Past Trauma

October 25 2021 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I have two children under the age of 9, and I work full-time outside the home. I was diagnosed with psychological trauma after Church abuse I suffered as a teenager. My abuser has not yet been held accountable for his crime.

What do you do if you experienced trauma within the Catholic Church and you consequently have a visceral reaction to being in relationship with it? How can you leave the true Church if you love Jesus? Yet wouldn’t it be unhealthy for you to not leave because the abuse occurred without any accountability?

These are the questions my mind and soul wrestles with. To say (hypothetically) that I’d leave the true Church insults my love of Christ. To say I’d stick around after experiencing abuse in the name of Christ with no accountability for it also insults my love of Christ.


First, I would like to extend my sincere condolences that this has been your experience within the Church. It sounds as though you have a deep love for Christ and a profound relationship with your faith, however the failings of certain human beings within the Church has created a tremendous conflict in your life within the faith. In the Gospel of John, we hear the simple but profound words: “Jesus wept.” Know that Christ and the Church that he founded weeps with you. Christ acknowledges your hurts, feels your pain, and he loves you unconditionally. The trauma that you have suffered certainly shines a light on the sin that exists in the world and even in the Church, but the Church is much more than this. Especially when we are in pain, it can be easy to conflate the broken people in the Church (which we all are to some degree) with the Church itself. It is important to remember that we are not Catholic because of the people we experience in the Church (for good or ill), we are Catholic because Christ is in the Eucharist, which is the source of our healing.

Second, if you have not yet done so, I strongly encourage you to report your abuse to both the bishop of the diocese where the abuse occurred and the civil authorities. Do not hesitate to seek justice.

Additionally, it will be important to find a parish environment where you feel welcome and safe. Under no circumstances should you ever feel obligated to be around your abuser or any of the places where your abuse occurred. Avoiding triggers may require you to steer clear of the parish in which the trauma occurred, or even the people who did not adequately protect you, but that is different from leaving the Church entirely.

To use an analogy, a woman who was being abused by her husband might have to make the healthy decision to leave the marriage, but it would not be healthy for her to subsequently assume that marriage, itself, (or men, in general) were dangerous. She might be understandably leery of men or relationships, but an important part of her healing would be overcoming any tendency to project her traumatic experiences onto marriage or men in general.

The same is true in this situation. Despite your past trauma, you clearly still experience God calling to you; asking you to let Him help you work through your pain, and discover His healing grace in the sacraments. Don’t let anyone or anything rob you of the peace and consolation He wants to give you through His Church. If it is too much for you to work through on your own, find a professional pastoral counselor who can assist you on your journey. And if it really is too painful for you to come back to Church for a while, please know that Jesus loves you immensely, that He is weeping for the pain you are suffering, and He is waiting patiently for you to return whenever you are ready.

Updated on October 25 2021