Elizabeth Ministry – A Healing Response

Member, Mike Allen, interviews Jeannie Hannemann

Families in trauma benefit from peer ministry, in which parishioners who’ve experienced healing lend support to those enduring similar struggles. This “wounded healer” approach, to borrow a phrase of Henri Nouwen’s, is a hallmark of Elizabeth Ministry International, whose mission is to “offer hope and healing on issues related to childbearing, sexuality, and relationships.”

I recently talked with Jeannie Hannemann, co-founder of Elizabeth Ministry, which has
registered over 700 Elizabeth Ministry Chapters on six continents offering support for the joys, challenges, and sorrows of childbearing.

Why the remarkable growth of Elizabeth Ministry?
Many areas we address, such as infertility or miscarriage, seldom get parish support. Therefore, when people discover Elizabeth Ministry, they will say “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I had to do alone.” They want to start an Elizabeth Ministry Chapter.

Clergy and Family Life ministers support formation of Elizabeth Ministry Chapters because they are aware of the need.

What makes peer ministry so effective to persons and families in this kind of trauma?
Unless you’ve had a miscarriage, for example, you don’t know the pain of someone going through that experience. You can be compassionate and caring, but you don’t really understand.It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.

What makes peer ministry especially important in today’s parishes?
Greater mobility has added to the isolation of families; they often don’t have family nearby. So the church has to step up and provide compassion and practical help.

Say a woman is put on bed rest—what is she going to do if she has a two year old? Some of our chapters have stepped right in, providing meals, childcare etc. – to fill in for extended family.

One of the challenges in larger parishes is that people can feel isolated, especially facing a
traumatic event. With our clergy stretched so thin, how can peer ministry principles facilitate a deeper sense of community for those who are suffering?
As churches have increased in size, it is difficult to create a loving environment. Informal
support provided in small congregations can happen in a large parish when programs are
established to identify needs and response. Parishes that use our Rosebud Program are able to locate people who could use personal contact. This individual attention provides a close knit feeling even in large communities.

You have a new development within Elizabeth Ministry that you are excited about, a resource for couples and families dealing with pornography and sexual addiction. Tell us more.
Elizabeth Ministry’s primary focus was forming chapters to provide maternal mentoring. But as scientific and technological discoveries transformed experiences of fertility and pregnancy, and our promiscuous society created new medical, social, and spiritual issues, we began receiving requests for trainings and programs on sexuality and relationships.

Our newest program addresses pornography addiction. Elizabeth Ministry partnered with
Candeo, to create RECLAIM Sexual Health, a professional, science-based online Catholic
program to overcome pornography and other unhealthy sexual behaviors. Over 5,000 struggling individuals in more than 75 countries have been helped with the secular version of this behavioral change technology. Now it is available with a Catholic format!

Leading researchers, scientists and psychologists have partnered with Catholic scholars
combining The Brain Science of Change with Theology of the Body to create a different and breakthrough approach to addiction recovery.

We have developed peer-ministry aspects called St. Michael’s Men, St. Monica’s Missionaries and parish programs. For more information, visit www.reclaimsexualhealth.com or contact Elizabeth Ministry International at 920-766-9380 or www.elizabethministry.com

Helping Families When Sexual Abuse Is Disclosed:

Recommendations for Ministry Leaders
by Dr. Joseph White

When sexual abuse is disclosed, either by a child or by an adult who was sexually abused as a child, there is always pain – first on the part of the victim of abuse, but also on the part of those who love him or her. For this reason, a disclosure of sexual abuse can be particularly devastating to families, whether the abuse occurred within or outside of the family context. As ministry professionals work with families in a variety of contexts, they might sometimes become aware of situations in which a disclosure of abuse has been made. The following are some suggestions for ministry leaders:

Listening is key. Sometimes when someone is dealing with a traumatic situation, we are at a loss for words. But persons facing difficult circumstances often need to be heard by us more than they need to hear something from us. Empathic reflection is most important initially. As difficult it may be to hear about someone else’s trauma, remember that as ministry professionals, we are the face of the Church. Make sure to send the message that we have time to listen, and we care about what they are going through.

Believe the disclosure and encourage parents and family members to do the same. Only an estimated 5% of allegations of sexual abuse are false, and these usually occur in very specific types of circumstances.

Reassure parents that what happened is not their fault. Because parents know that they are their child’s primary protector, parents often feel enormous guilt upon hearing that their child has been victimized. Tell the parents that you know how much they care for their child and that you are certain they would have done everything they could have to prevent the abuse if they had known.

Make sure the abuse has been reported. As professionals who work with children, we are
obligated to report abuse if we become aware of it. In most states, the criterion is “reasonable suspicion.” We don’t have to decide whether or not allegations of abuse are true. If we have cause to believe a child has been abused, we must report and leave it to the authorities to investigate as necessary. The obligation to report child abuse exists even if the abuse is reported after the victim has become an adult. We can never know if the perpetrator might still have access to children or might abuse a child in the future. For this reason, a report should always be made.

Advise parents to avoid leading questions and allow professionals to investigate the abuse.
There have been cases in which perpetrators have been acquitted because a child was
inappropriately questioned and asked leading questions when the allegations have been made. Encourage parents to listen emphatically and attentively and to reassure the child of their love and protection, but advise them not to ask questions about the abuse until a trained professional has all the facts.

Encourage parents and families to seek therapy. Sexual abuse can be extremely stressful for children and teens, and the emotional damage does not simply disappear when the abuse ends. To help prevent long-term negative consequences, encourage the parent to make an appointment with a counselor or psychologist who specializes in working with children (or, for adults remembering abuse, encourage them to see a therapist with experience in treating post-traumatic stress). Counseling can also be beneficial for parents coping with the stress and grief associated with their child’s victimization.

Dr. Joseph White is a Clinical Child Psychologist and is Board Certified in Sexual Abuse by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

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