20 April 2023, The Tablet

How 'journeying together' in confidential prayer can help survivors of clerical sex abuse

by Elizabeth Ridley

How 'journeying together' in confidential prayer can help survivors of clerical sex abuse

The Catholic bishops are inviting everyone, both lay and clergy, who feels affected by the abuse crisis in the Church to participate in a free, online week of accompanied prayer.

Clerical sexual abuse, and the subsequent coverup detailed in the IICSA report, have had a devastating long term effect on survivors and on many others within and beyond the church. Many have walked away from the church entirely, feeling deeply hurt, angry and distrustful of the church authorities. Survivors speak of the often inept and insensitive response they received when they spoke of their experiences of clerical abuse. So many have suffered deeply and are still suffering.

The abuse crisis also hurt and disillusioned many in the wider church community. Many speak of their need for support, healing and peace. To help meet this need, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales established a working group called The Isaiah Journey. This group provides spiritual and pastoral resources to support survivors and others affected. I was invited to join the Isaiah Journey.

We now wish to invite everyone, both lay and clergy, who feels affected by the abuse crisis in the Church to participate in a free, online week of accompanied prayer, called “Let’s Journey Together”.

I worked for almost 20 years as a parish pastoral worker and university chaplain. During this time, I listened to many people who had been deeply hurt by the church, either as survivors of clerical abuse, or the relatives or friends of people who have suffered in this way. Many more were affected by the media reports (and the IICSA report) of clerical abuse and the subsequent cover up.

Socially, people are wary of “admitting” they are Catholics because of the adverse comments this can provoke. In my pastoral work, I have been involved in the Ignatian practice of weeks of accompanied prayer. The week provides a safe, confidential “space” in which to deepen a relationship with God. I have come to realise that for some people, hurt by abuse, this may be the “space” they are looking for.

What is helpful about a week of accompanied prayer?

It takes place online, at home, at times which suit you. You are supported and accompanied by your personal prayer guide during the week. The week provides a free, safe and completely confidential space for reflection. It offers time in the midst of daily life for a personal, private journey of prayer. It provides a different experience of prayer, gentle contemplation of small pieces of scripture, especially chosen for you by your prayer guide. It gives an opportunity to rebuild or deepen your relationship with God.

How does it work in practice?

A trained and experienced prayer guide will accompany each person individually. Participants may use a pseudonym if they wish. The week is confidential. Nothing about individual situations will be shared with anyone else. Our priority is to offer a place and time of healing for all who have been so deeply hurt.

The Isaiah Journey works to ensure the church is a just and safe place for all, hence there are strict protocols in place should anyone disclose new experiences of abuse.The guides, who are lay people, have worked in retreat houses and in the community. We are very fortunate to have benefited from the advice and training of Dr Jim McManus. The focus of the week of accompanied prayer is on each individual and their relationship with God. The shape of the Week of Accompanied Prayer. The week begins and ends with a time for prayer with all the guides and participants. We will put the guides and participants in touch a few days before the start of the week. They can then arrange a mutually convenient time to meet. During the week there will be five daily online meetings between the prayer guide and the retreatant. Each meeting will last up to 30 minutes. Each day the retreatants will be given a short piece of scripture to pray with before the next meeting.

Retreatants often find it helpful to keep a daily journal of their experiences. This can form the basis for discussion when they meet with their prayer guide. Retreatants will be fully supported throughout and are free to withdraw at any time. Sources of ongoing support after the week will be signposted at the end of the week.

After the successful pilot last July, the feedback showed that there were some anxieties before the week. Was it really just for holy people? Who are they? Everyone we know seems a bit like us – struggling along, trying to do our best. Eeek! Do I have to pray all day for a whole week?

No, if you think prayer means you need to be on your knees all day for a week. Each person will be given a piece of scripture to pray with in a way that works best for them; it might be two short periods or prayer or one long one or any other way that works for you. Decide for yourself and commit to it as much as your busy life allows. As St Ignatius says, we can find God “in all things”.

Can it fit into my busy life? Yes, we will find a way for each individual to find a way that works for them. You will not be on your own, your prayer guide will accompany you through the week. Can I try it and if I don’t like it can I leave? Of course. Everyone is free to leave without giving an explanation. Your prayer guide will continue to set aside that time for you and gently hold you in prayer. Positive experiences from others who have taken part in the week of accompanied prayer found that people found peace and healing. The feedback after the week described the experience as life changing, life giving, freeing, healing and empowering. In the Isaiah Journey we would love to welcome you onto this special week. It may be different from anything you have previously experienced and you may have concerns not addressed here. We can have a confidential chat on the phone and find a way forward. Contact me in the first instance by email.

Let’s Journey Together: an online Week of Accompanied Prayer May 11-17. All are invited. If you are interested in registering, or would like further details do contact me via journeytogetherij@gmail.com.

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