A clergy sex abuse survivor’s story and its lessons for restoring faith
When I first met Danny, he had not seen the inside of a Catholic church in two decades, nor had he spoken with a Catholic priest during that time. We met in a coffee shop—“neutral turf,” as he called it—and settled into a booth, where we talked for the better part of two hours.
Danny said that he wanted to speak to a priest about what had happened to him as a child, and that his attorney and therapist were supportive of the idea. He also hoped that doing so would put an end to a long, sad and painful struggle with the Catholic Church. He had only two conditions. First, he wanted me to record our conversation to be sure that I “got it right.” Second, he asked for a promise that I would someday write about what he told me, so that it might prove helpful to someone else. In telling Danny’s story here, as I have done elsewhere, I hope I am being true to that promise.
Danny was in eighth grade when he was sexually abused. Tall for his age and athletic, he was also smart, pious and dutiful. When Sister told him that Father wanted to see him, he left class and walked across the courtyard to the rectory, rang the bell and was ushered into a parlor where Father was pacing back and forth.
“Thanks for coming, son,” Father said as he closed the door to the parlor. “There are several things that I would like to talk with you about.” He began talking about high school, the importance of studying hard and thinking about his future, and the distraction that girls could pose. All the while he paced back and forth while Danny stood still. With each pass in front of Danny, Father would grope the boy’s genitals or buttocks and then move on, talking all the while. After a few minutes, Father stopped pacing and unzipped his pants, masturbated in front of Danny, and then dismissed him. Danny returned to class frightened, bewildered and ashamed.
It happened two more times, once in the church and another time in the sacristy after Mass, and it was the same: unexpected, accompanied by banal patter and then nothing—no explanation, no apology and never a reference to what had taken place. Danny did not tell anyone at the time, shame having gotten the better of him. He also was confused. He knew that what had taken place was lewd and wrong and that he wanted no part of it, but he could not understand why Father, who was otherwise warm and affable and popular with his parishioners, would do such a thing.
In high school and college, Danny drifted away from church and eventually stopped going altogether. He worked hard, received good grades, got a good job when he graduated and steadily advanced in his company. He also started running. Day after day, he would run mile upon mile, and when he could not sleep or when a nightmare would wake him, he would go running in the middle of the night. Running was a comfort, a distraction and, as he knew even then, a metaphor. If he could, he would gladly run away from the memories.
Danny’s wife was a good, strong woman and urged him to get therapy and to sue the church. He did, and as a result received a considerable settlement. But she could not quite understand why Danny wanted to speak with a priest. As she put it: “What good can come of it? Why open old wounds?”
Running was a comfort, a distraction and, as Danny knew even then, a metaphor: If he could, he would gladly run away from the memories.
But Danny insisted. Once a pious and dutiful eighth grader, he had become a morally determined man, the arc of continuity between the boy and the man bearing witness both to his own probity and to that shared moral sensibility that marks us at our best. For him it was a matter of “helping others,” without which he would feel incomplete and somehow complicit.
“No one should have to go through what I did. Tell them,” he urged me, “what he took away from me. Not just my innocence but my faith. I’m like a spiritual orphan, betrayed by what I loved, and I feel lost and alone.”
The Present Crisis
The release of the grand jury’s report in Pennsylvania detailing decades of sexual abuse of minors by hundreds of Catholic priests and the separate allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians made against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have roiled the church in ways not seen since the “long Lent” in Boston in 2002. The sheer scale of the findings and allegations have been bracing, if not shocking; and understandably they have given rise to a sense of betrayal and outrage, demands for justice and rectification, and an impetus to assign blame and find a remedy.
Compounding these feelings are the recent allegations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States, that then-Archbishop McCarrick’s actions were widely known and duly reported to Vatican officials, including Popes Benedict and Francis—who, he alleges, either failed to act on what they knew or did so but were stymied by the inaction of others.
The sheer scale of the findings and allegations have given rise to a sense of betrayal and outrage.
To say that this constitutes a crisis for the church in this country is to put it mildly. And as is true in any crisis, the demands of the moment, important though they are, can distract us from ongoing commitments, unduly narrow our focus and cause us to neglect important subtleties and distinctions that in less febrile states we are better able to attend to.
