I forgave my abuser. But I will never forget his abuse.
In the autumn of 2018, after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the credible allegation of abuse of a minor by then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, his subsequent fall from grace and resignation from the College of Cardinals; following years of suspicion, rumor, settlements, sworn testimony from victims; after piercing denial and years of deception by the prelate himself coupled with blatant cover-up by so many in the church, reaching even to the halls of the Holy See, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., the archbishop of Newark and second successor to McCarrick in this diocese,wrote to his fellow pilgrims:
We are now realizing that some bishops did not enter into the covenant we call the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People wholeheartedly. This is sinful and unacceptable. It has caused irreparable harm to every priest’s and bishop’s relationship with the faithful. Only intentional acts of restorative justice can help us reform and renew our deeply wounded Church.
With the release on Nov. 10, 2020, of the Vatican’s report on the rise and fall of McCarrick, we appreciate how correct Cardinal Tobin was.
As a survivor of clerical abuse, I was deeply saddened by the report. While the transparency that Pope Francis has embraced offered me hope for a hurting church, I identified with the darkness felt by the victims. When I read the last word, I wept. I was swept back to my journey, a half-century sojourn to find my voice, particularly to the day a decade ago when I finally discovered interior peace.
The glossy green pines, windswept and gently snow-covered, greeted me one by one as I drove under their arch into the cemetery. Earlier that morning, I had heard a woman reflecting on the seventh step at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “Pain certainly is the price of admission into a new life; it does bring humility, and humility heals the pain.” I continued to listen to others share in that church basement, and I shut my eyes just before the meeting’s end and whispered within, over and over, what Richard Rohr, O.F.M., encourages us to say in prayer: “Turn your wounds into sacred gifts. Turn your wounds into sacred gifts. Turn your wounds into sacred gifts.”
After visiting my parents’ graves, I walked the cobblestone drive toward a marble altar. My pastor was buried there, next to his successor. Today would have been his 100th birthday; he had been dead for 11 years. I came here to talk to him.
I knelt down in the snow in front of his stone. His name was carved into it, and beside the dates of his birth and death, the years he had served the parish were marked at its base. I began to weep and to speak aloud:
My friend, I do not understand why you touched me the way you did. I do not understand many things, why you entered me that way. I was just a boy, but I realize now that you were a good man—a man of faith—and did give of yourself to many. You were good to me. You taught me much, despite the times—well, you know what I mean. On this birthday, this 100th anniversary of your birth, you deserve my forgiveness. I need to forgive you. I must forgive myself for blaming you. It was so long ago. I have to have serenity. You can understand this, can’t you? Will you? Our Lord does. I know this now. I must go.
I stood up, and before I walked back to my car, I opened my palms and spread out my arms, looked down at his grave and continued:
I must have peace, and I must let it go. I must keep my sobriety. I do forgive you and love you. I know you loved me and cared for me. I do know my God is with me now. I didn’t back then. And when I’m lost, he is with me. He has entered me in my brokenness. His Spirit has healed me. I needed to tell you this: I’m alive, I’m well, and I’m on the right road. I’ve been transformed and can go on. I have no doubt he is with you, too. Continue to sleep with him. He’ll never leave you. He is with all of us. I know he forgives you. I forgive you.
Just days before the Vatican released the McCarrick report, Cardinal Tobin asked that I share my story at the same seminary where McCarrick strayed decades before; his urging was timely, prophetic. The 40 seminarians I addressed represented five dioceses.
I told them there is no greater pain than the feeling of shame. I know. When I was a child, I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest. Trauma is the devil. It stays in the core of your being. My tears waited nearly a half-century to stream from my eyes. Many victims go to their graves never revealing what they endured. Some take their own lives, like a fellow victim friend of mine. For me, the pangs of addiction, subsequent lies, depression, bankruptcy, loss of job and home, and suicidal feelings were all harsh realities. A childhood lost. Life was so fragile; isolation real. My father died at only 40. My mother, lonely, drank and fell into rage. She was also largely absent and passed young.
I was prey, so vulnerable to being groomed for abuse.
I was prey, so vulnerable to being groomed for abuse. I wept inside. The line was crossed. My development was stunted. I was afraid. I did not know how to break away. Trust was broken. My own brokenness took root. Sexual violation is at the heart of the church’s crisis today and threatens its sacredness. It is not about priests who are straight or gay. It is about a void of intimacy. Predators lack true friendship and connection. Their yearning takes on unfathomable proportions.
This was tolerated and covered up in the church for far too long. Truth didn’t seem to matter. Secrets abounded. Files were concealed. The saving grace in all this, for me, was grace itself. God’s loving grace, through his incarnate Son, somehow reached me. The Holy Spirit has been and remains my ultimate spiritual director. Many good priests, flawed and holy, human like all of us, are part of my story. Religious women, men, family and friends—never failed to love me. None knew my secret—the same secret that the hierarchy of the church kept for far too long.
It took time to find my voice. This is a watershed moment in the life of our beloved yet broken church. There is no time more pressing for all to weep. Bishops must weep, including the bishop of Rome. People are leaving the pews in droves. Catholics will not continue to embrace a hierarchical church if those appointed to lead us do not encourage healing, including offering forgiveness but not exoneration to abusers and those who acted to cover up their sins. I concluded by telling the seminarians that to shape a new community of believers, we can no longer ignore the collective voice of the abused.
Today the McCarrick report makes clear once again that victims never forget. Like me and so many victims of sexual trauma, the minor abused by McCarrick as an altar boy took decades to speak out. To find one’s voice—for shame to quiet, truth to emerge—can take a very long time. My own research as a forensic clinician backs this up. Having some prelates play arm-chair shrinks, as the report points out, was extremely damaging to victims and to their brother bishop.
Having some prelates play arm-chair shrinks, as the report points out, was extremely damaging to victims and to their brother bishop.
This clericalism, a behavior of false protection, delayed the inevitable for years, fueling the profound psychological pathology of a lost soul, a man constantly seeking affection, who used his own power to obtain it, even in sick sexual ways. Theodore McCarrick, deeply flawed, emotionally starved, played the church like a fiddle by his avoidance, lies and manipulation. And those over whom he held sway, for so many years, lacked the courage to reveal what they heard, saw and read about their fellow priest and prelate, which in itself was sinful, an unconscionable betrayal of minors and vulnerable adults who bore such indelible pain.
The church must always listen to the voices of victims and survivors. It must also help troubled predators but not at the expense of the faithful. My own abuser died a long time ago. But I had to forgive him to start feeling free. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” must not mean perpetuating secrecy and avoiding accountability. It means owning up to the truth.
I will pray for Theodore McCarrick, now in his 90th year. He did some good to benefit the church. But, sadly, evil will be his legacy. He is a sick man. My prayers going forward will center more on those whose lives were so wounded by his predation. Their poverty of spirit is mine, too. In quoting St. Paul on the final page of the report, Pope Francis rightly describes our shared path with the one outside the tomb: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”
We must realize, as I have, that the truth sets us all free. As Carl Jung wrote: “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” It is only by forgiving my abuser that I found inner peace. But I have not forgotten. I never will.
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