Spiritual Healing After Sexual Abuse

Revealing her own history of abuse in book, former rock journalist Dawn Eden reflects on how the Church can improve its pastoral care of victims

Dawn Eden sees herself as a missionary. Herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child, abuse that was healed in part through her journey of faith, she now envisions bringing God’s healing to other victims, particularly those who are underserved, such as prisoners. 

Eden, a Catholic convert who grew up Jewish, weaves her story of abuse with those of saints who suffered abuse of various kinds. In My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, she offers advice on how victims can heal through learning some of those stories, through prayer, and through forgiveness. 

In an interview with Catholic World Report, the author of the 2006 best-seller The Thrill of the Chaste offers suggestions on how the Church can reach out more effectively to victims of abuse, whether that abuse took place in the Church or in the victim’s very own home.

CWR: What led you to write this book?

Dawn Eden: I myself am a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For me, when I received the grace of faith in Christ at the age of 31, I was instantly healed of the depression and temptations to suicide that had dogged me since my teens and which I later learned were the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the abuse. But what I discovered during my first years as a Christian, during which I was a Protestant, was that although I had experienced this dramatic healing from the worst aftereffects of the abuse, I still had other effects to contend with, including anxiety, flashbacks, and hyper-sensitivity. And my thought as a new Christian was that the fact that I had not yet received healing from these effects meant that I wasn’t fully surrendered, that I didn’t have enough faith. So I blamed myself for my own seeming failure to be living completely within the light of the risen Christ.

Five years after becoming a Christian I made the decision to become Catholic, and I was received into the Church in 2006, at the age of 37. Once I was a Catholic I knew there was nowhere else to go; I was home. And I also instinctively felt from what I understood of the Catholic faith that somehow the wounds I retained from the abuse, these effects had some kind of meaning in Christ, that they weren’t my fault. But I struggled to understand what meaning these wounds might have.

Two things happened in 2010 that led me to a new and deeper healing. The first was an experience I had on an Ignatian retreat, where for the first time I really began to see my own wounds in light of the wounds of Christ. And I realized, with Christ now being glorified and yet retaining his wounds, that if I united my own wounded heart to the wounded and glorified heart of Jesus, then somehow my wounds could become the crack that Christ’s light could get in. This was a revelation for me because all this time I’d been thinking that my wounds separated me from the love of Christ, that they were simply an obstacle. But this insight made me realize that in fact I could actually find healing in Christ not in spite of my wounds but through my wounds. My wounds could lead me to greater intimacy with God through realizing my dependence upon him for everything, and through personally participating in the victory over sin that Jesus won for me through his passion.

The second insight I received in 2010 was when I picked up a book called Modern Saints by Ann Ball, and that’s where I discovered the story of Blessed Laura Vicuña. Ann Ball describes Bl. Laura, as many people do, as another Maria Goretti. Certainly her story is very similar in that she died while still quite young, in the early 20th century. And she died following being brutalized by a man who sought to sexually victimize her. But in reading Bl. Laura’s story, I noticed a difference in that while Maria was brought up in a devout Catholic home so that the abuse she suffered was truly an intrusion upon her sheltered life, Bl. Laura lived with an abuser for three years. She was abused by her mother’s lover.

And this was very similar to my own experiences as a child. After my mother’s divorce, I was raised by my mother; I was made to live in what was truly a sexually porous environment where I was not protected from adult nudity, from pornography, from graphic sex talk, and where I too was molested by one of my mother’s boyfriends.

What’s more, whereas Maria Goretti, on her deathbed, heroically forgave her abuser, Laura did something additional that was particularly meaningful for me because besides forgiving her abuser, she forgave her mother, who enabled the abuse. She actually offered her life for her mother’s conversion. When I read that, I broke down crying because I realized how relevant it was for me, as I was still needing to forgive my mother for not protecting me. Then I thought if Laura’s story was so healing for me, imagine how it would be for others. And I realized how relevant it would be for others because statistics show that if a child is living in a household where the father is not present and where there is a man in the household who is not the child’s father, that child is 33 times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than in a household where the father is present. So in that sense, Bl. Laura’s story was really modern, with modern relevance, and that was the direct inspiration for my wanting to write a book on healing from childhood sexual abuse through the lives of saints who have suffered such abuse.

CWR: How can saints help a person overcome the effects of abuse?

