the only way to confront evil and oppression in order to heal the world itself.”

Along with truth telling, Nancy said, people also need to grieve because “things are not right.”

“Fully experiencing the grieving process goes against the grain of our culture,” she said.  “We must be with the grief, rather than rushing to do something.”

“Lamentation, which can be part of liturgy, empties and cleanses with the cry, ‘My God, what happened!’” she said. “It allows people to stay in conversation with God and each other as they recuperate, engaging in communal contemplation and dialogue.  Prayer and time can incubate new awareness, spontaneously emerging into renewed life and readiness to act.”

Nancy differentiated restorative justice from retributive justice, which punishes people who break laws, but does not heal victims or restore community.

She emphasized that the process of restorative justice is complex, but can offer what primary victims of clergy abuse say they need for healing: to be believed by the church, to hear it’s not their fault, to know others won’t be hurt, to hear an apology, to have justice, to be considered courageous and to be accepted in the community.

COR knows that legal issues make it hard for an organization to enter fully into the theological requirement of repentance and contrition, because of fear about legal and financial implications. So corporate apologies often tend to be ambiguous rather than clear, further upsetting people who want to see that an organization cares, she said.

“Planned healing processes in organizations are not for the timid,” said Nancy, because there are few prescriptive road maps and because of the potentially large number of people hurt.

COR’s paper on healing notes that some people fear that the process may take too long and public disclosure may raise more problems, such as opening a Pandora’s box of reactions that make things worse or feeding “civil wars” among those of different factions who may hijack the process to promote their arguments.

“There is a place for disagreement and debate about the best course of action, but in the third phase of healing, not the first two phases,” Nancy said. 

COR believes organizational healing is important, because despite “devastating problems,” Nancy knows of congregations recovering and thriving as they see they can come together again.

For information, call 879-9235 or visit corhome.org