Note: If you have suffered abuse, you may know that reading about another’s experience can cause pain, sometimes a great deal of pain. I have written this with care, keeping you in mind. If you are in a difficult place emotionally right now, it might be in your interest to postpone reading this, or any, account of an insidious abuse of power over the innocent.
I am a cradle Catholic. My family grew up in a small Midwest town that was 99% Catholic. The parish was the lifeblood of the community. Our large family was active in the parish, despite the fact that my father’s small business and isolated drinking problem often kept him too preoccupied to participate.
Having attended Catholic elementary school, I always loved the faith. As a teen, I developed a hunger for something more. I began to go on teen retreats and I discovered that God the Father loved me, personally, really loved me. I never knew a father’s love because my father was emotionally unavailable to me. This interior awareness of God’s love was life-changing.
About the same time, a new pastor came to town. He was a German priest in his early 50’s. A very charismatic, intelligent and friendly person, parishioners liked him immediately. The fact that he was German and understood our culture endeared him to us.
After I met him at a youth function, our relationship began. He began to invite me (and one of my siblings) to the rectory where he gave us teen-friendly food and drinks. He was a happy man, laughed a lot and enjoyed his drinks. We had a lot of fun. We wanted to be with him because he accepted us and cared for us unconditionally, which didn’t happen at home. He taught us how to drive. He took us shopping and out to dinner. He pulled us into his family circle where we hung out with his nephews and nieces.
I didn’t realize it until later that he was grooming me at that time. By befriending me, establishing an emotional connection, and gaining my trust, he could cross boundaries later and keep me silent.
Then it began. One night when he and I were alone at the rectory, he stopped me on the way out the door, moved me away from the window and pushed himself on me sexually. Then, as if nothing had happened, he headed out the door, followed by a very confused and ashamed me. We didn’t say a word on the way to my house. We repeated this routine most times we were alone.
Confused about why he was doing it, I wondered if he was falling in love with me. I blamed myself. After all, he was the priest, the “man of God”, so I must have been the bad person. I wasn’t thinking clearly and was making excuses for his behavior. But because I considered him a very good friend, I continued to see him and very much enjoyed his company, except “that one part” as I called it. I began to separate him into two different people: “good Father Frank” and “bad Father Frank”. I tried to avoid being alone with “bad Father Frank”. He told me that he cared for me, that I was special… that he loved me. I was so terribly conflicted, because I sure didn’t love him. However, I did care for my friend, “good Father Frank”. At that time, I had no idea that these kinds of thoughts and feelings are not atypical for victims of abuse.
Eventually I began to work for him. A part-time job in a small parish didn’t pay much, so he subsidized my paycheck with his own money – a $100 bill every week, with orders not to tell anyone. I didn’t have a car, so he took me to and from work. I was reliant on him to keep that job.
After he left the parish and I was married, my spouse took me to another state and I no longer had to face Father Frank. My new life brought me freedom, happiness and joy.
However, he was not out of my life. He called and wrote, and continued to pull me in emotionally.
It worked. Several years later after a series of moves on his part and ours, we lived in the same area again. By this time he had a condominium.
Because he belonged to a religious order, he had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I lost all respect for him as a priest because of his lack of fidelity to his of chastity by being a sexual abuser and poverty by clearly having his own money to give me as well as a condominium.
Our family visited him fairly often. The times my spouse was unable to go, Father Frank went back to his old ways. I tried to keep my distance but it didn’t always work. Our son, around the age of five, always accompanied me. When he went to bed at 8:00 p.m., so did I, locking the bedroom door behind us. When Father Frank went a little farther with me, I ended the visits.
We still kept in touch with him telling me he loved me. The brainwashing continued. He paid for my trip to the Rome ($2,000), a pilgrimage with my friends that he led. He abused me there.
Eventually, we moved away, but he came to visit us in our home. When my spouse was out of the house, he took advantage of me there as well.
I always thought I could “manage” him and keep him away. I was always wrong. He was very skillful at what he did.
He died shortly thereafter. I was very sad that “good Father Frank” was gone, so our family drove 6 hours to attend the funeral. As I stood over his lifeless body, I felt no sadness, only relief. I was perplexed by this response, and felt guilty for not feeling sad.
It was over. That was the end of one very long chapter. A much more painful time was up ahead as the fog of confusion lifted.
People may wonder how I was so gullible, especially since I was not a child. I have often wondered this myself. Because of it, I carry shame to this day. It shows the extent of control he had over me and how weak I was as a result.
