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Survivors' Voices: Betrayal, Part 2
I knew that many people who have been victimized by Catholic leaders feel a strong sense of betrayal, but I’m still surprised to see the number of the responses to this prompt - and the clear depth of emotion they express. In fact, there were so many reflections submitted that I will have another installment on this topic next week.
Please read with an open mind and heart.
More than the betrayal I felt from the priest who raped me, I felt betrayed by the Church leadership during the reporting process. I had given up family and friends to become Catholic when I converted in my early 20s. I then gave up a well-paying job to serve the marginalized in the inner city as a Catholic lay missionary. I loved the Church so deeply and thought that the leadership would defend me and help me heal, but instead I was treated with contempt and as a liability. I was no longer a faithful daughter of the Church but a potential lawsuit. My rapist had few repercussions for what he did, yet I live with impact for the rest of my life. He celebrates Mass daily as I struggle to approach the Eucharist at times. It feels so unfair and backwards.
My parents considered my abuser a dear friend. He was invited to many family parties at our home over the years. My dad was really engaged with him, so much so that he found a hand-crafted ceramic chalice and paten set from a local artist and gave it to him as a gift. My abuser betrayed their genuine affection for him by sexually abusing me. I love my parents dearly, and they thought they were doing the right thing by allowing me to spend time with him. Once the truth of his complete betrayal came to light, my parents were devastated. They were literally crushed to the floor with shame, filled with anguish and sorrow. His betrayal and its resulting effects upon my family relationships are still being felt to this day... more than 40 years later.
Perhaps one of the things I struggle with the most right now (and part of me knows it is irrational) is learning to trust that the Lord will not betray me. For me, the most haunting part of my abuse is the moment the priest I had come to trust - who had been gentle and attentive and caring - changed into a violent, angry man. That switch in him was so terrifying, it has so deeply imprinted itself into my body and heart, that I’m constantly on high alert, looking for any sign that it’s going to happen again. The further betrayals by the Church - approaching them expecting them to receive my wounded heart as Christ would, and then to be so completely dismissed and rejected - has only deepened the imprint of distrust in my heart. I often feel so foolish and naive for expecting that the leadership of the Church would feel my heartache and respond with heart of a father defending his daughter. I’m finally starting to understand that if I can accept that my expectation wasn’t foolish, it can become the cornerstone to rebuild my trust in the Lord - trust that He is who He says He is.
Betrayal is only possible if there is trust first. I trusted my parents when they sent me to catholic school. My parents, then I, trusted this centuries-old institution, its belief system and its teaching and we personally trusted our priest and congregation. We, like so many, without questioning or personal investigation, turned our soul care over to the catholic church, and grew dependent on church interpretations, teaching, and its hierarchy for our relationship with God. My young brain, tender body, and vulnerable soul weren’t just sexually abused or betrayed by a very ill priest, but were raped and betrayed by a false persona of God, Christ, christianity and an institution that hasn't done its own work, hasn't followed its own teachings, and has often claimed exclusive spiritual authority. I've taken back authority over my own soul and spiritual well-being, never again to fall to the spiritual betrayal of another person or institution.
After I reported to the religious community and nothing meaningful happened, I reported to the diocese. The "victim's advocate" treated me like I was being petty and ridiculous. The diocesan counsel, while amicable to my face, did nothing meaningful either. In fact, he made excuses, saying lots of men are immature like Father.
When you first proposed the topic of “betrayal” my mind was full of thoughts without words to express them. I have read the first contributions and I felt all those experiences. I do not want to be angry, but I am. I do not want to doubt, but I do. I do not want to be suspicious, but I am. I can make the distinction between Holy Mother Church and the churchmen (priests, bishops, etc.) so I beg God to keep me Catholic. The ongoing betrayal I experience has caused me a great crisis of faith which is far worse than the abuse itself.
Where to begin? When I was in a very vulnerable and suicidal state (known only to me at the time), a priest presented himself as a lifesaving remedy. He approached my parents to say he needed to talk to me. I did not go to him. He used my vulnerability to serve his sexual needs. When I reported to the papal nuncio decades later (this priest is now a bishop), the nuncio failed to interview the two most important people in my case, though I gave him all information - a friend who had been in the community with me around the same time of the abuse, and my boyfriend who also worked in conjunction with the priest. I was betrayed by another friend who he did interview. The nuncio put my letter before her. She admitted to me that she started reading and then stopped; she did not get to the crucial part of my story. She stood up for the priest and then approached me to persuade me not to continue my case.
Betrayal was not a word I would have used and yet, years later I see just that. I see that the particular priest betrayed me in many ways. The Church as a whole has betrayed all of the People of God by their cover-ups, denials, and retribution toward victims and their advocates. Society has betrayed us too. When police departments (in the past) looked the other way and trusted clergy over victims, when children were blamed for "enticing" adults, and when families chose not to believe a child, every one of us was betrayed. While there is some improvement that is significant, as long as the Church has the mindset that all victims want is money and has no respect for our creation in the image and likeness of God, the systemic sin and injustices will continue. I believe abuse (all kinds) is a constitutive element of the institution, as the clergy believe they hold our salvation in their hands. They have failed to live the message: Love one another as I have loved you.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and would like to share your own reflections on betrayal or future topics, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
I will have more powerful reflections on this topic next week, so please subscribe here if you’re not already signed up.