Basilica panel discusses #MeToo, abuse prevention

| Bridget Ryder | March 1, 2018 | 0 Comments

 

CNS

In light of a growing tide of women from Hollywood to state houses and beyond who have shared publicly on social media about having been sexually violated, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis decided to be part of the conversation.

During #MeToo: A Community Conversation and Christian Response Feb. 25, Basilica parishioners and other attendees heard from Project Pathfinder representatives about their work to prevent sexual abuse.

Paula Kaempffer, director of learning at the Basilica, said she organized the panel because she thought it was important for the Church to address the issue of sexual abuse that the #MeToo movement has raised.

“The Church has been silent on many issues,” she said, explaining that she didn’t want another opportunity to pass. “I wanted to talk about all sex abuse through #MeToo — use it as a doorway to all sex abuse. We were hoping people would be able to speak about it and hear about it.”

Project Pathfinder, a St. Paul nonprofit, provides adult sexual behavior treatment. Since its founding in 1986, its work and mission have expanded to help families affected by abuse and advocate in the community to prevent sexual abuse. The organization works from the premises that sexual abuse is preventable and treatable, and that, for offending adults, it’s a decision for which they must be held accountable.

“We take a holistic approach, looking at what led up to the decision,” said Mitch Mueller, a clinical staff member of Project Pathfinder.

He explained that the treatment process analyzes what causes the perpetrators to abuse — both the moment-by-moment reactions and actions, and the underlying psychological issues. He said many times, abuse is fueled by unmet psychological needs, cycles of shame and holding untrue beliefs.

“If we can make life better for people who have perpetrated, we can prevent future harm,” Mueller said. “That’s hard to understand. It seems like [that approach] minimizes it or is unjust, but experience and research has shown it works.”

Mueller and Katie Holmgren, also from Project Pathfinder, discussed how the justice system leaves little room for nuance and can make reporting abuse more difficult for victims. Mueller offered the example that if the abuser is the breadwinner of the family, reporting the abuse could leave the family destitute if the abuser is incarcerated.

“The whole family would get punished,” he said, explaining one reason abuse often goes unreported.

Participants also shared their experiences of dealing with what they described as a draconian, black-and-white legal system. One participant shared that a man in his 60s whom he knew was severely affected by having to register as a sex offender for urinating behind a dumpster.

“The legal system doesn’t have room for individualized treatment of a person’s behavior,” Holmgren responded.

Another parishioner related how as a nurse and, therefore a mandated reporter, she had sometimes been obligated to report abuse despite knowing that it could have harmful, unintended consequences for the victim.

Participants asked what could be done to change the system. Mueller and Holmgren suggested that the justice system needed to become less reactionary, differentiate between types of offenders and ground itself in recent research.

Another attendee asked if treatment included addressing the spiritual aspect of the person.

“Spirituality is one of our goals, that they connect to what gives them meaning and purpose, or a higher power. That’s important because many times, offense is committed in a place of despair,” Mueller said.

He related how he encouraged a Catholic client to go to frequent confession and seek pastoral care. He also shared the story of another client who harbored a hatred toward God that was part of the underlying causes of his offense.

Another attendee brought up the importance of brain research. A researcher himself, he shared how science is discovering the brain patterning of sex abuse that can be used to create drugs to help moderate instincts that can lead to abuse.

Regarding the #MeToo movement, Mueller and Holmgren said they were cautiously optimistic. They hoped it would cause people to take even small sexual offenses more seriously and to also take victims seriously. At the same time, they fear it could cause a reaction that would further entrench the self-defeating aspects of the legal system, and a tendency to think that sex offenders are “beyond grace and forgiveness.”

Jim Richter, 46, a parishioner of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, attended the panel because he is an abuse survivor. He said the panel was informative and he appreciated the speakers’ candor.

“I think they touched on the challenge of this conversation in the #MeToo movement,” he said. “There’s a place for criminal behavior, and then there’s all the other behavior.”

Kaempffer hopes the event gave attendees a way to talk about and heal from sexual abuse within the Church, too. She said the presentation helped her to see the issue of sexual abuse from a new perspective.

“I’ve always thought of it from the victims’ point of view, but [Project Pathfinder] bring[s] in both [victim and perpetrator],” she said.

The Basilica is offering small groups discussions with trained volunteers. For more information, visit http://www.mary.org.

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