When I started this blog in December 2018, I didn’t know any survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, at least not in a deep way. Over the past two years, I have learned a lot about the twin crises in the Church by reading, researching, and talking to insiders and experts. But my most important learning has come from listening to survivors themselves. I am now blessed to be connected with many survivors who have trusted me with their stories, and some of my closest friendships today are with those who have experienced abuse and are seeking a path to wholeness and healing.
There’s a lot I could write about on this blog (and y’all know I have a LOT of opinions about all sorts of issues), but I think the most important thing I can do is continually lift up the voices of survivors and invite Catholics and all people of good will to stop and trulylisten.
With that in mind, I asked a group of five women to comment on what they wish people understood about being a survivor of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. These women all experienced sexual abuse by clergy, in childhood or in their adult years, and they have all made a choice to remain connected to the Church, in spite of the suffering they have endured. This is certainly not a representative sample of all survivors, but I hope you can open your heart to their words and learn a little something from their experiences.
(I have sorted the comments into some broad categories and made a few grammar edits, but other than that, these are all direct quotes from these women. The comments are shared with their knowledge and consent.)
On the Long-Term Effects of Trauma
I wish people knew that it can take many years to heal. Looking at my history and saying "Well, it was 2 years ago" or "It was 18 years ago" doesn't matter. I didn't start getting treatment until ten years after the first assault. I am pretty sure I'm going to fund my therapist's retirement.
I wish people understood why I’m now obsessed with not appearing “slutty” in any way. How I now scrutinize every photo of myself… do I have too much makeup on, do I look too inviting, is my shirt low-cut, is it too tight? If I look too pretty, they’ll say I asked for it.
I'm exhausted all the time because my body won't leave me alone. I keep reliving being assaulted when I'm supposed to be sleeping.
The assault didn't just make me not trust other people; I don't trust myself. I don't trust my judgement of people, which makes me isolate and choose to not have friendships.
Having had multiple abusers, I decided that getting assaulted was my fault and my body's fault. Anorexia is my way of making sure it doesn't happen again. Even though I know that assault is about power, I think that if I can keep myself from having boobs and a butt, I won't be assaulted.
I can dissociate at the most inconvenient times; I can also end up having a flashback and crying at extremely awkward times.
Doctors can be terrifying.
I know it wasn’t my fault, but I still hate myself.
The abuse took away my ability to fully function physically. While I may appear to have let myself go, the truth is that I’ve gained 30 pounds because food has become my comfort and I feel immobilized when I try to do anything active like exercise. It’s difficult to even leave my house, and there are days I have to force myself to do simple daily tasks.
I’m not whole anymore. I feel sort of like a “vampire” from a young adult novel, an undead - not living, but not able to die.
It is so easy to fall for the grooming, and thinking you have "good boundaries" doesn't mean you're immune to it happening to you. The grooming is so insidious and gradual and subtle. It's not easy to spot either from the outside or when it's happening to you.
If someone stands too close to me, especially behind me, I am definitely going to end up having a panic attack and/or crying, and it’s so dumb and infuriating. And sometimes it’s hard to figure out what is triggering me.
It is so frustrating when you are just trying to go about your day and some random thing triggers you and then you are a complete wreck. It’s so hard to get things done and build a life because trying to get through the day can be so exhausting.
On Reactions by People in the Church
I wish people believed my story. No, I am not being melodramatic. No, I am not making stuff up.
I wish people understood how lonely it is, being on this side in the Church, how different everything is. I think that sums up a lot of the heartache for me.
I wish people understood the power differential between a priest and a parishioner.
I know when I'm being treated primarily as a legal liability rather than as a person. It's more obvious than the church offices realize.
I want to escape to get far from people’s gossip and cruel words, from their judgement and laughter.
I love the Church yet fear her at the same time.
We're not just jumping on the band wagon for money. We're coming forward to protect others, not because we're going to get a ton of money or something.
The distrust people in the Church have for victims who come forward is so hard.
My grandmother, mother, and I have all experienced sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of a priest. For pity's sake, STOP SAYING IT'S A HOMOSEXUAL PROBLEM. Abuse of women is not a statistical anomaly or an exception, and you can't blame "the gays" for it. So stop doing that and dismissing literal generations of experience by women.
The cover up by the Church hierarchy hurt more than the rape, because those who are supposed to protect their flock cared more about their image than me. They were cruelly indifferent.
On the Spiritual Effects of Abuse
I wish people knew hard it is from a spiritual perspective. How hard it has been to receive the Eucharist. How when I feel God’s presence and consolations, or things are going well, I start to panic, because it has been so hard to learn not to expect or fear that He will turn on me. How hard it is to believe God is on my side and wants good things for me.
I was definitely more prone to sexual sins after my assault. I think that's super common among survivors, but people don't really talk about it. I know I kept using it to regain control; I know some others use it because they feel like sex defines their worth.
I pretty much lost any desire to go to confession. And I rehearse what to do in my head if the priest tries to pull anything - what I would do if he tries to move the screen, asks for particular details of sexual sins, etc. - all the grooming behaviors that my abuser used.
People who have left for reasons related to abuse (things you know darn well are there) can make you question why exactly you're staying. It feels like they think I'm brainwashed or deluded.
I feel marked in the Church, since they didn’t believe me - like they see me as crazy or whatever. That makes it so hard to walk into a church building.
I still sometimes struggle in confession because I have to be alone with a priest. This anxiety can happen even with priests I've known for years. It's not that I don't trust them, it's just that if they do some small thing that an abuser did, I am immediately on guard.
It's very lonely seeing the dark nasty underbelly of Church bureaucracy and abuse and choosing to stay. People who haven't been there either don't get it or minimize and underestimate what you've been through. (If one more person says “you don't leave Jesus because of Judas" near me, I'm going to start breaking things. They're technically right, but you can't minimize the sometimes heroic effort it takes to stay after abuse like that. Have a little compassion!).
I'm terrified of my children's first confession. I don't know how I'm going to trust a priest being alone with my child after the grooming and assault I've experienced in the confessional. I dread having to talk to them about what to do if Father starts acting inappropriately, or what that might look like, but I know I'm going to have to have that conversation.
I wish they understood that I’m not missing Mass or walking out in the middle because I don't want to be there. It's just too hard sometimes.
If you are a survivor and would like to share your own thoughts, I would love to hear from you. Please comment on this post, or send a note to email@example.com. I would be happy to create a follow-up post with additional comments from other perspectives.
Edited to add: You can find this follow-up at More Honest Words from Survivors: What I Wish Catholics Understood, Part 2.
Lord, open our hearts to be compassionate listeners, ready to be changed and moved to action by the voices of survivors.