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Survivors' Voices: Going Public, Part 2
As I share these continued reflections on “going public,” I want to offer a warm welcome to a new member of the Survivors’ Voices Panel who is sharing a reflection here for the first time. (While I won’t mention your name publicly, you know who you are, and I am grateful for you!)
In case you missed it last week, Part One on this topic can be found here.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I would be honored to include your perspective in this “Survivors’ Voices” series. You can find more information here: An Invitation for Survivors.
I shared my story at a conference. Nine years later, a man approached me at a church event. He wanted to tell me how much he appreciated my speaking up and telling my story, that it gave him the strength to get help for his own issues. "My life is so much better now,” he said. “I wouldn't have done it without hearing you. Your honesty about your struggles. I just wanted you to know - you're making a difference. Thank you."
I have spoken publicly on social media in the past, but never used names or other identifying information. My perpetrator is pastor of one of the biggest parishes in the diocese now (moved without explanation shortly after I reported him) and is a much beloved priest. I have a blog and I was contemplating starting to share more specific information on my blog, but I was advised not to share specifics publicly. One of my dearest friends is terminally ill, and he happens to be a consecrated brother in the same religious order as my perpetrator. I was advised that if I disclose information about my perpetrator, I might be prohibited from visiting my dying friend. This kind of emotional extortion has been present in the situation, in different forms, from the beginning. My abuse happened five years ago when I was in my mid-40s.
I have gone through many phases of “going public.” Phase one was sharing my story in a group of fellow survivors. It was excruciatingly painful that first time because of the deep shame I felt, but they helped me overcome that shame. The next phase was being able to share my story with family, friends, and acquaintances. Most were compassionate and validating, but some were not, and that was difficult. The next phase was filing a claim with the clergy compensation fund in my state, which caused me to unravel. It took months for me to recover from the rehashing of all those years of rapes, and the mental and emotional abuse that came with them. I have not gathered the courage to "go public” yet. I’ve heard too many horror stories of the Church’s tactics of attacking survivors who come forward. For self-preservation, I feel a need to continue my intensive work in healing and not take the risk of the fallout that “going public” might bring.
I have considered "going public" for several reasons: because my abuser, while no longer in ministry, has not been held responsible in any way for his crime, and I believe that he remains a threat to public safety; because the Church has not publicly acknowledged the validity of my report of abuse, despite having privately acknowledged it to me personally; and because there are so many misconceptions and untruths held by the general public when it comes to reports of sexual abuse and assault, particularly when those offenses have been committed by someone perceived to be a good and trustworthy person, such as a Catholic priest. Ironically, I fear going public for similar reasons! I am concerned about my own safety if I were to go public; I fear not being believed; and I worry about how I might be perceived and subsequently treated, as victims of sexual abuse and assault who go public are very often discredited (publicly) and re-traumatized as a result.
The Catholic Church and I have a shared history, though I don’t see my story in the documentation of church history. My local diocese and the local religious order publish their history, including their responses to the clergy abuse crisis, wearing their achievements like a badge of honor while excluding our experiences in their timeline. I cannot write the Catholic Church out of my life story. And, through going public, I am one of many rewriting a more accurate account of church history.
The process of going public was difficult and triggering. It was frustrating because some people viewed me as wanting to harm the Church or being spiteful towards Her when, in reality, I was trying to protect them from this predator priest. I also hoped the diocese would improve their processes (they didn't). However, other survivors have reached out to me after having read my story, and I have heard from various people how it helped them.
Thank you for reading and seeking greater understanding. I hope these honest reflections inspire all of us to respond with greater compassion for those who choose to share their story in public ways - as well as for those who do not.