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Simcha FisherJune 10, 2024
Gloria Branciani, the first of the alleged abuse victims of priest-artist Father Marko Rupnik to come forward, is seen during a news conference at the Italian National Press Federation in Rome Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

When I was little, a lion was living in the walls outside my room. I knew this couldn’t possibly be true, but I was also terrified any time I went into the hall because I could hear him growling.

Years later, I figured out what that sound really was. Our old Victoria-style house had a turbine vent on the roof, and when it got clogged with ice during the winter, it made a deep, ominous growling noise that seemed to be emerging from the walls.

I did not tell anybody, though, because there were actually two things I was afraid of: The lion and being told I was imagining the lion. So I quaked through many nights, terrified.

I am not mad at my parents. It was the ’70s, and parenting standards were different. I’ve done the same thing to my kids—shushing their fears, telling them not to be silly—before I knew better. 

This is one of my earliest memories, and it’s probably why I felt so deeply for the poor kid in North Carolina who turned out to have 60,000 bees living in her walls.

She, unlike me, persistently told her parents for eight months what she heard: monsters. Her parents eventually investigated and sure enough, there was a hive so gigantic that they had to tear into the walls to remove it all. Honey everywhere, dead bees everywhere. A true nightmare.

I first heard about this story because a friend pointed out that, when the bee experts removed all the bees from the toddler’s walls, the mother said to her child: “See? They’re taking the monsters away.” My friend said the mom clearly meant well, but it was a missed opportunity. Bees are not monsters! They are friends and essential to life on earth.

My friend pointed out that the kid will likely have a lifelong fear of bees since the mother affirmed for her that they are indeed monsters. And that would be a monstrous thing in itself, to live forever in fear of something you can’t escape and that is your great helper.

I think that if the child does have trauma, it will have stemmed from three possible causes: the bees themselves, of course, and perhaps the mother affirming that they are monsters. But also those eight months when no one believed her about the bee noise, even though she could hear it.

When you are consistently told, “The distressing thing is silly, and you shouldn’t be upset. You’re making it up. You can’t trust your own experience, and you should be ashamed of thinking you can”—this is a monstrous growl that reverberates well into adulthood, well into every adult relationship, well into your career, well into your understanding of faith and your sense of self. A message like that can be more life-limiting than any specific insect-phobia.

The real solution for the child, of course, would have been to strike a balance. To affirm her fear, to praise her for telling someone, and then eventually, when she was ready, to introduce her to the idea of how wonderful bees really (usually) are.

Why am I writing about this for a Catholic publication? Because I’m thinking, as I seemed doomed to be doing forever, of the sex abuse scandal.

I’m thinking about people who have been terrorized by someone representing the church, and who therefore fear or despise the Catholic Church and maybe even God himself. I’m thinking about how hard it is to respond to them with the right balance.

It seems that victims are too often presented with two choices. The first is to get over it, and immediately start remembering how good and loving Jesus is and how he’s your friend and you will perish without him. The second choice is to fall in with the crowd that thinks all Catholics are monsters.

Somewhere in between those two extremes is the truth: that for a victim of abuse, when they were suffering and afraid and perhaps unable to tell anyone what was happening or unable to get anyone to believe them—the church was a monster. And this monster was accompanied by a horrible twin: the persistent threatening growl in the ear that says you cannot trust your own experience, and the pain you feel is foolish and fake.

Jesus is indeed good and kind and our only true friend and lover and that God holds our very existence in his hands. The abuse itself is indeed one harm that has been done to victims, and an additional harm is their struggle to create and then live with any sense of peace or justice with the church, which holds the fullness of truth about Christ and gives us the chance to partake in his sweetness.

But how are you going to say that to someone whose core memory is the church as a monster?

If you think no one is doing this to victims, explain to me Marko Rupnik. The Slovenian priest and once-celebrated artist has been accused of psychologically and sexually abusing nuns. Yet his mosaics adorn basilicas and shrines around the world and his art is still promoted by the Vatican. The art school Rupnik founded is forging ahead with the installation of Rupnik-style mosaics on a shrine in Brazil. A papal biographer has compared campaigns to decenter Rupnik’s art to “witch hunts” and argued that the art need not be removed but that simply placing a placard or QR code near the mosaics that acknowledges the artist’s abuse would provide sufficient context.

And let’s be clear: According to his victims, Rupnik’s art was an expression of the abuse he perpetrated. You can’t take the abuse out of the art like scooping bees out of a bedroom wall. The art and the abuse are one. 

And so, the message to Rupnik’s victims, intentional or not, is clear: Your feelings are wrong and less important than your abuser’s art.

First comes the actual threat or assault or offense. But then there is a secondary assault when people who haven’t been wounded insist victims should heal right away, that there is nothing to be afraid of. And this is how monsters multiply.

If it were easy to strike that balance and affirm a victim’s suffering but also offer a truer, better picture of what reality is, it would be a different world. But this is our world. We deny that there are monsters in our walls. It is not easy.

I have seen people who seem to have made victimhood their entire identity. They never talk about the church or of faith in any other context besides abuse, and they don’t seem to want to get well. They seem to revel in pain, putting all their energy into nurturing a lifelong phobia and never finding anything better.

But I don’t think they lean into their victimhood because anyone has been too validating of their suffering. I know it is a dreadful thing when someone is so wounded that they never find their way back to Jesus. But it is also dreadful to push them in that direction before they are ready.

It is better if we ever have occasion to interact with someone who has been so hurt, to say: Yes, I hear that horrible noise, too. That animal noise, that monster noise. Yes, it is dreadful. No, you’re not making it up. It leaves it up to the Lord to take them to the next step. He is the one who can heal, and he is the one who will show them something better.

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