Eden: I would say the most common toxic effect of childhood sexual abuse is the misplaced guilt that the child is likely to carry throughout life unless the victim makes a concrete and persevering effort to counter it. Children tend to blame themselves for the evil that others perpetrate upon them. In some ways this misplaced shame and guilt is a survival mechanism, because if the child is abused by a parent or guardian, or if a parent or guardian in some way is enabling the abuse by not protecting the child, then the child may still think, “As bad as my situation is, if this guardian goes away, I will have nobody to protect me.” So, subconsciously, the child thinks, “Therefore I can’t blame my parents or guardian; I have to just blame myself and say I must have wanted it.”

When the adult who has internalized this misplaced guilt learns there is a saint who suffered similar wounds and whom the Church now acknowledges to be in heaven, then the adult can begin to feel free of this guilt and realize “I couldn’t have been responsible for this abuse. This abuse could not have been my sin.”

CWR: How did you choose which saints to focus on?

Eden: The first thing I did was look for saints who had suffered childhood sexual abuse, and in doing so I looked for saints whose stories were well documented. For that reason I left out St. Dymphna, although she is a very popular saint and I have met people who experienced healing through her intercession. But anyone who tries to find literature on St. Dymphna will discover that all we have are legends.

Now, legends don’t mean that this person didn’t live or wasn’t heroic. But what it does mean is that this person’s story was likely in some way embellished over time—to the point that we can’t say with certainty that these events happened in a particular way, or we can’t verify particular details.

I wanted, rather, for people reading these stories to know that these things really happened. And that’s important too because victims are often told by people who were around at the time of the abuse, “Oh that didn’t really happen. Nobody remembers it in that way.” So to be able to point to saints’ lives and say, “This thing happened to this saint,” and this was independently verified, it helps to validate victims’ own experiences.

Second of all, I looked for saints who had experienced any kind of trauma because most people who have suffered childhood sexual abuse will experience some effect of trauma. It’s important to note that not everyone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse will experience post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a constellation of symptoms, and only a minority will have that full-blown disorder. But if you meet anyone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse it is likely that he or she will have experienced at least one PTSD symptom, such as anxiety, depression, temptation to self-harm, flashbacks, hyper-sensitivity.

So saints who have suffered any kind of trauma often provide for us models of coping with the effects of the abuse. In this sense, even saints who didn’t suffer sexual abuse, such as Ignatius of Loyola or Thérèse of Lisieux, can yet teach us a great deal through their lives and spirituality.

CWR: What do you hope this book will accomplish? How can it be used to help victims?

Eden: The voice that I use in the book is directly speaking to adults who were victimized in childhood, but the overall structure of the book is really designed to provide a model for priests and pastoral caregivers in walking with victims. We live in a “Band-Aid” culture, and what little outreach we have towards victims of abuse tends to be focused on bringing them instant healing. For example, we might have charismatic-type healing Masses or retreat weekends, which are designed to bring victims an infusion of the Holy Spirit that will just turn them around in one night or weekend. Now, I don’t mean, by singling these things out, to say we shouldn’t have such outreach at all. Any effort by Catholics to reach out to the wounded is better than nothing. What’s more, certainly, dramatic healings can happen, and I can vouch for that fact since, as I said, when I first received the grace of Christian faith, I was instantly healed of the temptation to self-harm. And that was huge for me. But after that instant healing there were still effects that remained in me, and without a solid understanding of what the Church teaches on redemptive suffering, the fact that I wasn’t instantly healed of some of my effects actually, unfortunately, led me to blame myself for the effects that remained in me.

And that’s the problem with the “Band-Aid” approach, when we rely too heavily on this idea that grace is going to immediately change the whole person.

What we need to do instead is remember what St. Thomas Aquinas says in the first question of his Summa Theologiae, that grace does not destroy nature. Grace perfects nature, and while we certainly should ask God for healing in faith, we should remember that God does not normally heal every aspect of any illness in a second, in an instant. God’s normal way of working is to plant seeds in us, which unfolds over time. So the priest or pastoral caregiver is to truly, through his or her ministry, participate in the unfolding of God’s grace in the victim’s heart, then this priest or pastoral caregiver needs to himself be patient with God’s grace and to help the victim recognize the incremental steps through which we become conscious of our identity as sons and daughters of God.

It’s those steps that I delineate in the book, and I use the examples of saints to help the victim progress and the pastoral caregiver to walk with the victim to enable God’s healing to unfold over time.

I’m very interested in speaking to prisoners and groups of people who are in recovery. I’ve made a personal consecration of my celibacy to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and I’m in the process of requesting to be called to a diocesan consecration. So my hope is that God is going to use me in a deeper way as a missionary of God’s healing to vulnerable and underserved populations. I have a small fund set up for transportation to prisons and other places where I might be able to do missionary talks. I’ve already spoken to prisoners in Philadelphia and to women convicted of prostitution who are in a rehabilitation program.

