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.
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“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.
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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.
Healing and growth are possible. I did it. I am older adult now and when I was abused by a priest it took me years to tell someone about it. He had threatened to hurt my parents if I said anything since he knew my family. Yes, abusers are often known to the family. I eventually told someone in college, a therapist, and the healing began. I did not fear the church but I did leave it for a while. Eventually the need for God’s presence and intimacy of the Mass called me to return
Fast forward to today the pain I feel is due to the current uproar: clericalism. When priests or bishops or anyone in the church feels their power can eviscerate another person like the bishop egomaniacs in public display in the US Church, they should be recalled from ministry. Pope Francis has shown the world a better way and so those who are undermining him are the clericalist abusers and they remind me of why I was abused. They thought they did not have to answer to anyone. Never again to bend a knee, kiss a ring or call a man “Your Excllency”. It’s just “Father” and if he cant deal with that he needs to be laicized
Healing for all in Christ Jesus. No more lofty titles, gilded mansions, red silk capes and princely treatnents. They need to be able to walk in the streets and slums with the rest of us smelly sheep like Pope Francis has shown
Rest in peace Danny.
The clericalists and lay conservatives - i call them Pharisites/Hypocrites (Jesus' Pharisees and scribes) - have taken it upon themselves to call Francis and moderates a "lavender homosexual movement" and are calling abusers homosexuals . . . Completely ignoring girls who were also abused by clergy, disingenously claiming "stop the silence" protesters are talking about unveiling the "homosexual infiltration. . . Too busy about their baleful to give a crap about survivora or stories like Danny's
Go look at the articles on Church Militant, and see the ignorance on display.
Im going to give this article to people in my liturgy reading group, who are themselves blaming the abuse on homosexuals - even my priest!
Dare I say it, these clericalists and lay conservatives are hating, and this hatin' is Satan.
Now is the time for these dividers to be unveiled, like the unveiling of the tabernacle when Jesus died on the Cross. They are hijacking survivor's pain - and especially the pain of women survivors of clergy sex abuse - for rank hypocritical superiority.
Rest in peace, Danny, and Bill thank you for your strength (CSA survivor here too, i know that pain well).
God is love, right?
One of the best and most insightful pieces America has run on the subject.
I agree. It is a powerful discussion of the subject.
This is a good story, though the abuse that this man suffered is comparatively minor compared to what happened to me and many others. I was abused by two priests, sometimes at the same time over a two year period, and it involved every sexual violation possible. I do not wish to undermine what this man went through, but it is rather light in comparison to what the majority of victims encounter.
Pain is relative. Danny's pain is minor compared to mine (three sex abusers, one a scoutmaster), yet it hurt and betrayed him all the same - because of the control this priest had over him.
All our pain is relative. Yes yours is even worse than mine. But please do not diminish my or Danny's pain, it cuts very hard indeed, because this isnt a contest
Im sorry for your pain, Greg. And dont worry, ive got your back
Agreed. This is an excellent article! I especially appreciated the inclusion of our current theology which defines the priest as Ipse Christi. This aspect in particular makes recovering from PTSD much more difficult. Even after a year of hell, mine was still “acute.” But thanks to professionals life Fr Joseph, it is possible to walk through hell and put a life back together. I feel for the victims who don’t know that yet, and might not ever realize the healing they deserve on account of the bishop’s shameful agendas.
I cannot comment on sexual abuse by priests, except to say it is profoundly disheartening to her about and it heartening to hear how many of the betrayed found/made a path to a recovery that enabled them to lead a good human life, with or without religious faith. Like everyone else my heart goes out to all the victims and I extend every good wish and hope to them.
The reason I cannot comment on clergy abuse is that I, and the many I have known who grew up Catholic. never encountered it,. Yet almost every one of us, except those who have become politically hard right and one of my liberal brothers, have left the church. The alienation began with rejecting the role of authority and obedience and deference to clergy in the church. The exaggerated claims of the church and clergy to authority and obedience were gently and firmly rejected by my parents and relatives. But once you reject these obsessive claims to authority, what is left of the Catholic church? The so-called doctrinal truths that have led to the disrespect for and snarky treatment of women and gays led almost all of us to leave the church, even the straight males. Among our relatives the gays were the most pious and the most generous in donations to the church before the "Adam and Steve" sarcasm from the pulpit got too strident and lead them to leave. My liberal brother, a strong family man and an international executive whose experiences made him even more pro-labor and pro-poor than he had originally been from growing up in an FDR family, has remained in the church because he developed a strong and rather old-fashioned devotion to Mary. But his wife and children have left the church, with no regrets and no "longing for faith" and no sense of loss. Their need for faith is satisfied by the pre-Christian concept of faith, keeping one's promises to others, including acting ethically towards all. and being willing, when able, to help victims of injustices. Perhaps the strong love of literature and the arts characteristic of many in my extended family has also allowed for a spiritual sustenance far better than what we experienced in the Catholic church.
