I understand sexual abuse by a priest all too well. I experienced it.
Several years ago, I began my healing journey towards wholeness. It had been quite some time since my abuser died, and 7 years since I first told someone (a priest) about it. He explained to me that I had experienced abuse, but I disputed it because I considered my abuser a nice guy who just “crossed the line”. But other than that… Can you believe it? I defended him! I found out later that type of reaction is not unusual for a victim.
In the years that led up to the processing of what happened, I “pondered these things in my heart”. As a Church volunteer, I went through the diocesan safe environment programs. I learned what to look for in an abuser, and discovered this priest had most of the traits. As I, in turn, taught the programs to children, my heart ached because deep down, although I could not admit that “my friend” was an abuser, I knew he was. This is important to note: the key to my understanding the dynamics of abuse, and what started me on my road to healing, was the safe environment programs in our diocese. The Church is responsible for opening my eyes.
I was a vulnerable teenager when the abuse began. In need of love and acceptance and very engaged in my faith, I easily followed along when my pastor befriended me. He spent much time with me, laughing and talking, and took me out to dinner often. He gave me significant financial gifts, very welcomed by a poor teen, with instructions not to tell anyone. He pulled me into his family circle. He told me I was special. He told me… that he loved me. That was very unsettling.
Then it happened. He crossed the line from friend to abuser. I was shocked, embarrassed and confused me. It didn’t take long to figure out that he had more in mind than friendship.
“Why was he doing this? How much more did he want from me?” The bad behavior must have been my fault, I erroneously thought, since I was the young person and he was the (much) older, celibate priest. Surely a man of God would not be at fault for such behavior. The shame I carried with me was tremendous. A word about his actions was never uttered between the two of us.
Over the 19 years until his death, the abuse continued any time we saw each other and he had the opportunity. I learned to defend myself against him and to avoid being alone with him when I could. At times, we were separated geographically, but we always kept in touch. He had a tremendous hold over me. I considered him to be a very good friend, except for “that one thing”, which made me very angry. “Why did he have to ruin it with his behavior?” I often asked myself.
At his wake, I stood over his lifeless body not with feelings of sadness, rather with great relief because he couldn’t push himself on me any longer. Then I felt guilty for not feeling sad.
The conflict within me was intense. The twisting of emotions with clergy sexual abuse is almost as bad as the contact itself.
Several years ago, I finally told another priest about it after a silence of 7 years, still convinced that it was not abuse. With the help of this priest, a friend, and the Holy Spirit, “the scales fell from my eyes” and I saw it for what it was. I began to grieve. Telling that secret to the priest was necessary for a heavy burden to be lifted and the healing to begin. Freedom.
This has been a dark, painful, but life-giving time. I have learned the truth of who I am and how God made me — beautiful and lovable. I learned that the message I always believed — that I was insignificant and unlovable — was a lie. I am a healthier person.
I have received tremendous help and support from clergy of my diocese. Although the abuse did not take place here, diocesan officials and many priests have received, listened to, and believed me. They helped me see that the abuse was not my fault. They also encouraged me to tell his superior, which I did, who also responded appropriately and compassionately.
It has affected all areas of my life, most importantly my marriage. Just as I learned to defend myself against the advances of this priest, I defended and closed myself off from my spouse. That is changing with healing. It is hard for me to trust. I lived with strong anxiety and depression. I fought despair frequently.
Spiritual direction, counseling, anti-depressants and mood stabilizers are now part of my life. I have many symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thankfully the medication has relieved me of the depression so my days are not as dark. That said, the pain of the abuse still lingers, as does the need to fight the lies I have believed about myself. It is a process.
Along with my very supportive spouse, my counselor and spiritual director have walked with me and been with me in those moments of despair when I desperately needed someone. They reminded me why there was reason to hope. Now it is easier to remember that myself.
I continue to learn what grace is, and what it is to truly depend upon Jesus. He holds me close to Him through these difficult days and shares His tender love, just as His mother did with Him. He patiently listens to my cries of anger and pain. The Sacrament of Reconciliation brings healing to me again and again. I am transformed by the Body of Christ every time I receive Him. His Living Word, Sacred Scripture, gives me hope. He comes alive to me through it. He also speaks to me through my own writing. He ministers to my heart profoundly through music. Often I cannot pray, read or write, but I can “pray” with music. So many tears of pain—and gratitude for His help—have been shed. Jesus walks with me. He leads. He carries. Most of all, He loves.