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Like good shepherd, church must seek out, help abused, says survivor

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Vatican City

Just as Jesus commanded pastors to leave their flock to find the lost sheep, the church must set out in search of all those who have been abused by clergy and offer them help, said one abuse survivor.

Victims of abuse should be the focus of a new pastoral ministry since they are isolated, hurting, vulnerable to self-harm and suicide, and in need of Christ's true healing, said Mark Vincent Healy, one of the six abuse survivors who met Pope Francis at the Vatican on July 7.

In his private meeting with the pope, Healy said, "I needed to tell His Holiness just how awful it is when there is no justice, no one listening on a humanitarian level," and how all that isolation and guilt push people to suicide or self-harm and addictions.

He also told the pope how much spiritual help both survivors and the church need. Healy spoke with Catholic News Service by telephone from Ireland on Friday.

The church needs a new evangelization "and a new mission based on Matthew 18, verse 12," -- the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in which Jesus tells his disciples to seek those who are lost, he said.

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The church is "to be a light and is supposed to shine this light" where there is darkness, not passively expect those in need to "come into the light" and seek help, Healy said.

It is even more imperative for the church to apply the "lost sheep" ministry to abuse victims, he said, since that passage of St. Matthew's Gospel follows Jesus saying children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and his strongest condemnation is held for those who harm them.

"That's what the church's response should be to this scandal," he said.

Healy said he told the pope about the scale of the problem of clerical sex abuse and why people won't come forward.

"The judicial process is hazardous," he said, often with "poor outcomes." Criticism of the victim or a lack of support also represents "a grave danger to a very fragile person."

He said he presented the pope with research showing that those who are abused are six times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide.

While he has been waiting for Ireland's minster of mental health to follow through on promises to fund such research, he said he asked the pope if the Vatican would be prepared to do its own studies on the link between survivors of clerical abuse and suicide. Healy said such research is important for discovering the right kind of conditions and help that can "alleviate the distress."

Healy said the pope definitely "gets it" when it comes to recognizing and understanding the "unrelenting wounds" and pain survivors experience.

This was evident not just in Healy's 45-minute private talk with the pope, he said, it was also clear in the pope's homily that morning at a special Mass for the six survivors.

The homily was "a huge seismic shift," he said, since the pope "admitted to so many of the dysfunctions" and hurt caused by abuse.

Pope Francis underlining the vast, severe and lasting effects of abuse runs counter to decades of defensive church legal arguments that sought to "deny and diminish" the real suffering abuse caused, Healy said.

The need to help survivors didn't get much attention when the crisis erupted, Healy said, because the church "went into survival mode," responding to the allegations and lawsuits "like an international corporation or business" instead of like "the body of Christ."

Perhaps because lawyers took the driver's seat when it came to navigating the crisis, the church's initial responses centered on litigation insurance and juridical and legal processes, he said.

The message of Christ being on the side of the marginalized and the Holy Spirit being present to help people in this world was "utterly corrupted. The first response should have been: Who has been abused? What are their needs? What should we do to help them?" Healy said.

While the church's approach has improved in some places, abuse victims still need direct outreach, he said, because it's often not easy for them to recognize, communicate or come forward because of the trauma and its fallout.

He said a child who gets abused is like an unsuspecting new homeowner: "You buy a new home. I give you the keys, but before that, I had it smashed up a bit inside," Healy said.

While it's damaged inside, "to you it's not; you're happy thinking, 'I've got my own home.' And you don't realize it's a very broken place. It's only later on in life that you start finding out," he said.

"The gift God gave them has been smashed up" and then that burden is so often carried alone by the survivor without the protection or support of family or the community, he said.

Healy told CNS that the church needs set up "a rescue service and place for respite," where survivors can hear others say: "We're here now. Talk to us now. Don't stay with these things on your own.' This is the compassionate response."

"Protecting" people by hiding them is not the right approach, he said.

In fact, Healy said he was very angry to find there was no organized press event for survivors after their meeting with Pope Francis. While in Ireland, Healy understood an opportunity to talk to the press would be set up, though one organizer told CNS that while people were free to contact the press, nothing organized by the Vatican had ever been considered.

Although at least two survivors wanted full anonymity, Healy said it was "important to be seen with His Holiness and not anonymously spoken of as nameless and faceless."

He said healing comes with becoming visible again, by being listened to.

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