Catholic writers, please stop claiming that the human heart longs for God. It does not, that longing is planted there by culture and upbringing. Most of us who have left the church feel no loss but a greater ability to live as decent human beings. We are not diminished human beings for rejecting the very authority of religion and not just its peculiar transgressions. In our extended family (in different countries) we recognize the good that many in the Catholic church do, and we continue to financially support some of the doers of good works within the Catholic church when those good works are aimed at benefiting the poor, preferably, but not always, without regard to their religious beliefs.
John Mack: Thanks for posting your constructive, independent thinking here.
The man who abused Danny was deranged.
Was he deranged before he was a priest, if so why didn't the Seminary
dismiss him ?
If not, was he driven by stark loneliness/lust to find some outlet ?
Does Fr. Guido have any insights on how people like this get through Seminary Formation
or how the Church can help them, if the burden of the Celibate life is too much,
to leave the Priesthood or Religious life as soon as possible ?
a worthwhile analysis that is a big improvement on the many platitudes that pass for analysis in these pages. But there is a point at the end where prof Guido takes off his counsellor's hat and puts on his marketing hat to bemoan the fact that Danny never came back to RCC, as if the company had lost a customer. Yes, Danny's "view of the sacred" was permanently transformed by his abuse, but not his need to have a connection to religion--just not the Catholic version.
And Yes, his funeral indicates that Danny had indeed "found a new and different way back to God"--I would have inserted a "better" way back, in the light of the current dysfunction of RCC. There are many roads to heaven, and while Danny chose not to ride the Catholic bus there, he found alternative transportation that provided him a sanctuary just as well.
I would hope that somebody as broadminded as prof. Guido would not want us to come away with the notion that only RCC can provide sanctuary---I remember that that other "victim" Guido writes about also said that "my father's house has many mansions", and I hope that fellow victim Danny is living in one of them--RIP.
Father Guido, thank you very much!! Kindly wise words and a compelling anecdote don't solve clergy sexual abuse, but they are a necessary step. We are encouraged by your honesty and love to work together to make our Catholic home truly a home. Peter Castaldi
Unfortunately child abuse by clerics may have taken place. However, there seem to be some exaggeration of the scale. We wish complete healing to all those who were abused for their dignity was robbed away by those whom they trusted and who ought to have affirmed and protected it.
Apparently, the abuse was not limited to priests, but to nuns who ran orphanages and schools for wayward children. I just read this article, and am physically sick about the church's history of abuse- emotionally, physically and sexually: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christinekenneally/orphanage-death-catholic-abuse-nuns-st-josephs
We all heard sometime ago about the Magdalene Sisters, and more recently about the Sisters of Bon Secours in Ireland where the remains of hundreds of babies were discovered. Now this right in our own backyard of Vermont and Quebec. The church needs to do a FULL public confession and penance for the sins and evil it perpetrated. Only then can we heal and move forward. As someone who converted to Catholicism, and the father of a Catholic priest, I pray for all the victims, and for the church leadership to step up and admit the wrong they have done.
I sensed some condescension when the article said “too bad he couldn’t come all the way home” (to the Catholic Church). Jesus didn’t wait for the lost sheep to come home, He went looking for it and carried it home on his shoulders. Perhaps Catholic clerics could do the same, rather than to protect “The Institution” rather than the sheep.
Thank you for this well-written letter. Others say this much better than me, and I am glad to see it. I too was molested by a priest. Only I am a woman, who was 29 years old and a Catholic sister away from home at graduate school. Much later, after leaving the convent and married with two children, I was on a committee to assure training against abuse in the church, and realized that what happened to me was not my fault and I wanted to make sure this man did not abuse others, as I know he did after me, and probably before. Recently I saw a news report from 14 years ago that my abuser's superior said in 2002 that he did not know of any prior abuse by this man. Hmm...He either didn't read his files or he was lying, or my being a vulnerable adult didn't matter. I was given a small amount of money to compensate for past counseling. I was told to keep this quiet. Indeed I think it is time to address clericalism and the harm it has caused so many in our church. It is OUR church, our God continues to love us and call us to love one another. Thank you to America Magazine for your efforts in this regard.