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Survivors' Voices: Betrayal, Part 3
Just a reminder: Please take care of yourself, especially if you carry your own experience of trauma or betrayal. There are some really hard reflections in this post, and it’s ok not to read if it’s too difficult.
I felt more betrayed by the church than the priest. That there are bad priests is not hard to comprehend. That “the church” would not do the right thing for victims is gut-crushing and a wound not easily healed.
Betrayal is a tough wound to acknowledge. When I first reported the abuse to a priest in the parish, it was brushed off with a comment about a drinking problem. I pointed out that there was no alcohol on his breath while he was abusing me. I told a family member (not a parent) who, as he was asking what happened, began to abuse me as well. The church community simply did not want to admit to the truth of the abuse even as others came forward. Oh, there was a lot of betrayal going around. My hope for survival was found in a church window depicting Jesus being found in the Temple. Jesus, who also knew betrayal and the loneliness and isolation it causes, became my only hope for many years.
Just the word betrayal makes my stomach turn. Betrayal was a constant thorn - not only during the 2 years of abuse by the pastor who completely betrayed my trust in his authority as a priest of God and acting in persona Christi, but also the level of betrayal in the aftermath still takes my breath away. The betrayal of certain friends, fellow school moms, and people in the community was so deep and intense that it was a whole other layer of real trauma on top of the trauma of the abuse. I was gossiped about by people who had no idea what happened and never cared to ask me what happened or if I was ok. I was laughed at because they thought that the priest who abused me was unattractive and it wouldn’t have been so bad if he was better looking (yes, this from Catholics). There were people who turned their backs when I walked into a room. Worse yet was the person who would look right through me and pretend she couldn’t see me. I was sent anonymous letters in the mail, which left me terrified of my own mailbox for quite a while. A friend who I had told about the abuse posted online that I was a pathetic loser who had sex with priests - using my full name. These were Catholic school mothers. I remember a new friend telling me that she had googled me for my address. I almost fainted right in front of her; she had no idea what I was living through. It’s hard to even find the words. I’ve found comfort thinking of Jesus’s friends abandoning Him and denying Him and how Jesus knows that pain within me.
Betrayal trauma is caused by abuse. Even if we don’t know the word or what we experienced, our bodies register that abuse through a host of symptoms, like sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares, panic attacks, dissociation, and depression. The body doesn’t lie. I have experienced betrayal trauma from key figures in my life beginning in childhood. However, it wasn’t until the clergyman engaged in the same behavior that all the dominos began to fall. At the time I was invited to “let this church help you to heal” by the former pastor. I was already struggling to let go of an intermittent long time abusive relationship when the priest entered the picture. I sensed deep within my gut that something wasn’t right about him. I thought if I told him what I had experienced that he would run away from me. Instead, it’s just what he used to groom me. He said he wanted to help me not to have men like that. He was worse because of his position as a priest in the church
If I thought what happened directly with the priest was bad enough, the trauma only amplified in the wake of reporting him. I was once loved by my church community, but overnight I experienced everything the Bible describes Christ as having experienced. I believe what added to my pain was carrying the betrayal pain that Christ and Mary must feel when priests abuse their sacred position of trust representing Christ. I felt like an unwitting accomplice as the victim. Tainted. Now I know that it wasn’t my fault and that by reporting the priest I did not enable the abuse. In exposing him it also exposed my own deep unrecovered early trauma that he tapped onto like a surgeon’s knife. At this time I can say that I used this horrible experience in order to dig deep within myself and bring the healing I long needed. The priest made that deep cut, and I used it as an instrument of healing or it would have been the fatal wound. I can say what I am now experiencing after much hard inner work is the victory of good conquering evil. It’s what I chose to do with it that shows who I really am. I am deeply loved by God who did not leave me through it all.
When people know about the abuse and about what the diocese is doing but won't speak up to stop it - That hits as a whole new low for betrayal. I've had a person say "Keep fighting the good fight." But that's only if I'm willing to fight it alone, because they're not getting involved. Another said, "I can't get involved. I didn't really see anything." I pointed out that they (and others) just did a big event on human trafficking at their church. "I'm willing to bet money not a one of you saw the human traffickers do their evil deeds. But you spoke up for that. You had a big event to protest that. But you won't say boo to the bishop about this." Are people more afraid of the bishops than human traffickers? Is it that they refuse to believe clergy abuse victims? Is protecting the Church more important than the souls lost? Until cleaning up the Church is more important than their comfort, this won't get better.
Betrayal seems to be at the core of everything that happened to me during the ten years I was abused by clergy. I was betrayed by the monsignor who promised my mom that he would help me after a sexual assault by my uncle; instead, he found me an easy target for his own assaults on me, from 2nd grade through 8th grade. I was also betrayed by the nuns and the school and church staff who looked the other way when clear signs of clergy abuse were surely evident; they didn’t want to get involved as it would risk their own position or reputation. I was later betrayed by the Mother Superior and the nuns in the minor novitiate who either allowed extensive abuse to occur, or in some cases, participated in it themselves. I felt betrayed by each and every priest who raped me, or trafficked me to others. And last but not least, for many, many years, I felt betrayed by God, for allowing repeated, horrendous abuse as He sat on the sidelines, never answering my prayers to make it stop. I felt alone, unsupported, and unworthy of anyone’s protection. It has created a lifetime of fractured trust that has been very difficult to overcome. Therapy is helping in this regard, but it is not an overnight process.
There are so many layers of betrayal that happen with clergy sexual abuse. There's the betrayal by the priest — a violation of both body and soul. There's a feeling of having been betrayed by yourself and your own body, which accompanies the "freeze" (as opposed to fight or flight) response. Having been underage at the time of the abuse, while it may not have been a deliberate betrayal, I had a sense that the adults in my life "should have" protected me, or "should have" known that I had been abused. When I decided (as an adult) to formally report the abuse to the Church, I (incorrectly) assumed that the Church would want to protect others from this priest, and also accept some level of responsibility for the fact that he had hurt me; I felt betrayed when the Church didn't seem surprised to hear my story, and admitted that they were aware of other victims. I felt further betrayed when I learned that the Church chose to deal with this particular predator by allowing him to "voluntarily" and quietly leave the priesthood. Each one of these layers of betrayal — physical, spiritual, personal, and institutional — have compounded the profound hurt caused by this experience of abuse. In some ways, it feels like the betrayal that accompanied the abuse has ultimately caused me more harm than the act of abuse itself.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and would like to share your own reflections on 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.
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