Jessica's Story, Part 2: "What It's Like To Be On This Side"
Dear friends, today I share with you the second part of Jessica’s story. Part One, which describes her childhood sexual abuse and the process of coming to terms with that abuse as an adult, can be found here: Jessica’s Story: “How Could I Say No?”.
In this second installment, Jessica relates her experience of reporting her allegation to the Church, pulling back the curtains on a process that is very rarely described in detail by those with firsthand knowledge. “There seems to be a wall of misunderstanding,” Jessica explains, “and I can’t see any way around it, other than to have an honest dialogue about what it’s like to be on this side.”
Jessica spent the summer of 2015 dealing with her overwhelming reaction to her childhood priest’s unexpected reappearance in her life. While she was still early in this difficult process, still coping with powerful symptoms of PTSD, Jessica made the decision to bring her story to her local diocese, where this priest was still living and working in ministry. It was not any easy choice to make, as Jessica still found it very difficult to talk about the abuse, but she trusted her beloved Church to help her at this moment of vulnerability. “I wanted to believe that any problems the Church had with the reporting process had been fixed,” Jessica remembers. “I expected the best of them.”
Instead, Jessica experienced a process that felt confusing and impersonal, at a moment when she felt desperate for support and compassion. Today, she recognizes that part of the difficulty with this experience was that she brought her report at such an early stage in her healing: “I came forward before I had done all the work in my heart, before I was clear and emotionally and spiritually ready to face the process of reporting.”
At such a vulnerable moment, Jessica felt ill-prepared to navigate a system that did not seem to be designed with compassion in mind. She could not easily find information about how the reporting process would work; she only found a phone number listed on the diocesan website, which she discovered went straight to an answering machine. Jessica couldn’t bring herself to leave such personal information in a voicemail, so she asked her psychologist to call on her behalf to get more information about reporting. After a few days of playing phone tag, Jessica was finally able to connect with the priest who was handling this process for the diocese.
Jessica remembers her meeting with this diocesan priest as incredibly awkward. “He was not unkind, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable, and that was hard for me. It only served to greatly increase my shame and discomfort. And to be honest, the last thing in the world I wanted to do at that point was sit face-to-face with a priest.” The priest asked her some basic questions and promised her that he would talk to the bishop, but Jessica felt embarrassed and frustrated that her anxiety about the meeting made it so difficult for her to communicate clearly. When the priest reached out after the conversation to request a second meeting, Jessica initially balked at the prospect. The priest then proceeded to call her doctor directly, asking the psychologist to encourage Jessica to meet again. Jessica was upset at what she saw as a breach of confidentiality, but she did agree to meet with the priest a second time, hoping for some resolution.
Jessica’s second meeting with the priest representing the diocese was even more difficult than the first, as he took the time to outline various objections to her claim. He mentioned that there had been no other allegations against the priest that Jessica had named as her abuser, and he explained that the accused priest had vehemently denied the allegation. Although she was informed that an investigator would be looking into her claim, Jessica left this meeting deeply wounded by the way she had been treated. “I can’t even put into words what that meeting did to me. I think if at any point in this I faced a crisis of faith, it was in the hours and days after that meeting. I was very vulnerable. I was looking for much more from the Church than an investigation. I needed them to meet my questions and my bleeding heart, but all I could hear is that they didn’t believe me.”
A few weeks later, Jessica was called in for another meeting, this time with the investigator who had been hired to examine her case. Jessica was grateful that the investigator treated her with kindness, even when asking hard questions. “At that point, I did not question the investigation that she was doing,” Jessica remembers. “I believed that she was trying to find the truth.”
That meeting with the investigator was the last time Jessica heard directly from the Church about her case. Eventually, the investigator called Jessica’s doctor to explain that they had decided there was not enough evidence to take any action against the accused priest. Jessica was devastated. “I was exhausted by the process and overwhelmed with shame,” she explains. “So I decided to just shut the door on the whole thing and let it be.”
About six months later, Jessica received a letter in the mail from the Archdiocese, inviting her to attend a healing service for victims of abuse. She had been trying hard to move on, but this letter made her angry. This was the first time she had been contacted directly by the Church since she had met with the investigator. “I didn’t realize how much that was bothering me,” she recalls. “It made me feel like I wasn’t even worth the effort of a phone call.” Besides, Jessica had been assured her confidentiality would be protected, and this letter felt like a breach of that trust. Even as a woman of deep faith who believes in the power of prayer, Jessica also felt frustrated that this prayer service was all that her Church had to offer her. “It seemed like such a small thing, a band-aid that was somehow meant to heal my whole heart.” She wrote a letter to the bishop to politely explain her dismay. The bishop’s reply felt defensive, and Jessica was left heartbroken again. “I felt so rejected by the Church, that I didn’t belong, that I was unwanted and a problem.”
After this series of disappointing encounters with the Church, it took Jessica almost three years to be ready to try again. In the intervening years, Jessica spent much time in prayer, spiritual direction, and therapy, seeking healing for her wounded heart and relief from the symptoms of PTSD. She kept attending Mass, even when it was painful, and she strove to stay close to Jesus and to the Catholic Church, in spite of the harm she had experienced there.
