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Survivors' Voices: All Abuse Hurts
I shared in my July post (Changes for In Spirit and Truth - Making Space for More Voices) that I am opening the In Spirit and Truth Survivors’ Voices Panel to those whose experiences of harm in the Church don’t necessarily fit into the neat box of sexual abuse. As I wrote there:
“This may have been grooming, sexual harassment, inappropriate comments, a sexual proposition, or other behavior that is harmful but a person doesn’t quite feel comfortable labeling sexual abuse. Or maybe it was abuse that was physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, or spiritual in nature, which can also have a devastating impact.
I’m not an expert on any of these things, but I have listened to enough stories to see how deeply people can be wounded when religious leaders misuse their position and authority to harm another. I know it also hurts when it feels like this abuse doesn’t “count” in a Church that has barely begun to grapple with even headline-grabbing sexual assault.
I’m not interested in comparing one type of abuse to another and judging which kind is worse. Nor do I have any interest in evaluating people’s individual stories of harm and telling them what label fits or doesn’t.
What I can do is make space for people to share their voices and their stories. I’d like to do more of that here.”
Moving forward, each month’s post will include reflections from the whole Survivors' Voices Panel, regardless of what kind of harm each person experienced. But I thought it would be helpful to first highlight the voices of some of these new panelists, speaking about what happened to them. I hope you will listen with an open heart.
How can I describe the abuse I experienced when I was in religious life? Even trying to come up with a brief answer for this column feels impossible - how can I sum up the myriad ways I was controlled, manipulated, sexually and physically harassed, gaslit, blamed for things I didn’t do, accused of motives I didn’t have, and forced to rely on my superiors for my every need while also being pressured to reveal the most intimate parts of my heart, soul, and even to some extent the details of my body to women I didn’t necessarily trust or even like? This, on top of exposure to abusive priests and controlling spiritual directors in my experiences outside of the convent. I deeply wish I could sum up what I experienced in a word or phrase, but nothing quite fits, so instead, I often feel as though I have to either disclose details about what I experienced if I want people to understand how devastating it all has been, or resign myself to being misunderstood or having my experience minimized or dismissed. But my experiences have shattered my ability to trust, fractured my once-vibrant spiritual life, and continue to cause me spiritual, psychological, and physical pain in the form of continued PTSD, depression, anxiety, and body image/food issues nearly a decade later. There aren’t word to describe how devastating it’s been.
The abuse started when I was sixteen, while working at the parish rectory in the evenings. I heard words of care and concern until he would drink. Then, the rage and anger would be out of control, where words of the devil would spew from his mouth. Often, I had to hide or leave early so I would not be his victim. When I reported him to the diocese, the response was "it wasn't abuse, it was his drinking." I ended up taking ministry jobs where this behavior by some priests was very "normal" to me. Decades later, I learned I had PTSD, which manifested into patterns of self-abuse to mitigate the wounds. I needed to find that sixteen year old again and reclaim her the way God had intended.
This charming, sweet, kind, compassionate and funny priest that everyone loved didn't do anything sexual with me, but he did show me an excessive amount of attention, flirt with me, and act inappropriate in a subtle way. I was confused because I started to have romantic feelings for this priest even though I definitely did not plan to. I was very hurt, devastated, betrayed, abandoned, and traumatized from this, and my spirituality was negatively affected for awhile. He was my spiritual director, and I trusted him completely. He even asked to study the Bible In A Year podcast one-on-one with me; I was flattered but a little surprised a priest would do this. He said he would always be there for me, and then he abandoned me out of nowhere, making up lies as to why he had to stop seeing me. I was devastated and confused, and I already had abandonment issues. I couldn't understand why he couldn't be honest with me, because I am a cradle Catholic who always trusted and respected priests. Now I was second guessing myself and not trusting my gut feeling. I felt like I was making a big deal out of nothing, even though I was hurting so bad. The archdiocese didn't care or take anything seriously. I lost friends and had to leave the church that I loved and was very involved in. I am traumatized for life because of this.
I was scared to approach the wayward priest's religious order superior, not knowing how he would receive the word about the priest's deceptions and egregious breaking of vows, which had hurt me directly and profoundly. At first, the superior told me that it sounded bad and wrong, and that he'd pray about an appropriate response. In that moment, I felt a big relief - not that the wrong could be undone, but that my grief and hurt had been heard. But the next day when we spoke again, he said that, "after much prayer," he couldn't do anything about it. At that moment, the floor went out from under me, and any hope of trusting him or that order was gone. He had chosen cowardice and inaction *after* hearing my story. I mustered the strength to tell him that "this is why people leave the church." Although I will not leave, it is despite how I was treated by the priest and his superior.
The abuses that I have experienced myself and witnessed happen to my family could, I suppose, be labeled as emotional or psychological or even spiritual abuse, and definitely as abuses of power. In the 40+ years I spent in my previous parish, first a string of pastors, and then staff, and certainly pew upon pew full of enabling laypersons have all accrued some degree of responsibility for driving us out—out of the parish, out of our circles of friends, even out of the faith itself (in the case of my kids). I used to rationalize that my fellow Catholics’ pervasive hypocrisy, a basic failure to follow the gospel as proclaimed and defend “the least of these”, was sadly not surprising since, well maybe since no laws were actually being broken--? But for the sake of justice, and for the sake of those who have suffered much more than I have, we MUST acknowledge that failure in the “small” matters is simply rehearsal for letting slide the unimaginable. And I think some awareness of this has been boiling in me for a long, long time.
I was sexually harassed by a priest who was not only a spiritual leader in my life but also a professor I had theology classes with. Something I have realized out of processing my experience is that his motive seems to have been less about sex and more about power and how much he could get away with, which he had done for years because he had all the power in the situation. I wasn’t able to report him immediately when the worst incident happened because he had created an atmosphere where it was “innovative” and “spiritually freeing” to be open about sexual topics. He had groomed those around him to accept this inappropriate behaviour as one of his most effective methods of teaching young students. It even took me a while to realise what he had done to me because, although my initial reaction was disgust, he had set up the expectation that as students our beliefs and spiritual preconceptions would be challenged and thus our gut responses to what he said or did would be unreliable. He used the positions of responsibility he had been given as a priest and a teacher to create a bubble in which everything he did or said was right. Speaking up wasn’t an option, then, until he didn’t have anything over me anymore. Another layer of hurt came, however, with what the institution he was part of did after I reported him to them. I received emails with corporate jargon about an investigation and then silence.
I am grateful for the courage of these new panelists in speaking up about their painful experiences. If you have experienced any form of abuse by a Catholic leader and would like to share your own reflections, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.