BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
“You are not alone,” and yes, “other people have experienced this” is the message a clinical therapist wishes to share with survivors of sexual assault.
Sexual abuse by someone acting in the name of the Church “can call into question many things – including (a person’s) faith,” said Jennifer Francis-Gehring, who works as a clinical therapist at New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services, located in Owensboro.
In February, New Beginnings will collaborate with the Diocese of Owensboro to offer a six-week support group for adult primary and secondary survivors of sexual abuse.
The idea for the support group grew out of a conversation following one of Bishop William F. Medley’s fall 2018 listening sessions in response to the Catholic Church’s ongoing clergy abuse crisis.
Francis-Gehring had attended the Oct. 24, 2018 listening session held at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Owensboro. During the session, Francis-Gehring raised a question about offering a support group for the survivors of sexual abuse.
This caught the ear of Louanne Payne, the diocese’s pastoral assistance coordinator, whose role is to answer the hotline for callers to make a report of abuse by someone working for the Catholic Church.
Payne approached Francis-Gehring after the listening session and asked if she would be willing to collaborate on the idea she had suggested.
Francis-Gehring was more than willing to make this a reality.
“We love to collaborate and work with community partners,” she told the WKC in a Jan. 9, 2019 interview.
Over the following months, Francis-Gehring and Payne worked on the project – at one point, Bishop Medley even visited New Beginnings and toured the facility – and the support group was scheduled to hold its first session on Feb. 28. Francis-Gehring, with 20 years of social work behind her, will be the facilitator.
Francis-Gehring said the support group plans to address six topics: coping skills, trust, shame and guilt, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), trauma responses, and healing and self-care.
“Trust is huge for survivors because once your body has been violated, your ability to trust has been violated,” said Francis-Gehring. “If we were supposed to trust that person – who was put on a pedestal – how can I trust anyone?”
PTSD is also a significant of the conversation, she said.
“A lot of people used to think only war veterans could develop PTSD,” said Francis-Gehring. She explained that thanks to modern science, researchers have now seen that PTSD can develop from so many more experiences, such as a traumatic car accident – or sexual abuse.
She said the final session, “healing and self-care” is crucial for survivors.
But ultimately, Francis-Gehring added, the topics are subject to change based on the needs of those who attend the support group.
She emphasized that the support group is not group therapy, and will be education-based, with “people asking questions and sharing what they feel comfortable sharing.”
If someone attends “and they never speak,” said Francis-Gehring, “that’s okay too.”
She said the support group is not only open to direct survivors of sexual abuse, but also “secondary survivors” –parents, guardians, friends and family members of those who experienced the abuse.
Payne said she hopes the support group will be “a step toward healing.”
She told the WKC that when she receives a call on the pastoral assistance coordinator line, one of the first things the caller often asks is “am I the only one” who has reported abuse at the hands of their abuser.
And hearing that “there are others,” has helped other survivors come forward, said Payne.
Francis-Gehring agreed. Rather than fighting feelings of “why was I singled out?” hearing reports from others makes a survivor “feel not alone,” she said.
Francis-Gehring offered encouragement to people who are hesitating to attend the support group for fear of being recognized. She said a hallmark of the group will be that “who you see here, stays here; what you say here, stays here. This is sacred.”
“You are not alone,” she repeated.
Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic