VAC Interview: Thomas Tharayil, Archdiocese of Chicago

Please tell us a little bit about yourself:

Growing up in an Indian family steeped in Catholicism and being educated in only Catholic schools, I have always thought it ironic that I began my career and met my wife in a Jewish agency. But my storyline has always involved a rich mix of cultures.

I have been married to my wife Ann for 22 years now. The best adventure of our life has been raising our two sons, Ryan (18), a musician and Justin (16), a passionate basketball player. Seeing them thrive academically in high school and purse what they love in life right now is a joy for me.

During one of my first conversations with Ann, I found out that during graduate school Ann had lived and worked in an intergenerational housing program called the Pat Crowley House. I stopped, hesitated in my surprise, and then revealed that Pat Crowley was my Godfather.  Ann was shocked as he was only a mythical/ historical person to her. But my middle name is indeed Patrick in honor of Pat and Patty Crowley of the Christian Family Movement.  The Crowley’s were admired and revered in my family not only leading the CFM, but also for changing the entire trajectory of my family’s life.

When Pat and Patty Crowley went to India as a part of CFM, they met with my father’s uncle, Bishop Thomas Tharayil of the Kottayam diocese in Kerala, India. Through that connection the Crowley’s then sponsored my father to come to the United States in 1957 to study at De Paul University. He later brought my mother, brother and sister to Chicago. I had the unique distinction of being the first member of my family to be born in the USA.

While there was a steep learning curve for everything my parents took on from going back to college, to firming up their English, and dealing with the loss of family and friends; the one constant in their life was the Roman Catholic Church. Decisions about what to do and where to go to school all needed the Catholic seal of approval. Since we lived in St. Gertrude parish, I attended St. Gertrude elementary school. My life was built around parish activities. When it was time for high school the nuns recommended Quigley North, one of the seminaries for the diocese. When it was time for college, my parents offered me a choice, Loyola or De Paul. I went with Loyola.

How long have you been a VAC? What drew you to this work?

I have worked as the Director of the Office of Assistance Ministry for the past 9 years. I feel like I wound up here by accident rather than any plan.  After 6 years of clinical work at Jewish Family Services, I married Ann and began my own private practice. During the years of my private work, I also taught classes in Social Work with small groups in the graduate School of Social Work for Loyola University of Chicago. Through the graduate school, I ended up supervising a student whose internship was with the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth for the Archdiocese of Chicago. As I got to know the director, and he learned of my specialty of group work, he asked if I would consider starting a group for male victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse. This was a new clinical challenge for me within a familiar culture.

At first, the men in the groups reminded me of guys I had grown up with. Like me, many had been altar boys and we laughed about how getting weddings meant tips, and getting funerals meant missing the start of school.  But then our paths separated, and their stories took a much darker turn.  I was moved by their honesty and bravery to speak up about their experiences.  Understanding the Catholic context of their lives was easy for me. I was also very aware of how lucky I was that their stories were not mine.

Do you have other roles at the diocese and what are they?

The Archdiocese of Chicago is huge. In addition to me, we have a Director for the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, a Director for Child Abuse Investigation and Review, and a Coordinator for both Safe Environment and the Prayer and Penance Program. Our plates are full, but we all try to extend ourselves beyond our roles. This includes serving on advisory boards and panels. Also, I have provided training to priests in the diocese on the Critical Conversations program about boundary violations with adults and I like facilitating conversations with new pastors and clergy about how to respond to challenging conversations.

Have you seen changes of attitude in the Church towards abuse survivors during your time working as a VAC?

Over the past nine years, I think the greatest shift has been a growing acceptance by Church leaders to listen to and integrate the views of victims-survivors. When I started, I had many individual conversations with victims-survivors in Chicago, and eventually with those from other parts of the country. Often, they called because they had heard about the Healing Garden. At some point, I realized there were a lot of victims-survivors who needed support and connection with other survivors. So, with their permission, I facilitated introductions and email communication. I was shocked at how quickly they connected and began to build together.

At that moment, the Healing Voices, a victim-survivor run publication was created. Many of those victims-survivors are using their experiences to help to heal the church. They are being called upon to serve as consultants to church officials about how to respond to victims-survivors and protect children. It has been exciting and encouraging to see these folks serve on Independent Review Boards, and academic advisory boards.  They have started peace circles learned in Chicago and shared them in cities across the country.  A true poignant moment for me was when victim—survivors spoke at the US conference of Bishops.  They are no longer hiding or just trying to fit in. Instead many victims-survivors are choosing to fully embrace themselves as Catholics that were abused by clergy as children. And by doing so, they are living testimony to their faith, and passionate advocates for the protection of children.

What personal quality do you think is indispensable for a VAC?

To be present and available to victim-survivor in front of you. For many people, this will be the first and only time they will reveal a secret they have harbored since childhood. Your ability to listen and be present can be the start of a healing process or it can affirm the worst fears they had about whether to come forward or not.

How do you take care of your own mental health while doing this work?

Personally, I like to go on long walks with Ann where we can both talk and connect.  I also love the many opportunities to see our boys play sports or perform music. It’s an emotional respite from the intensity of the work.

What would you want people to understand about your role?

The VAC has a remarkable opportunity to provide healing from the very first moment you interact with a victim-survivor. For many survivors, a VAC may be the first person they have had contact with from the Church for 10, 20, 30 or more years. So, a VAC can provide a moment of reassurance and support or reinforce their skepticism, anger, and doubt.

I understand that most of the victims-survivors that come forward are men that have exerted a tremendous amount of energy to avoid dealing with the abuse they endured. Most often, they have spent most of their lives running from the abuse and using anything they can to cover the shame and the painful memories.

While isolation, increased alcohol or drug use may numb the pain for periods of time, the power of having such a heavy secret catches up to people and shows up in broken relationships and sometimes confusion about sexual identity. At some point most victim-survivors feel too many triggers from walking into a church, so they must make up excuses for not attending weddings, baptisms, or funerals of friends and family. They experience isolation and depression. Despite all of this, many victims-survivors would rather suffer in silence than burden their parents with a truth that they might not even believe, or if they do, will change their world radically.  Some cannot bear to demystify their families’ love for an abuser priest who may still be spoken of lovingly or proudly displayed in photos throughout the walls of their house.

As a VAC I am aware I cannot fix what has happened.  But I can use the resources of the Office of Assistance Ministry to engage professionals who can use trauma focused treatment and medications to begin to help them heal. But it takes time. When we meet with a victim-survivor and they express their relief for having told their story, I often share what has been shared with me by other survivors; when you have lived so many years organizing a life around not revealing a secret, it takes time to figure out how to live once it is revealed. To integrate the hidden parts of one’s life is a long, difficult journey. But if you are lucky, you occasionally see the benefits of this work.

Over the 9 years I have served as the Director, I have listened to victims-survivors come forward and say this was the first time they have told another person about the abuse. They were at a low point and saw little reason for hope. And sometimes that’s needed for them to be open to getting the help we can offer from the Office of Assistance Ministry. Of course, therapy is one part of the healing process. But for many victims-survivors, it’s an opportunity to rewrite their story with their own voice. For some survivors, it is only then that they can be in the presence of other victims-survivors, or attend a Mass for Hope and Healing, or sit in the Healing Garden, or write an article/book, or share their story with one other survivor or a church full of people. Some victims-survivors have made it clear that their experience is not complete without meeting with the Cardinal and telling him what happened to them as children.

Having witnessed the power of victim survivor meetings with the Cardinal many times over the years, I am convinced this ritual leaves the survivors with two very important messages:

  1.  They are not alone anymore.
  2. They have put the Church on notice so that no other child is ever abused again.

When these same victims-survivors then choose to advocate for a Healing Garden, organize a Mass for Hope and Healing, serve on Independent Review Boards, or write for Healing Voices, it is an affirmation that healing is possible.

While the goal of supporting victims is not to bring them back to the Church, I have certainly seen that one path of healing for victim-survivors is through an integration back into the experience of the Church.  If the Church can continue to listen, and the truth of their experiences can continue to be heard, the Church will also grow and heal from welcoming back those they have harmed the most.