Throughout this process, Jessica learned to face her past and to place her healing in God’s hands. “It is hard to explain how far I had come in that time, emotionally and psychologically,” she explains. “I was in a much healthier place, more stable, more integrated in myself, more able to discern and speak about what I was feeling. So, it started to become clear that I needed to go back to the Church and try reporting again.” Besides recognizing the growth in her own mind and heart, Jessica had also become aware that the priest who had abused her had been moved to a new assignment—a parish right next to a Catholic elementary school. “The fear I had for the children there was heavy. I knew it was time.”
Compelled by this feeling of responsibility, Jessica moved to bring her allegation to the diocese a second time. She longed for a sense of reconciliation with her Church, and she hoped that her personal healing and increased clarity would allow her to make a more convincing case to the diocese this time. Jessica was disappointed when she was told the bishop was not able to meet with her until almost three months later, but she reminded herself that bishops often have very full schedules; she tried not to feel like she was being avoided.
In preparation for this scheduled meeting with the bishop, Jessica met with the same diocesan investigator that she had encountered when she made her initial report in 2015. This time, however, Jessica walked through a written description of her abuse and responded to questions with much greater detail and clarity than when she had been so emotionally distraught three years ago. The investigator listened attentively to the painful story, but she also explained that during the meeting with the bishop Jessica should not describe the details of her abuse. The investigator justified this by saying that the specifics would be “too shocking for him to hear.” This surprising request left Jessica feeling ashamed and angry. “It was too much for him to hear, to listen to?” she remembers thinking. “I have to live with it every day, I have to relive those moments over and over, but he couldn’t hear it because it would be too upsetting for him? I struggled a lot with that. And it was hard not to think that they again weren’t taking it seriously, that they didn’t really want to know.” The investigator assured Jessica that the details of the abuse would be in a report given to the bishop before their meeting, but Jessica never had an opportunity to see that report.
In spite of her reservations about the investigator’s instructions, Jessica decided to honor this request, out of respect for the bishop and his position. Jessica knew that she would be very nervous when she sat down with the bishop; she wanted to get her words just right, so she spent the next two weeks preparing a lengthy statement to read during their meeting. She decided to begin this statement with a prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit to guide their conversation and direct their hearts. It was also important to Jessica that the bishop understand her intentions for their conversation. “I am coming to you not out of anger or with demands,” she wrote. “Not as an enemy or adversary, but in respect, earnestly seeking reconciliation and healing.”
In October 2018, Jessica arrived in the bishop’s office for this long-awaited meeting. She sat down at a small table with the bishop, the investigator, and her doctor. They began the meeting with prayer, then Jessica brought out her prepared statement, took a deep breath, and began to read. Jessica thanked the bishop for his time and asked him to listen prayerfully to her story. She began by explaining what she was like at seven years old—the great awe and respect she held for her childhood priest, as well as the deep longing she felt for attention and care from the adults in her life. She described finding herself alone with that priest almost thirty years ago and the gratitude she felt for the special attention she was being given. Coming to the moment of her abuse, she skipped over that part of the story, saying only that this priest had used her desire for affirmation to gain her compliance.
Jessica went into more detail about the long-term effects of the abuse: the fear, confusion, helplessness, shame, and anger that flooded into her life after this trauma, as well as the suffering she experienced during the reporting process in 2015. “I felt as if I was seen as a problem that had to be dealt with, carefully and at a distance,” she explained to the bishop. “I wanted to protect the Church, but I felt I was seen as an enemy.”
While Jessica was very honest about the great pain she had experienced, both as a child and as an adult, she also spoke passionately about her faith and her trust in God. “The Lord has been my constant companion. His gentleness, His presence, comforted me in a way nothing else could. His Spirit was, and continues to be, at work in me, leading me every step of this process, strengthening me to always take the next step. He has been so good to me.” She also left the bishop with a plea, asking him to honestly confront the reality of clerical abuse and thus make space for God to bring about redemption and resurrection from this place of darkness and horror.
At the time, Jessica thought the meeting had gone well. “I wanted him to hear me, to see me as a person,” she recalls. “The first reporting experience left me feeling like I wasn’t really seen or heard or known. I felt like they looked at me and only saw a potential problem that needed to be managed. In this meeting, I feel like I did see at least a glimmer of his heart, of the pressure and conflict he was wrestling with in his decision. And I felt like he had, at least for a moment, really seen me and my heart.”
While there was much in the meeting that made Jessica feel hopeful, she also noticed that the bishop seemed conflicted—aware of his own limited experience with these matters and unsure of who to believe. “He said that it wasn’t that they didn’t believe me,” Jessica recalls. “They did; they just didn’t know if they had enough evidence.” In spite of these explicit reservations, the bishop agreed to reopen the investigation into the case and asked Jessica to meet with the Independent Review Board when the investigation was complete. Jessica had no idea how long this investigation would take or what the next steps would be like, but she left her meeting with the bishop feeling hopeful. Then she settled in to wait.
Jessica and I originally planned to tell her story in two parts, with a question and answer piece at the end to wrap things up. However, it is important to us that we describe the reporting process in detail, to give readers a clear sense of how long and painful this experience can be for survivors. So, we are going to end today’s installment here. You can find the rest of Jessica's story in Part 3 here.
Thank you for your continued prayers and support for Jessica as she takes this courageous step. The messages of encouragement have meant so much to her! If you would like to contact Jessica, you can send me an email, which will allow me to pass along messages while also protecting her privacy. In particular, we welcome you to send along any and all sincere questions that you would like to ask Jessica for the final part of this series.
Jesus, we trust in you.