CWR: What can the average Catholic do if he or she encounters someone struggling with a past marked by sexual abuse?

Eden: The first thing is to weep with those who weep. Normally, our first instinct is simply to solve the problem, to push the person to look beyond their pain. But it’s much more helpful to really be present for the person who is suffering, to acknowledge their pain, to affirm that what was done to that person was wrong.

Second, and very importantly, we should pray for that person. And third, when the person is ready, we can do what’s in our power to help that person find both a competent spiritual director who has experience with victims of abuse, and a therapist, preferably a Catholic therapist. In my book, I do recommend both therapy and spiritual direction for victims, and I emphasize the importance of finding a therapist who either is Catholic or at least respects one’s Catholic faith.

CWR: You became a Catholic in 2006, at the height of the sexual abuse scandal. Was that a hurdle for you, in coming into a Church that was depicted in the media, at least, as full of abusive priests and enabling bishops?

Eden: It did at first make me suspicious of the Church, which is one of the reasons why I delayed entering, because I received Christian faith in 1999, and the scandal broke in 2002. I remember asking Catholics at the time of the scandal about how they could be part of a Church that had these evils within it, and I remember being surprised by the response of my Catholic friends, that they were just as furious about the abuse as anyone. From the way the news reported things, I had just assumed that all Catholics were like Bill Donohue [president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights], simply circling the wagons and assuming that every single accusation against a priest had to be a malicious lie invented by the media or people out to get money from the Church.

So, learning that Catholics themselves were grieving over the abuse itself—not just grieving that the abuse was exposed but that it had actually taken place—helped me become more open to entering the Church.

What really won me was the Church’s consistent witness for the dignity of human life, because abuse is a very soul-destroying experience. It’s a kind of murder. For someone to abuse another person—especially to abuse a child—the abuser has to, in his or her heart, really deny the humanity of this child and just look at the child as an object. So when I saw the Church’s love for human life at every stage, particularly the Church’s unceasing affirmation of the dignity of life in the womb, that was what made me realize that only the truth proclaimed by the Church was capable of protecting children from abuse. The fact that sinful, fallen human beings who are members of the Church yet disobey God’s law does not take away from the truth of the law as proclaimed by the Church.

CWR: You said earlier that the structure of your new book is “designed to provide a model for priests and pastoral caregivers in walking with victims.” Do you think victims are able to trust priests in the Catholic Church to help them overcome sexual abuse, after such a barrage in the media following the Boston scandal in 2002?

Eden: The best answer I can give you is what a friend said to me recently about the experience of his mother, who left the Church as a teenager after being treated uncharitably by a priest, and returned as an adult. He said it takes just one bad priest to run someone out of the Church, but it takes just one good priest to bring someone back in. And I think that’s exactly right. But most of all, it takes prayer, from all the members of the Mystical Body, for the return of the lost sheep.

CWR: What are your thoughts on how the Church has responded to the problem of abusive clergy and the cover-up that took place in various dioceses?

Eden: I think there are certain aspects of the response that are very good; for example, the emphasis that any and all abuse by a representative of the Church needs to be reported, not only to the Church but also to the proper authorities.

I think that also there are certain elements of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that are very positive and needed, such as that a diocesan commission needs to investigate any and all claims of abuse.

At the same time I believe that so much more needs to be done. For one thing, recent cases such as occurred with Bishop [Robert] Finn [of Kansas City, Mo.] show that we need to follow what rules we have in place. This also came up with the recent case with the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul [local media have reported failures by the archdiocese in dealing with clergy who sexually abused children]. We badly need to follow our own rules because the rules are only as good as the observance of them.

What little outreach we’ve had to victims needs to be dramatically improved. First of all, as was pointed out by a victim at the first Vatican conference on abuse, which was held in 2012, it’s very important that we offer spiritual help to victims. Right now, if someone contacts the victim assistance program of a diocese, the victim will be offered psychological help but very little, if any, spiritual help. If we’re not offering spiritual help, we’re not being Church because anyone who is a victim of evil needs to know that God did not will that evil for them, and that God loves them. And how much truer is this for someone who’s been abused by a representative of the Church. So much improvement needs to be done in the area of spiritual help.

