Support groups available for victims/survivors

| December 19, 2017 | 3 Comments

Jim Richter discovered that it wasn’t until he began to reach out to victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse and provide them with opportunities to tell their stories and be honest about how it’s affected their lives that he started to understand how outreach was part of his own healing from being sexually abused by a priest.

“I felt, for many years, like there was a locked room in my life, and I just put a lot of things into that very dark and very cold, very locked space … and I just wouldn’t deal with them,” he recalled. “And it was a lot of years of shoving stuff into that space until I realized that what I really needed to do … was to unlock it, open it up and empty it of the shame and pain, and make room for something much more constructive and much healthier and much more wonderful for me.”

Richter, 47, wants other victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse to find that same healing. In September, he started the Twin Cities Peace Circle, a monthly gathering open to people who have been sexually abused by clergy and others affected by the abuse — victims’ friends and family members, often referred to as “second survivors” — as well as those who’ve experienced any type of sexual abuse.

“The purpose is for them to be able to speak their truth, speak from the heart and have a more emotionally-nuanced discussion as opposed to an intellectually-nuanced one,” he said, noting how the gatherings aim to improve communication among people with the shared experience of being sexually abused, often as a child.

The group meets the fourth Monday of each month, September through May, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the North Regional branch of the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis. Sessions aren’t sequential, but Richter, who serves as the facilitator, said people should plan to attend for a session’s entire duration. He hopes that a core group will form to provide continuity and familiarity for participants.

Richter, a parishioner of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, said the group does not entail counseling. Rather, it involves a facilitated conversation in a community support system. The goal is to give people a space to make connections with one another.

“That connection — giving people an opportunity to meet other people who can be empathetic to how they feel, to their circumstances, to their life experiences and to some of their struggles — is a way of bringing people from shame and fear and loneliness and hurt into something that is more normal [and] something that is more healthy,” he said. “There is nothing quite as comforting and honest and real as talking with someone who knows exactly how you feel.

“Anyone who does not believe that a single event cannot have a profound and lifelong effect is very, very fortunate, because they’re not asked to reflect upon an experience that happened in their own life,” he added. “Just a few moments can devastate an entire life,” and include struggles with relationships, intimacy, trust and sexuality. “There are other folks out there who know exactly how they feel and can help them move along in life and experience healing, peace, fullness, love, friendship and grace.”

Richter, a medical doctor and transfusion medicine fellow at the University of Minnesota hospital, said that at the gatherings, people begin by introducing themselves, and that might be the extent of their talking, although all are invited to speak; they can participate in whatever way they’re comfortable. Each session has a theme that helps initiate conversation, such as “How I tell my story,” “Being afraid” and “What gives me hope.” That starting point, Richter explained, helps people who are especially struggling.

Richter moved to the Twin Cities in 2014, when the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was unfolding. In an effort to create a space for victims/survivors that is safe, confidential and respectful, he brought the peace circle model from a group he started in the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he was abused between the ages of 14 and 16 by a priest. He remains involved with that group, now two years in. The Twin Cities Peace Circle is independent of the archdiocese.

With its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings to compensate victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse while acknowledging that some healing can take place through the legal process and faith communities, Richter said it’s especially important for victims/survivors to connect with one another.

“I would hope that survivors would reach out to one another … and would also look to create among one another, groups of comfort, reassurance and understanding so that when the legal part is resolved, they’re still left with a support system,” said Richter, who serves on the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, which is composed of laity and clergy who examine claims of clergy misconduct. “There is some real, sustained healing that occurs when victims open themselves up one to another, they tell their story, and they make connections. That’s really powerful and really healthy, and it’s really important.”

For more information about Twin Cities Peace Circle, contact Richter at 773-412-0909 or

Another clergy sexual abuse support group started in April. Like the Twin Cities Peace Circle, it’s independent of the archdiocese, free to attend, and family members and friends are invited. Space is limited to 12 people. That group will meet every Wednesday in January from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at 9001 E. Bloomington Freeway, Bloomington. Deb Riba, a licensed marriage and family therapist, leads the group. For more information and to register, call Riba at 952-881-9883.

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