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Luis Alfonso Zamorano: "Victims come to believe that God is an accomplice of abuse".

Priest Luis Alfonso Zamorano has been accompanying victims of abuse for years, in addition to having written several books on this subject. In this interview, he offers us some important clues.

Loreto Rios-April 14, 2024-Reading time: 6 minutes

Luis Alfonso Zamorano, in addition to having been a missionary in Chile for almost two decades, has been accompanying victims of human rights abuses for years. abuse. He recently participated in the III Latin American Congress "Vulnerability and abuse: towards a broader view of prevention", held in Panama City from March 12 to 14. He is also the author of several books on accompaniment of victims of abuse, including "You will no longer be called 'abandoned". In this interview, he offers some important clues.

How has the Church's position on the abuse issue evolved?

-It is a very broad question, but I believe that since 2018, as a result of the crisis in Chile, there is a before and an after. Never before has a Pope made such an active and abundant magisterium on this area. Experiences such as those of REPARA, in Madrid, are a very powerful beacon of hope. At the juridical level, although there are still many challenges, we have reformed the sixth book of the Code of Canon Law, there is a Vademecum and clearer protocols. I believe that where we have made the most progress is in prevention. For example, most Church schools today have quite serious prevention protocols. However, it is also true that, in many parishes and formative instances, this is still not discussed, and there is still no serious training for priests and laity in this area. Thanks be to God, in recent years the number of publications, books and congresses dedicated to the investigation and prevention of sexual abuse, whether of conscience or of authority, has grown exponentially. But it would be a mistake to fall into complacency. I believe that we still have a long way to go in terms of truth and recognition.

What do you consider to be these pending tasks?

-We are still afraid of the victims and look at them with distrust. We must do what Jesus did: he called a child, put him at the center of the community and said: "This is the most important": the vulnerable, the small, the fragile, the wounded... We fail to understand the seriousness of sexual abuse and abuse of conscience within the Church because of the terrible spiritual damage it generates when the one who abuses or covers up the crimes is someone who represents God and acts in his name. Victims come to believe that God is complicit in the abuse. We have vocations split in half, lives broken in their faith, wounded and scandalized communities... We have to stop throwing our hands up in the air and assume the seriousness of what intra-ecclesial abuse means.

Then, there must be transversal formation, which organically crosses all pastoral areas. In many parishes and movements there is still hardly any discussion of this topic.

There are many things to improve in the canonical processes. For example, the treatment of complainants: the victim should be able to be part of the process.

In my opinion, what Pope Francis is doing with the Synod is a root response to the problem of abuse, because basically we are trying to revise our world of relationships within the Church, the concept of power, of decision-making, clericalism, etc. Without talking about abuse directly, I believe that, if the principles of synodality are truly assumed, we will be attacking the root of the problem.

After having been the victim of a consecrated person, is it possible to heal and regain confidence?

-Trust is the great wound, among others. It is one of the main challenges, because abuse, when committed by people close to you whom you would never suspect, is first and foremost a great betrayal of trust. Is healing possible? Absolutely. Yes, healing is possible. What does it take to heal?

I would say that, first of all, you have to understand what healing means. Healing does not mean that there comes a time when any symptoms related to the abuse I have suffered magically disappear from my life. Sometimes the manifestations of trauma on a psychological and emotional level come into your life in the most unexpected way. You can be fine for a long time and suddenly go through a period of nightmares, or have panic attacks again, when they were already overcome, because you are again subjected to some stressful situation that reminds you of the traumatic moment. Does that mean that you are not healed? No, it means that you are on a journey and that it is a journey where the scar can reopen. Healing sometimes has much more to do with the attitude we have towards those wounds that do not always close completely. And it is that from the wound can sprout light and life for others?

