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Home » Analysis » Closer & Deeper » She was abused into having an abortion. Now Anne Sherston is changing the lives of other abuse survivors

She was abused into having an abortion. Now Anne Sherston is changing the lives of other abuse survivors

SEVENTEEN abuse survivors are sitting in a room in Hobart as a Catholic priest guides them through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For several days the survivors have unpatched hidden wounds caused by traumatic abuse experiences in their childhood or adult life.

There are a number of people who were sexually abused by clergy, others were the victims of horrific violence, and still more were violated by their own families.

They all long for one thing – to be healed.

Anne Sherston is observing the faces of these survivors, many of whom have kept their abuse a secret for decades upon decades.

Their faces are beginning to change; that spark in their spirit is coming back to life.

It’s what Anne calls the “magnificent” transformation that occurs in people who go on a Grief to Grace retreat.

Grief to Grace is a Catholic ministry founded in America by counselling psychologist Dr Theresa Burke to provide psychological and spiritual healing for survivors of abuse.

The retreat is offered to people who were abused in any way in their history, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, or sexual, including institutional and clergy child sexual abuse, rape, incest or neglect.

According to a 1999 report on ending violence against women, one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused.

Open to men and women of all religions, and Catholic clergy or religious, Grief to Grace retreats last for five to seven days and take participants on a spiritual pilgrimage towards healing.

There are no spectators on the retreat; every single person making the retreat has, in some way or another, experienced abuse.

Anne Sherston

Abuse survivor: Anne Sherston.

Anne is the first person to bring the retreat to Australia and ran her first successful retreat this year.

“They turn up with really long faces and by the end of the retreat, they are totally on the way to being healed,” Anne said.

“Nothing is an immediate fix but it shows them and it gives them hope.”

As the national director of Grief to Grace in Australia, Anne is also living proof that Grief to Grace heals what is often the most overlooked aspect of an abuse survivor – the soul.

An abuse survivor whose abusive household led her to abort her first child, Anne said her Grief to Grace retreat healed her in a way no psychologist ever could.

“I grew up in a domestic violent home,” Anne said.

“Lots of abuse was being thrown around, literally.”

It was a Grief to Grace retreat that helped her find the strength and inner peace to forgive her physically abusive father, who had died in 2007 and verbally abusive mother, who was still alive.

“It was my mother’s verbal abuse that led me to having an abortion,” Anne said.

Her mother also threatened the young man responsible for the pregnancy, who is now Anne’s husband.

“Mum threatened him with going to the police,” Anne said.

“Both being teenagers, we were both scared silly.

“At 16, who was I going to turn to for help?

At the time there were no pro-life groups, no Centrelink, and no charities for single mothers who could have told her to keep her child.

“Every church back then would have totally discarded me,” Anne said.

“We didn’t have a choice.”

She had the abortion with the knowledge of the child’s father, but it was a decision that she kept secret for 29 years.

“I carried that guilt of not standing up to my mum for a really long time,” Anne said.

“It took 29 years before I spoke to somebody, to reach out and ask for help.”

The first person she did tell was her psychologist, who suggested Anne honour her aborted baby by naming him.

“That’s what I did,” she said.

“But there was more work that needed to be done, work that a psychologist can’t do, more a spiritual thing.

“It was another level to the grief.”

That’s when Anne told a second person, close family friend and Sydney Catholic priest Fr Peter Maher, who provides spiritual support for attendants of a post-abortion retreat named Rachel’s Vineyard, also developed by Dr Burke.

She made her Rachel’s Vineyard retreat in 2004 and it changed her life almost instantly.

Within a few months, she was receiving training to facilitate future retreats in Australia.

“I don’t let the grass grow under my feet,” she said.

She has facilitated Rachel’s Vineyard retreats for 16 years now, and it has been during these retreats that she has noticed another issue needing a spiritual response.

“One or two people talk about abuse in their history (of having an abortion),” she said.

“We don’t have time to address that on a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat weekend, so Theresa Burke started Grief to Grace.

“It made sense to bring that to Australia.”

Last year Anne co-ordinated Australia’s first Grief to Grace retreat in Hobart, attended by 17 survivors of abuse including one priest.

Around 60 per cent of participants were from the mainland.

“They come as far as Perth and Darwin,” Anne said.

“It’s desperately needed because there are so many survivors.”

Interest in healing the wounds of abuse is growing, with 11 already registered for the next Grief to Grace retreat from April 8 to 13 next year.

Most of the retreatants for this coming retreat are victims of domestic violence whereas previous attendants included survivors of clergy abuse.

Anne believes the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and the Australian government’s campaign to crackdown on domestic violence against women have contributed to growing number of Grief to Grace retreatants.

It also shows that survivors want more than just a prevention program.

“Really the government is trying to provide funding for prevention but there is nothing there for recovery,” she said.

“Grief to Grace is based on recovery, not just one-to-one counselling.

“It helps people gain the skills to heal and the hope to not allow it to happen again.”

She now needs a miracle to help fund Grief to Grace in Australia, which costs nearly $100,000 including a licensing fee of $15,000 just to run one retreat a year.

While the organisation can receive tax-deductible donations to fund their ongoing costs, she believes recognition from the Royal Commission will help their cause even more.

On November 10, 2015, in response to a callout for submissions for the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, Anne prepared a submission from Grief to Grace Australia asking for an endorsement of the national program so it can continue to provide spiritual and psychological healing for survivors.

“Grief to Grace Australia asks the Royal Commission to see the movement within the Church itself that wants nothing more than to offer a safe and professional space for those living with the harm and consequence of abuse within their faith community,” she wrote in the submission.

“By gaining the validation of the Royal Commission, grass roots, community lead programs such as ours will, finally, be able to receive the commitment and financial resources needed from those in positions of power.”

Until then, Anne is preparing to take another 13 people through a life-changing journey to healing, and all without pay.

“I do all of this voluntarily,” Anne said.

“No amount of money can pay you enough to see the faces of these people on retreat.”

To request an application for the April 2018 Grief to Grace retreat contact Anne Sherston by emailing info@grieftograceaus.org.au or phone 0407704539. For more information visit www.grieftograce.org

Written by: Emilie Ng

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