I am a happily married Roman Catholic woman. Attendance at Mass and time spent in meditation are my daily sustenance. I am a eucharistic minister in our parish and have been a sponsor in our adult initiation program. Our prayer group meets regularly, and I receive spiritual direction once a month. I make regular retreats and have been privileged to walk through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I share what I have with those who have less; I give work to the immigrants, comfort the widowed, visit the lonely and counsel the addicted. I am respected by my colleagues at the well-known university where I teach.
I am also a woman who as a child in the sixth grade was sexually abused by her parish priest. I share my story in the hope that my experience of healing and forgiveness may help the many people who are suffering as a consequence of sexual abuse by some members of the Catholic clergy.
As a child, I grew up loving the Roman Catholic Church—the smell of candles burning, the wafting of incense up to the rafters, the peaceful, quiet churches where I felt God’s presence and the kindness of many of the church’s priests and sisters. I played the organ in our own church and coordinated the altar boys’ training in our small town long before the thought of female altar servers was in anyone’s mind. In a childlike way, I thought Jesus must be just like our parish priest—smiling, kind, loving, warm and forgiving. That association made my recovery particularly challenging.
The abuse began when I was 11 years old. My feelings about Father X were conflicted for many years, and it was not until I was in my late 20’s that I began to acknowledge the abuse. I have had extensive, in-depth therapy and have also been recovering from active alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia for more than 18 years.
I cannot tell you how long I lived with feelings of rage, or how long I suffered from horrible feelings of betrayal by the church, Father X and, by association, Jesus. I don’t know how long I prayed for this man and for the gift of forgiveness and healing. I was blessed with a very good therapist, who helped me uncover my memories and put words to the feelings I was experiencing—quite an arduous journey. As I began to “grow up” in therapy and obtained my master’s degree in counseling, I came to understand how Father X had never developed psychosexually. He entered the seminary when he was 13 years old; perhaps he never dated. He did not mature into a psychologically healthy adult male, capable of having chaste relationships with adult men and women that might have met his very human needs for companionship, love and friendship. I began to develop some compassion for Father X.
While in therapy, and for quite some time after I terminated therapy, I stopped attending Mass, did not receive the sacraments and was so angry that I wanted to take a hammer to that mammoth concrete edifice, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. As I began to see my imperfections, acknowledge my defects of character, accept my creaturehood, and as I began to mature, I was able to take the church and Father X off the pedestal on which I had placed them. A wise Jesuit director told me during my first eight-day retreat that “the church is as sinful as her people.”
Eight years ago I was asked to share my story of recovery with others who were trying to recover from alcoholism. While I had spoken in this type of setting many times, I never until then mentioned publicly that a priest had sexually abused me. I was talking extemporaneously about the gifts one receives by living a 12-step program; specifically I was addressing the eighth step, which deals with forgiveness. I told the following story:
In 1990 I went to visit Father X. During our visit, he was restless and dominated the conversation, such that I was unable to bring up the topic of the abuse. I felt angry and frustrated; and after arriving home, I called him on the phone. I didn’t really know what I was going to say. I just asked to say the right thing. I told him that I was in therapy, and I was trying to come to terms with the abuse. I told him that I had forgiven him for what he had done. He said, “I have been praying that you would.” I had nothing more to say. I felt grateful that there was closure and that I could finally let go of him. Through all the years of therapy, tears, prayer and meditation, I had been given the gift of forgiveness for him; and now I received compassion for myself.
I had to get to the point where I wanted to be free more than I wanted to be angry. I didn’t want to live my life in an ongoing rage. The only way I knew to be free of the anger and the rage was through forgiveness. This was not easy. In fact, the process of forgiving has been the most difficult experience I have had in my 46 years of living. But it has been the journey for which I am most grateful.
After I finished telling my story, a man approached me with his wide-brimmed hat pulled down to shield his eyes, and his coat collar pulled up around his neck. He extended his hand, and as I shook it, he said, “I am Shawn [not his real name], and I am a Roman Catholic priest. On behalf of the Catholic Church, I want to apologize to you.” I shivered as a chill ran through my body, and tears filled my eyes. For the first time, I felt someone in the church acknowledged the wrong that had been done to me as a child, felt genuine compassion for me and was courageous enough to “take on the sins of others” with his sincere apology. After being away from the sacraments for many years, and being unable to pray, except to say, “Please keep me sober and healthy” in the morning and “Thank you” at night, I began to hunger for God again.
I slowly began to seek the God who had never abandoned me. The God, who loves me so much, carried me when I could not walk. When I cursed God, and doubted that God even existed, God put people in my life who listened to me and loved me back to health. This past Easter was the first time in 14 years that I could say that Jesus and I are intimate friends again.
In his own way, Father X acknowledged that he had harmed me, and he was deeply sorry. By recognizing and accepting his own frailties as a human being, Father Shawn was able to reach out to me graciously and generously and offer reconciliation. Over the years, I have been blessed to know many priests who, from their life of prayer, share the transforming power of Jesus’ love with others.
Recovery from sexual abuse is a circuitous path that takes a lifetime. The wounds I have as a result of the abuse are still there, but they are not open wounds any longer. They have been turning into scars for many years now, and one day at a time, I am being healed.
The healing allows me to be compassionate. For the past six months, my heart has been broken and tears have run down my cheeks each time I read the morning paper or listened to radio commentators describe the suffering of yet another victim of sexual abuse by a priest. I have been filled with anger once again, after I learned about the errors made by some bishops because of denial, ignorance and misjudgment. And then I go and sit with the Lord, participate in the Mass and find myself praying silently and aloud for the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators and the enablers. And I am comforted and filled with hope for our church. When I look back on the times along my journey when I felt overwhelming pain, desolation and feelings of hopelessness, I am reminded that it was then that the Spirit was working quietly, unbeknownst to me, to bring about healing and forgiveness. And so is the Spirit moving our church today. Silently and creatively, I believe that the Spirit is working in the hearts and minds of lay men and women, the clergy and bishops. Some bishops and clergy are suffering in solidarity with us, as we struggle to be courageous, compassionate and committed to the call of the Second Vatican Council.
I believe that God’s gracious gift of forgiveness is given to all who earnestly seek it, so that we can extend that forgiveness to those who do us harm—physically, emotionally and spiritually. In the midst of the pain and the suffering, we are invited to love one another as Jesus loves us, to forgive and to beg for forgiveness, to let go of the rage, to be healers and to be healed, to be reconciled with one another—to bring God’s transforming love to our church and to the world.