Working Through the Pain
There is a silence among Catholics on the topic of priestly abuse, largely because it is uncomfortable. This silence adds to the shame and sense of aloneness of victims. Sometimes they are seen as the enemy of the Church because many vocal victims file lawsuits. This is their right and it is healing for some. Other survivors are not heard, but it is essential that their existence and needs are acknowledged in public discourse.
Abuse by a priest was the most confusing, shameful, and isolating experience of my life. It was mental and emotional as well as sexual. There was a kind of brainwashing where I came to believe the reality my abuser presented.
After Father Frank’s death, I finally told a priest friend. He immediately apologized on behalf of the Church. He then explained why it was not my fault and educated me about abuse.
Later we moved another diocese where I held my silence for seven more years. I went through the safe environment programs. I learned extensively about sexual abuse and recognized I had lived through it. However, the brainwashing was still intact: I erroneously defended the abuser, blamed myself and lived in confusion. The hold he had over me was powerful.
Meanwhile, I began to see problems in my marriage. I was defensive, wouldn’t let my husband in emotionally, and easily grew angry with him. Deep down, I wondered if this behavior was rooted in the abuse. I also began to reject God. With time, my emotional state grew worse.
Being able to trust priests is very difficult after being abused by one. Healthy spiritual growth was important to me so I sought out a spiritual director whom I could trust. Father Ignatius did not avoid dialogue about the uncomfortable subject of abuse. He respected boundaries. I did not feel threatened.
I saw him for a year before I was able to tell him about the abuse. I will never forget that day. I told myself prior to the visit that I absolutely was going to tell him. I danced around it for months before. When the moment came, we sat in silence for what seemed like 5 minutes before I forced the words out of my mouth: “I knew a priest…”
He listened quietly to the long story. He, too, apologized for the abuse. He was very gentle when explaining why Father Frank’s behavior was abusive.
This was difficult for me to understand because most of the time I was with him, I was an adult, albeit one under his control. I blamed myself. “I should have known better.” The psychological dynamics at play were very complex. At this stage in the process, I was clueless to what really had taken place – and that it was abuse – so I felt incredibly guilty and ashamed.
Just the act of telling Father Ignatius my secret was immensely freeing. I did not realize the bondage in which I had been held. There seemed to almost be a physical relief, as if heaviness had been lifted. Telling the secret to a trusted person was the key to opening the door to healing.
I began researching sexual abuse by priests. A month later, I told a friend about the abuse. One night when she spoke of him like any other slimeball abuser, I began yelling at her, telling her that she and my spiritual director didn’t understand the relationship. He wasn’t like that. In an instant, I think the Holy Spirit grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a good shake. I suddenly realized that perhaps they saw something I didn’t.
That pivotal moment changed everything. I realized for the first time that he was indeed an abuser and I was his ragdoll. The “scales fell from my eyes”. I was awake almost all night, reading, praying, crying, and listening to music. The pain I felt was like nothing I had ever before experienced.
“You will need a support system,” Father Ignatius said to me the next day. He, a therapist, a physician, my husband, a good friend, writing, and music ultimately proved to be the support I needed. And I needed every one of them.
I withdrew from my family and friends. I lost interest in life. Often I curled up under my covers and sobbed. I gained weight. I had to leave my job because I couldn’t manage the anxiety and depression along with the work stress. I had many symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. I lost hope so suicidal thoughts went through my mind often.
I wanted to escape from the pain and engaged in unhealthy habits trying to do so. Therapy helped a little at first. Medication was ineffective.
Telling my spouse was the most difficult thing, especially because much of the abuse took place while we were married. He had no idea. He knew only the “good Father Frank” and always enjoyed his company. He had many questions, largely because he didn’t understand abuse. He was very comforting, expressed great sorrow for what I went through, and offered to help in any way that he could. Relief swept over me and I then felt free to be myself with him.
He was a secondary victim, along with my children. Families always suffer when abuse happens. My husband had to deal with his own emotions of anger and confusion. It affected our emotional and physical relationship. Of course, he had to deal with me and my fragile emotional state. He also covered for me in the home.
The children basically lost their mother during that time. Although I was physically present, I seldom was emotionally. They were concerned about me. I am concerned about long term effects those experiences might have on them. I did the best I could but, sadly, that sometimes is not enough for a child.
