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‘It Reopened Some Old Wounds.’ For Some Survivors, Retelling Church Sex Abuse Brings Back PTSD, Anxiety—and Closure

6 minute read

For decades, Tim Lennon repressed memories of the childhood abuse he says he suffered at the hands of a priest. It wasn’t until 1995, when Lennon was in his late 40s and living in San Francisco, that he stumbled across information about clergy sexual abuse and felt decades-old memories come flooding back.

“I said, ‘Oh my god, that happened to me,'” Lennon remembers. But even that moment, he says, didn’t prepare him for the memories that resurfaced in 2010 — an avalanche that he believes was triggered by his twin daughters turning 12, the age around which he says he was raped by a priest. “It sent me into a lot of emotional problems of depression, crying for several months, fear, anxiety, nightmares, PTSD, all the symptoms,” Lennon says.

There are thousands of survivors of church abuse like Lennon. Most recently, sweeping reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic church have forced survivors across the country to grapple with memories of their own abuse — an often painful process that a psychologist says can unearth long-hidden feelings, and potentially worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While talking and thinking about abuse can be uncomfortable but ultimately therapeutic for people who have already processed bad memories, it can be newly traumatic for those who have avoided confronting their past for years or even decades, says Edna Foa, a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“If you haven’t processed the trauma sufficiently, you are likely to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder” including nightmares, agitation, avoidance of triggers and low self-esteem, Foa says. “[Talking about it] one time isn’t sufficient to process it, so it may worsen PTSD and symptoms.”

For people like Lennon, who avoid thinking about what happened to them, a sudden reminder like what’s been in the news can be a “kind of waking up the memory, and that can make them worse,” Foa says. Individuals in this position who experience persistent psychological symptoms and distress that impairs daily life should see an expert who specializes in PTSD, Foa says.

Lennon, who is now 71 and the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says it’s “not difficult now at all” to talk about his childhood trauma, which he chalks up to years of therapy, working with SNAP and rehashing his story time and time again.

“I’m a strong believer that telling our stories helps us get stronger, that it’s easier to name the crime and name the criminal,” Lennon says. “It’s easier to understand that guilt, shame and humiliation are burdens that you don’t need. Telling somebody will help you understand that it wasn’t your fault.”

John Delaney had a similar experience. Delaney, 47, says he was abused by a priest from his Philadelphia parish starting at the age of 11. He says he told his parents at the time, but they were unsupportive. In 2003, he says he reported the abuse to the church, but again got nowhere. He didn’t come forward again until 2005, when a friend recounted his own story of abuse for a grand jury report about clergy sexual abuse in Philadelphia, and Delaney felt inspired to stand with him.

Going public wasn’t easy, Delaney says, but it was invaluable.

“I’m 48 years old this year, and I’m still picking up the pieces and figuring out how to make them work. It was hard coming forward. It was very, very hard,” he says. “It doesn’t go away, but you learn how to live with it a lot better.”

Even still, Delaney says news about the latest grand jury report, which cited at least 1,000 identifiable victims, has been hard to stomach. (In a statement, a spokesperson for Pope Francis called the abuse detailed in the report “criminal and morally reprehensible” and said the Catholic Church “must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”)

“It was so hard to watch. It reopened some old wounds,” Delaney says of the news. “It ripped off some Band-Aids. I feel for these other victims.”

Foa says that’s a common reaction, even for someone who has largely worked through their own trauma. “It’s always sad and somewhat distressing, but not with overwhelming distress,” she says. “If they had closure and have successfully processed it and put it behind them for all these years, the upset would be temporary and will go down.”

And while reaching that point may take work for many survivors, Foa says the psychological benefits are worth it.

Patients who are “able to think about it from a different perspective over the years, they end up not blaming themselves,” Foa says. “People that don’t allow themselves to think about it, whenever those thoughts come, they try to push them away. They don’t give themselves an opportunity to kind of get to the conclusion, to judge the whole situation and receive the whole situation within the context of the whole situation.”

Foa says the path toward closure may be smoother if victims know their story will contribute to justice or a greater good — a feeling that both Lennon and Delaney say they share.

“Speaking out is my way of fighting back,” Lennon says. “It’s sort of a process of getting over the fear and anxiety, the guilt, the shame, humiliation. So many victims and survivors are burdened by that. It restricts them from telling people.”

Delaney, meanwhile, says he wants to use the hardships of his own life — he says his childhood abuse contributed to a 30-year struggle with addiction and multiple incarcerations — to help others overcome theirs.

“I’m a relatable Philly guy. I wanted people to put a name and a face to this so they didn’t forget this happened,” he says. “It’s been helpful for other people, and that was my goal: If I can do it, anybody else can come forward and do it.”

SNAP provides resources and support groups for survivors of institutional sexual abuse. Survivors can also call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com