Danny’s story serves as a cautionary tale and a needed tonic. He was abused neither in Boston nor in Pennsylvania, and he came forward on his own, for his own reasons and in his own time; no public crisis occasioned or accompanied his self-disclosure. In this sense, his story is ordinary (if such a term can be used in this context)—one of thousands that survivors might tell, each of them personal and thus different, and yet each in its own way contributing to our understanding of abuse and informing our response. Indeed, attending to survivors like Danny may take us closer to the day when, pray God, no one else will have to go through what he did.
A Primer on Sexual Abuse
Though it has been said many times, it never ceases to bear repeating. Far from being novel or exceptional, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents is common, widespread and perennial. It is taking place today, as it did yesterday and will tomorrow. Research suggests that one in five females and as many as one in 10 males report having been sexually abused or assaulted before age 18.
Sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone close to the child, most often a male, and while it spares no particular kind of family or institution, it is more likely to arise in situations that are in some way sequestered, unsupervised and privileged. The privilege may be owed to the imbalance of power between an adult and a child or adolescent, especially when the adult has been lent an aura of distinction—as a priest, coach or teacher, for example—and the young person is dependent and without an alternative recourse. It might also be owed to particular family dynamics that go unquestioned, to an institutional culture that prizes secrecy and loyalty above transparency and accountability, or to cultural and religious beliefs that implicitly tolerate the abuse of women and children.
“Tell them,” Danny urged me, “what he took away from me. Not just my innocence but my faith.”
Danny’s experience mirrors that of many others in these regards. “Father” was a revered and much loved figure, and one who had unfettered access to Danny in contexts that gave him relative license to do whatever he wanted to do. Moreover, and as we have been forced to acknowledge of late, Father was part of a clerical culture that, if it did not convey impunity, would likely have mitigated the consequences of his behavior had it become known.
Important though these conditions are, they do not in themselves supply the motive for abuse. That motive rather proceeds from the bent and warp of an abuser’s mind. The range and nature of such mental aberrations are broad but can include various psychopathologies, a disordered personality, the secondary effects of substance abuse, significant emotional immaturity and a personal history of unresolved trauma, including sexual trauma.
It is tempting to assume otherwise, but the disposition to sexually abuse a minor is not owed to one’s gender (though most abusers are male), nor to one’s marital status or sexual orientation per se (though priest abusers are ostensibly celibate and the majority of their victims are male). Rather it is the mind of the abuser that drives his sexual behavior in an aberrant direction. Most men do not abuse children or adolescents, nor do most priests or most gay people. This suggests that abusers share something in common that is not specifically owed to being a man, a priest or gay. Something similar might be said about being liberal or conservative, younger or older, pre- or post- Vatican II.
In Danny’s story, his pastor exhibited a profound lack of empathy for him, treating him as a mere object and disregarding his wishes, needs and well-being. There is no evidence of passion or desire, nor of any recognizable emotion, but rather an extraordinary emotional vacuity. Moreover, his pastor demonstrates no remorse, no sense of guilt or shame and no evidence of having a conscience, instead proving himself adept at masquerading as warm and affable. It is hard not to see how this disturbing mental set—with its absence of maturity, benevolence or moral compass—informs and directs his behavior over and above what other putative causes may contribute to it.
The sexual abuse of young people is also aided and abetted by our tendency to forget it.
It must also be said that the sexual abuse of young people is aided and abetted by our tendency to forget it. In her landmark book Trauma and Recovery, the psychiatrist Judith Herman noted that sexual abuse, like other forms of trauma, is liable to lead to a peculiar cultural and societal amnesia. Between one cultural crisis involving sexual abuse and another, it is as if we pass through the waters of Lethe and are lulled into complacency. We forget what we once knew—the shock and dismay of Boston in 2002—and the lessons we learned in the past until, in the resurgent shock and dismay of a new crisis, we are forced to learn them again.
Sexual abuse, like all trauma, is difficult for any of us to acknowledge, and understandably so. As T. S. Eliot noted, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Even Danny was wont to run away from remembering and acknowledging his own experience. But acknowledge and remember it we must, for, as Freud noted, what we do not remember we are prone to re-enact.