Even through all of this pain, I knew God was in control, yet I had so many questions. “Why did He allow this to happen?” I was extremely angry with God and I told Him frequently. Then I apologized for being angry.
“My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” I asked as I carried my cross in loneliness. I doubted that He would heal me.
But He had a plan. I discovered that He can and does heal through the Catholic Church. A beautiful story of resurrection unfolded after my journey to Calvary.
The Healing Process
Writing my story was something I felt called to do. It was not that I thought readers particularly cared about my life, rather that you could glean something from it in light of the sexual abuse scandal in our Church. I was at a point in my healing process where I felt strong enough to write about my experience, but doing so has been extremely painful and at times almost unbearable. I now know how weak I still am, how critical my support system continues to be, and how much I rely on Jesus for strength. I also realize that even now, after all these years, total healing still eludes me.
The pain from priestly sexual abuse can be so intense there can seem to be no end in sight. “Why hope?” I asked my spiritual director once, referencing ever being healed. “Because Jesus rose from the dead,” was Father Ignatius’ swift answer.
I understood how my journey mirrored the Paschal Mystery – the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus – but his response sure didn’t provide what I wanted: a definite road map out of the never-ending pain in which I lived.
From a spiritual perspective, I knew he was right and found consolation in it. From a practical perspective, I knew other survivors have experienced total healing and only bear scars now. That’s where I wanted to be. I was – and still am – going through the painful, yet exhilarating process.
Healing does not just happen. It takes work. My first step was telling someone about the abuse. By keeping it to myself, the lies I had come to believe intensified with time and thus increased the bondage in which I lived. After I told Father Ignatius, it became easier to talk about. The untruths faded and freedom from the bondage grew with time.
Professional help has been critical. When the first therapist didn’t prove to be a good fit, I sought a recommendation for another. The Holy Spirit led the way to a Catholic psychologist who specialized in trauma, who lived her faith intentionally and integrated it into her therapy. While it was helpful talking about it, learning about the insidious nature of abuse and retraining my thinking was a challenge. It still is. Her guidance is essential in keeping my thoughts and actions focused in a healthy direction as I face the ups and downs of depression.
Medication became necessary with depression and the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. The physicians had serious difficulties with finding the medication that was effective or that didn’t have intolerable side effects. This process took years. It was only in the past six months that the prescriber finally found one that was effective. However, it is not a cure all. When severe pain is intense as it has been in recent weeks, I feel it.
Exercise, proper nutrition, and nutritional supplements play an important role as well. I will be perfectly honest. I have not done all I could to help myself in this area. It is difficult to get motivated to exercise when one is depressed, and the same goes for changing a diet. Dietary supplements seemed to help somewhat.
Talking about it is healing, but I could only share this with a select few who I trusted. For a variety of reasons, I do not want my story to be known to many of those around me, thus the “anonymous” nature of this blog. Every time I told someone about the abuse for the first time or discussed it further, it was easier to do and seemed to help me along in the healing process. I came to recognize these discussions as healthy and necessary.
All of these elements were important in moving through healing. However, I think the most essential force in healing is has been the Catholic Church. Mass, the Holy Eucharist, Confession, Eucharistic adoration, prayer, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the saints, especially a few special patrons, spiritual reading, retreats, talking to other clergy, reading Catholic blogs, web sites and books about abuse were all parts of the treasury of the Catholic Church into which I tapped that were consoling and reach deeply into my soul to heal the very essence of my being. I could write volumes on how these avenues individually helped.
Talk therapy and medication are helping the brain to heal. Jesus, through His Church, is helping the soul to heal.
Over the past fifteen years, I have developed a love for the Catholic Church. During this time period, the sexual abuse scandal broke in the United States and I became embedded in it. God gave me a tremendous grace for which I thank him over and over: He kept me close to Him and His Church throughout. Yes, I was angry at God for allowing the abuse. Yes, I was angry with the priest’s superiors for moving him to our town, although I have found no reason to think they knew he was an abuser. Occasionally that anger still rises within and I have to deal with it. As I do, the grace of the sacraments and prayer as well as the guidance of a spiritual director help me.
Hate is a strong word. I hate sexual abuse by priests and all that goes along with it. My life has been deeply affected by it. My support system and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ through the gifts of the Catholic Church have helped me bear the cross that I have been given. I have every confidence as I walk towards my resurrection that someday the cross will be left behind for good and that I will see the fullness of my personal paschal mystery.