This article was written by Rev. Bernard J. Bush, S.J., Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, California.
All of us put screens inside our minds that defend us from the extremes of human cruelty. Sometimes we deny that anything happens outside that screen and that those who report such activity are falsifying. At other times we admit theoretically that such evil exists but claim that we have never encountered it or that it is going on somewhere else. The deliberate killing of millions of Jewish people by the Nazis and the genocide in Cambodia or Rwanda are examples of such atrocities. The existence of a vast network of child pornography and child abuse is likewise very hard to believe.
Such evil activity on the part of other human beings is so overwhelming that it is very difficult to comprehend it. That people perform rituals and acts of worship that torture and even kill others in those ceremonies cannot be understood within the “normal” categories of evil that we are accustomed to.
People who have experienced such acts continue to suffer from the trauma in many ways long after the abuse has ended. They are often treated with suspicion or disbelief when they try to tell what has happened to them.
It is the work of the survivors with their therapists, clergy and other caregivers to take these stories seriously in order to bring healing to the broken body, mind, emotions and soul. I call this work “coming home.” It is an extremely hard process, which is nothing less than heroic as the survivor must face terrible memories in mind, feelings and body. As if that were not bad enough, it is being done while the personality may be divided, as in various dissociative disorders. There may be serious problems with relationships and perhaps estrangement from God and religious belief. Healing involves overcoming the effects of an environment of hatred, violence and abuse so that ritual abuse survivors can come to the conviction that they are loved and lovable and reclaim their rightful place in the world with a sense of personal integrity and wholeness.
The rituals of faith in God are the ways the worshiping community proclaims that faith through prayer, singing, reading sacred books and commentary on them, and by appropriate vestments, decorations and ritual movements. So too, the rituals of faith in evil are professed by similar actions appropriate to that worship.
The Roman Catholic Church has one of the most elaborate and evolved forms of liturgy to worship God. For example, the Catholic Church believes that Jesus Christ has left the Eucharist, that is His body and blood in the form of consecrated bread and wine to be consumed. Catholic worshipers believe that they achieve a unity with God through Jesus by sharing together in that form of ritual celebration. The ceremonies of the Eucharist are powerful and are intended to evoke a sense of the presence of God.
The worship of evil often imitates those rituals. But they are often done in reverse and upside down. The prayers and chants call upon the spirit of evil to come into the ceremony and its devotees. Symbols of God’s love and hope, such as a crucifix, are used as instruments of torture and hatred of God. These rituals manifest a particular hatred of women and children, as women are the bearers of life and children are innocent. The attributes of children show us certain characteristics of God, particularly the ability to love and be lovable. Hence there is a particular hatred of them and the godliness they represent. The defilement of children, sexually and physically, even going so far as murder, becomes a focus of such acts of commitment to evil. The ultimate act of defiance of God and embrace of evil is to force a child to murder another child.
A person who has survived these terrible experiences and has somehow escaped them usually has buried the memory of them from conscious memory. There are also layers of intimidation, denial, and psychic programming to forget, or experience great fear of danger if they were ever to remember or disclose what happened to them. It is in later life that these memories begin to surface in dreams, flashbacks, inexplicable body feelings and reactions, disturbing associations, and troubled relationships. There is usually an aversion to God and any mention of love. This is to be expected since their religious experience was darkness, evil, torture, fear and total defilement. They were told over and over that these were acts of love. Hence any talk of love or God’s love for them brings back terrible memories of pain and suffering.
Spiritual healing from such abuse and experience of evil requires much patience and a kind of reprogramming that God is benign, not harmful, and does not condemn them or consider them in any way contaminated. It is sometimes helpful to walk the survivor through the Christian rituals step-by-step and explain their true meaning and how the ritual of evil has distorted them.
A serious and difficult theological problem is how could a loving and good God permit such evil or for that matter, any evil, to exist so powerfully? One explanation is that God made us free, and to be truly free, we must have the ability to embrace good or evil, love or hate. Some choose to embrace the side of light and goodness and others embrace the side of darkness and evil. We certainly see this in the world around us every day. God does not sanction evil but has the power to draw good from it.
A big step in the direction of healing happens when the survivor risks being in the presence of a priest or minister of God to talk about these things. Any minister of religion or person of faith in God who works with survivors of ritual abuse must be ready to be challenged, tested, and face evil directly and confidently, much in the way that Jesus did. Only in this way can the survivor of ritual abuse truly come home and feel welcome.