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Shaking the tree: ‘From Silence to Speech’ by Mary Varley

In 2023 an international group of victim-survivors and allies from India, Lebanon, Australia, USA, and England met to develop a series of talks about church-related abuse. The result of our conversations is ‘Shaking the Tree’.

Women and men, lay and religious, generously share their experiences of physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual violence and power abuse. There are stories from Papua New Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Lebanon, Scotland, Australia, England, and the United States of America. We learnt how women religious and seminarians are abused, how black people’s voices are erased from the narrative and that Government Commissions of Enquiry must be informed by victim-survivors.

Each person tells their story in their own way. As Hille Haker says ‘your story is as unique as your life, as your own dignity’. However, the same themes appear over and over. Whether in Asia, Africa, the Americas or Europe, clerical power abuse tactics are consistent. The church’s usual methods of relating to survivors are secrecy, silencing, ignoring, and victim-blaming. Church authorities prioritise the reputation of the church before protection of victims.

Everyone has the human right to be protected from harm and to be safe. These stories show that this is not the case in the Catholic Church today. They invite us to consider why has such widespread violation of human rights been allowed to flourish in a church that describes itself as the successor of the apostles? That’s why the voices of victim-survivors must ‘Shake the Tree’ that is the Catholic Church to its furthest roots. A tree so shaken that many conclude the choice is stark – complete regeneration or death. We must insist that the church is safe for all; Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

Listening to these stories may be difficult. As Fr John Daley said to a parish community, ‘I warn you, you will be shocked’. If you have not yet told your story, there is help and support available. Survivor-led support groups exist worldwide.

You’ll find details of some of these organisations here.

Mary Varley, Stolen Lives and Root & Branch

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