Discover more from In Spirit and Truth
Survivors' Voices: Forgiveness
As you might guess, forgiveness is a sensitive topic for those who have experienced sexual abuse by a religious leader. I have a lot of my own thoughts on this matter, but I wanted you to hear directly from survivors about their experiences and perspectives on forgiveness.
I chose to forgive my assailant. I never want to see him again, or be anywhere near him. But I've chosen to say a prayer for his good when I feel angry about what happened, and then to move on. As I said, I don't want anything to do with him ever again - I'd rather not think about him at all. But choosing to forgive lets me move on easier than holding onto a grudge, and I think it's allowed me to heal.
There are three parts to forgiveness for me: abuser, Church, and self. The first is my abuser. I've always had the underlying sense that forgiveness would permit his reintegration into the communities over which he once triumphed. His friends and supporters said as much - if he was forgiven, then the reintegration process could begin. It became a litmus test for me: that those who wanted me to forgive him, in truth, cared for his flourishing over mine. I no longer believe this to be the case. I see the ways that my hatred of his soul damaged my own, and I am slowly learning to loosen my grip on anger and pain. The second is the Church itself - the people who want to reintegrate him, and the people who allowed him to triumph in the first place. About a year after my initial report, I learned that a third party had known enough to send my name to officials, to say "you need to reach out to this woman," though he did not identify me as a survivor and never reached out to me personally. I don't know that I will ever forgive that man for knowing and yet not stopping to help me along my way. The third is self. I once thought I was going to be the easiest person to forgive. It wasn't my fault, I didn't ask for it, I didn't cause it, I couldn't stop it. Now, I see that it is the most difficult part of it all. I never have to see my abuser again... I could leave the Church... but I cannot leave myself. I am learning how to lean into God's exceptional grace so that I might be healed from these wounds.
During many counseling sessions with my therapist, the subject of forgiveness came up often and we spent a lot of time on this subject. Healing from my childhood sexual abuse, I first had to forgive myself. I am not to blame for the abuse imposed upon me during my childhood. This took time, but I have forgiven myself. Secondly, I had to forgive my parents for not protecting me. I was angry at them for allowing my abuser to disrupt, manipulate, and ultimately abuse me for years. This took time, but I have forgiven my parents. Doing these things has restored laughter, joy, and fond memories back into my family relationships. I spent my time on the things I value to forgive. I've not spent any time at all on the idea of forgiving my abuser. It is not something I value.
Forgiveness has never a priority for me in the healing and recovery process, but everyone always assumes it’s the number one issue on my mind. I am totally at peace with expecting my rapist to rot in hell and it doesn’t weigh on me at all. Vengeance is the Lord’s and because He has my back, I’m good.
For me, forgiveness is a process that results in freedom. Memories of childhood clergy sexual and spiritual violence began to surface in mid-life. A tangled mess of internal distortions and emotions controlled my life then. I was bound to the church through trauma. My need to untangle the mess of emotions, distortions, and need to reconcile the abuse and the broken relationships with the church led me deeper into the church for healing. While some good happened during those healing years, I was ultimately left with additional trauma and additional lost relationships. Instead of freedom from unhealthy ties to the church, I was bound even tighter. I was suffocating inside until I began the process of releasing. At some point I came across an English interpretation of the Aramaic Our Father. Instead of, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others, it reads, Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes. This interpretation continues to serve me well.
I will never forgive the man who sexually abused me beginning at 10 years old. It doesn't make any sense to me to forgive him, and it's infuriating when someone suggests that's the only option.
I read a definition of forgiveness that resonated with me: Forgiveness is giving up any sense of entitlement to change the past. I have also read that forgiveness is a kind of mourning. These two definitions help me to continue to process, to heal, and to grow past the traumas in my life. I have been in specific treatment for complex PTSD for about six months now. My childhood is a dark, foreboding forest of victimization, unresolved traumas, and horrifying memories. I am understanding more and more, as I recover through EMDR, how surviving those traumas formed me into the person who was targeted, groomed, and abused by my pastor. I also see how he is probably a survivor too. I don't feel entitled to change what happened and I'm mourning the innocence and trust I lost by what he did. That doesn't change or abate my thirst for justice and my drive to make the truth known. I forgive him, and my parents, but that doesn't mean that I should surrender my desire for restorative justice. I will continue to speak my truth when the situation beckons, and I will hold fast to my hope of protecting others.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and have your own experiences to share on this topic, 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 the second half of this post next week, so please subscribe here if you’re not already signed up.