As T. S. Eliot noted, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
That is one reason why the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” also known as the Dallas Charter, is important despite its limitations, and why it might serve as a model for whatever recourse the church employs to hold bishops accountable. It is also why “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States,” generally referred to as the John Jay Report, is important. Indeed, it would be welcome if the latter was but the first in a series of research reports sponsored by the church with the goal of understanding and preventing sexual abuse. If nothing else, such documents, and the policies and procedures that follow from them, force us to periodically acknowledge a disquieting truth. Optimally, they will prevent us from forgetting, and in doing so, will prevent a re-enactment of the present crisis at some future date.
In many ways, Danny’s story suggests that the abuse of minors in the church follows a pattern that can be found in any number of families and institutions; indeed, at this level there is little to distinguish it. This leads us to consider how, if at all, the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or bishop might be different from abuse in general. The answer to this question may constitute the most important lesson Danny can teach us, for it is evident that Danny lost not only his innocence but also his faith, his sense of the sacred and of sanctuary. To the extent that this is true, we will not have served Danny and others like him well if we offer only care, recompense and protection (important though each of these is) and do not aid in the restoration of the sacred.
Restoring the Sacred
Danny died some years ago. His obituary described his work, his family and his interests, and the calling hours for his wake. It also noted that his funeral service would be conducted at a local church, but not a Catholic one. He was young, just shy of 50, and although I had heard that he had cancer, I could not help but wonder what toll the childhood abuse had taken on his health. But what was most touching was the fact that he had found his way back to church.
I do not know whether he had been attending regularly or what that meant about his faith, only that church was not the “neutral turf” we had met on—that, and the fact that he would not be alone. Spiritual orphan though he was, he would not pass from this world alone. Family, friends and a congregation would gather around him, sing and pray, bless him and see him safely to his resting place.
The betrayal was twofold: It was not only Danny’s body and mind that fell victim to the abuse but also his view of the sacred.
I wish I knew what occasioned his return, what combination of circumstances and readiness allowed him to stop running at last. I also wish that he could have made it all the way home. But perhaps that would be asking for too much; after all, that he came back as far as he did is remarkable and could hardly have been foreseen.
Danny’s abuser was not just a well-loved and respected figure in the community but a priest, an alter Christus (“another Christ”) who should have acted in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). The betrayal therefore was twofold: It was not only Danny’s body and mind that fell victim to the abuse but also his view of the sacred. It is no wonder, then, that when he started to run, Danny ran as far as he could from the church. But his death and burial suggest that if he ran from what he once knew of God, he somehow found a new and different way back to him.
In the midst of adversity, we nearly always turn to what has worked for us in the past, and most times that is enough. We fall on our knees and pray, are comforted and assured, and gather the strength to do what we must. But as the psychologist Kenneth Pargament notes, there are certain times and events in our lives that challenge our ability to rely on the tried and true. These events may tempt us to conclude that our original faith was misplaced—there is no God, or if there is, he does not care—or rather invite us to find God anew and differently, at a greater depth and with a measure of insight and understanding that can sustain hope amid the ruin.
Despite our manifest sins and failures to protect people like Danny, the church, in the mysterious economy of God’s grace, can also offer them a sanctuary in which to retrieve a faith that was bruised and battered, if not forfeited, in the wake of another’s malice. Indeed, it is the singular grace of the church, brought to its knees and humbled by its sins and prideful folly, to be the all-too-human habitation of that wondrous anamnesis of another victim, stripped naked, abused and abandoned, his innocence violated by another’s decree, who rose to new life and in his rising raised all other victims that they may share this new life with him.
Let us not fail in this, nor be distracted from doing this. Let us commit ourselves once again, with a measure of commitment equal to Danny’s, to do right by him and others like him. Let us be humble, patient, without presumption, accompanying the Dannys of this world and following their lead for as long as it takes. And when we have atoned in this way for our failures, may we provide them with the keys to a sanctuary in exchange for the sacrilege committed against them. May we provide them with the keys to a holy place, a sacred place, where they can find again, newly, deeply, the One who became a victim so that they could share in his victory.