That said, for the survivors within the Church, healing also passes through justice. Psalm 85 says: "Mercy and faithfulness meet, justice and peace kiss each other.". Without justice, many survivors find no peace. And justice is in our hands as a Church to deliver. Without reparation measures, victims do not heal. Because the damage is so great, in all facets of life. I could tell you about people who do not manage to have a stable job, spend long periods of depression, have lost brilliant careers, because the abuse has slowed down all their energies, their creativity... And let's not say at the level of their faith. If we continue to deny them justice, I believe that it is not impossible, because there are survivors who get ahead, but for many others it will be very difficult to rebuild their lives.

What do you consider to be the main keys to victim support?

I believe that the first thing to do is to listen with unconditional acceptance, without judgment, and to believe. If someone opens her heart to you in a context of supposed trust and confidentiality like that, and you don't believe her, you don't welcome her... if you question her testimony... you can do a lot of harm. I would say, first of all, always believe. I don't mean believing just anyone who comes on TV or in the media, but a person who comes in a face-to-face context. It is not up to me to investigate the veracity of the testimony. It is up to me to accept the testimony as a companion of the person.

In the second place, to remove the guilt, because they usually carry with them a very intense persecutory guilt. This is terrible, because, being innocent, the abuser made them believe that they were the ones who "provoked the abuse" They must be made to understand that it was not their fault. Even if it was an adult. Here the only one responsible for the sexual aggression is the abuser. That is very liberating, and they need it.

On the other hand, I believe that, if we do not have specialized training, we have to learn to refer to those who do have specific training. Or, if not, we must train ourselves well, because this is a very specific trauma, with very particular characteristics. Therefore, we have to be trained, good will is not enough. We must be very careful with our religious language, when using concepts such as forgiveness: "Well, but after so many years, we must turn the page". Or "look, keep this to yourself, take it to your grave, don't tell anyone about it". It is an abuse that has been silenced for years, and, with that phrase, you silence the person again, instead of helping them. Forgiveness is at the end of a process. And "forgiveness" does not mean ignoring the demands of justice.

In addition, it is very important that the bond you establish in this helping relationship is a bond that can serve the person as a contrasting experience: if the wound has been precisely the rupture of trust, the fact that the person is able to establish a bond of trust with someone is therapeutic in itself. But this trust must be purified, it must be true, it cannot be betrayed again. The companion is not the savior; I am not the one who is going to solve all the person's problems, but I cannot let him or her down in trust. I will also have to regulate expectations, that is very important. And, if necessary, I may have to accompany a process of denunciation. This is discerned, because it will depend on the case: if they are minors, it is clear, we have to inform the appropriate person, but if they are adults, we will have to discern when, how, at what time, if the person wants it or not, because it is a decision of their own.

This subject would give a lot of space, but these would be the keys to a first meeting.

Have there been cases of repentance among abusers? In many cases, they do not seem to be aware of the evil they have caused.

It is part of their personality disorder. Generally, perpetrators are very narcissistic, antisocial, with paranoid and borderline traits. That does not mean they are crazy. They are people who can be brilliant in many facets of life and are very difficult to distinguish. I wish it were easy. By this I mean that just one of the difficulties with pathological narcissism is accepting that there is something you are not doing right. You are full of cognitive distortions and justifications, and therefore there is a moral disconnect. So, the work is to help them to recognize little by little the terrible damage they have caused.

The statistics I handle from a few years ago talked about 60-70 % not recognizing the crime. But sometimes they do. I recently heard the testimony of a priest, who was denounced when he was older, and who has accepted it, and even said: "This is something that has weighed on me all my life, I have always thought what would have become of that teenager. If before I die I am granted to be able to ask for forgiveness, and somehow I can alleviate his pain, here I am." To be willing to accept that something like this has happened, overcoming the fear that your image as a man of good and a saintly man will fall to the ground, to the judgment of your own brother priests, is not easy. However, it is the only path to your healing as well. Pope Benedict left a very clear itinerary: "Acknowledge your crimes openly, submit to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy". There is the summary of what a good accompaniment would be. It requires a journey, a process of profound truth and humility, but it is not impossible.

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