Secondly, what little outreach we have to victims is mostly to victims of clergy abuse. It’s understandable that that should be our first priority, but it shouldn’t be our only priority. Here, Bill Donahue is right, in that while we should not at all minimize the grave evil of clergy abuse, it’s true that only a tiny percentage of child sexual abuse is committed by clergy or religious. About half of all childhood sexual abuse takes place in the child’s own home, and the rest of the abuse takes place usually in the private home of a neighbor or family friend or is committed by a teacher or someone else who has the opportunity to be in close proximity to the child, or by a peer.

So if we’re only reaching out to those people who have been victims of clergy abuse, we’re failing to bring the healing of Christ to a large number of people who need it.

Now the statistics on sexual abuse are very under-reported because of the misplaced guilt and shame associated with such abuse. They’re also under-reported because given the comprehensive sexual education that we now have, children are taught from an early age that it’s natural for them to act out sexually. So many people grow up being abused who don’t even mentally write what was done to them as abuse. So when you hear the statistics, which are still quite high—that one out of four women and one out of six adult men report having been sexually abused in childhood—you have to wonder if those numbers aren’t higher, which, I’m sure they are.

And second, those numbers only refer to what is referred to as contact sexual abuse. There are a far greater number of people who have been victimized in childhood by non-contact sexual abuse, such as exposure to pornography, intentional exposure to adult nudity or to graphic sex talk. These things all can have lasting toxic effects when perpetrated upon a child. Just think about some of the things children see on television, including all the sexual violence that you can see day or night on TV. We’re a culture that has grown up with deep wounds. If the Church is going to be Church, we have to come up with a vocabulary for affirming that people are wounded, and pointing them toward the healing that can only be found in Christ.

CWR: Your first book dealt with chastity. Have you heard of ways in which it has helped young people lead chaste lives?

Eden: The response to The Thrill of the Chaste has been deeply gratifying for me. I still hear very often from people who have read it whose lives were positively affected by it. Perhaps the most beautiful experience of it was when a reader from Ireland invited me to her wedding. I went, and at the end of the speeches, when the bride was speaking, she said none of this would have been possible were it not for one woman here, who wrote this book, because she had been living away from her Catholic faith. Reading The Thrill of the Chaste brought her back to the practice of the faith, motivated her to become a speaker with an Irish-based group called Pure at Heart, which promotes chastity, and then it was through her chastity and pro-life activism that she met her husband, who is also a prominent supporter of pro-life causes in Ireland. It’s very rare for someone, within her own lifetime, to have the opportunity to see the ripple effects of the good things she has put into this world. So that for me was a special gift and grace.

CWR: What do you think of the way or ways the Church is responding to our sometimes hyper-sexualized culture?

Eden: There’s a need for more artists and writers and media producers to create entertainment that reflects the Catholic world view. Certainly Barbara Nicolosi Harrington[founder of Act One, a training program for Christian screenwriters in Hollywood] is a leader in this regard, and I highly recommend the Internet sitcom Ordinary, which is a Catholic sitcom about the life of a new priest in a parish. It’s done not like those Hallmark Hall of Fame, syrupy shows but with the same kind of entertainment value as TV shows like The Office or Community but without the obscenities or gratuitous sex or violence of such shows.

But we need much more of this because people can really be converted through good books. I was converted through a novel, when a rock musician I was interviewing recommended the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton. So the more that we make a concerted effort to produce good art that is informed by our Catholic faith, the more we will find ourselves evangelizing the culture in important and needed ways.

CWR: Let me ask you about your name, Dawn Eden. Is it a pen name?

Eden: My birth certificate says Dawn Eden Goldstein. I was born in 1968, the time of “flower power” (it was the same year as Humanae Vitae as well). My parents liked the sound of the name Dawn Eden. So with the name Dawn Eden as my first and middle name, as a teenager, I realized that it made a good pen name, and so I’ve been calling myself that ever since.

CWR: When you became a Catholic, did you add another?

Eden: I took the Confirmation name Lucy, not only after the martyr, St. Lucy, but also after St. Lucy Filippini. I’d been really touched by the holiness of a Filippini sister I’d met who had co-written a biography of St. Lucy Filippini, Forever Yes, and I was inspired reading that biography.

CWR: Besides writing books, what are you doing these days?

Eden: I’m currently a full-time graduate student in theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. I’m finishing up a Sacred Theology Licentiate, which is a pre-requisite that I need to do a Sacred Theology Doctorate in Rome. My hope is to be a professor at a Catholic college. I’m doing my STL on St. Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II on redemptive suffering and looking at how the suffering that we undergo in this life, when united to Jesus’ passion, helps to dispose us for the life of the resurrection.

CWR: In the book, you describe growing up in a Jewish family where you had heard arguments against belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Later you became a Christian and still later, a Catholic. What was it that convinced you that the arguments you had heard growing up were not true?

Eden: I was basically Evangelical. I became Christian through a local community church that was Adventist. I asked the pastor if I could just get a generic baptism—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and not have to take the Adventist vows.

I really have to thank my mother for sowing the seeds of my conversion. Although my walk with my mother has included the need to forgive her (I should add, by the way, that my mother does not remember all the things that I remember, but those things that she remembers she deeply regrets), by some mystery, it’s also through my mother that I became disposed to faith in Christ—through my mother’s witness—because when I was a teenager and an agnostic it was right at the time that I began to lose my Jewish faith that my mother had a conversion and entered the Catholic Church. She ended up not identifying as Catholic for long, but she retained faith in Christ. Hearing her speak about Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises made to the Jews helped me to overcome obstacles I might have.

Also I really saw that Christian faith effected a transformation in my mother so that she found a certain kind of ground to stand on that she hadn’t had before. She had really been searching all her life and had gone through all of these different New Age beliefs and experimented with different faith traditions before finding the truth of Christ and really accepting Jesus as the Messiah who was promised.

So just seeing the change that faith worked in her made me desire to have that same change in me, even though it took 15 years after my mother’s conversion before I could be fully open to that grace of conversion myself.

CWR: Are there aspects of your Judaism that survive in your life as a Christian?

Eden: When I first became a Christian I was drawn to the branch of Protestantism that calls itself Messianic Judaism. In this area I was very influenced by my mother, who herself had come to identify as a messianic Jew. Even as a new Catholic I was initially sympathetic to people who were arguing that we needed more Jewish-style prayers in Catholic devotional life and that sort of thing.

Since becoming a Catholic, I’ve learned that there is not just one rite of the liturgy; we have many rites that have been approved, not just the Roman Rite but other rites which are more ancient—the Eastern rites. And what I’ve come to believe is that, with regard to the Catholic prayer life as it has organically developed through the different rites, if you rightly understand what it is that we pray, it is the complete fulfillment of Jewish prayer and it does not need any kind of Jewish prayer to be extrinsically laid upon it. The Catholic Mass, even in its most modern form, as the Mass of Paul VI, when it’s reverently celebrated, fulfills all the aspects of Torah and Temple sacrifice that Moses and the prophets preached about and that God revealed to them. And so I do believe that Catholic prayer life as it stands in the liturgy books is a perfect fulfillment of Jewish faith.

Where I believe the Church has room to improve is in the reception of the Second Vatican Council’s document on relations with non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate is a tremendously important document that takes in the most essential aspects of Catholic doctrine from the Council of Trent, as well as before and since, and places them in a framework that is relevant to contemporary concerns. Everyone should study this document and really internalize it, in terms of their understanding of the relationship of Jewish faith and Jewish people to Christians, and I think that in this respect Pope Francis is really going to move us forward.

CWR: You don’t think Nostra Aetate has been fully received by the laity?

Eden: No, it hasn’t. We still suffer from various errors. On the one hand, there’s the extreme replacement theology, a kind of extreme supersessionism, which teaches that because the Church is the New Israel, therefore all God’s promises to the Jews are void, and the Jews are simply enemies of Christ. This is the kind of theology that you see espoused by E. Michael Jones and his supporters, and the Society of St. Pius X, very sadly and tragically. It’s an ideology that has unfortunately been a source of schism in the Church.

On the other side you have ideas like that which were propounded in the early 2000s, in a USCCB document on relationships with the Jewish people, and this document was since corrected, I think, through the intervention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This other side makes a dual-covenant claim, which is that the Jews have their covenant and we have ours, and if we just leave the Jews alone, then they’ll be saved. And that’s simply not true, and that’s not what the Council teaches. And here is where a right understanding of what Pope Francis is now teaching in his new apostolic exhortation, would be very helpful. Because when the Pope says we are not to proselytize, he doesn’t mean we are not to evangelize. When the Church speaks about not proselytizing Jews, for example, it’s speaking about not singling out Jewish people the way that Jews for Jesus does, for example—not drawing a bull’s eye on someone and saying, “You need to be saved because you are Jewish.” Rather, we evangelize by saying that everyone needs the Good News.  And we can adapt our style of evangelization to different cultures, to their needs, but we will not just say any one particular people who are outside the Catholic Church are in any more need of salvation than any other people outside the Church.

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About John Burger 22 Articles
John Burger is news editor of Aleteia.org.