Jessica's Story, Part 3: "I Don't Know How To Be United With A Church That Doesn't Believe Me."
Dear friends, today we reach the end of Jessica’s narrative.
If you have not already done so, please begin by reading the first two installments in this series. Part One, How Could I Say No?, describes Jessica’s childhood sexual abuse and the process of coming to terms with that abuse as an adult: Part Two, What It’s Like To Be On This Side, recounts Jessica’s experience reporting her allegation to the Church—twice. Today’s piece shares the rest of Jessica’s story and where her case stands today.
In October 2018, Jessica met with her bishop, pleading for him to reopen the investigation into her case. When he agree to do so, Jessica was cautiously hopeful about what would come next; at least it appeared her claim was being taken more seriously than the first time she had come forward.
Over the next few weeks, Jessica received a few phone calls from the investigator, who asked clarifying questions about Jessica’s memories and explained, once again, that she didn’t think she would be able to find any evidence. After this, things were quiet for several weeks, with no communication from the diocese.
Then, on a morning in late November, Jessica received a phone call from the investigator, informing her that the diocesan Independent Review Board would be meeting the next day to review her claim. Jessica had planned to be present to give a statement and answer questions from the board, but she had assumed she would receive more notice to prepare for such an important meeting. “This was another one of those moments that was very difficult for me,” she explains. “It was very hard for me to get past the feeling that they waited until the day before to tell me because they really did not want me to speak at it. I was taken completely off guard and was pretty upset.” After Jessica received this call about the board meeting, she talked to her doctor, then sent an email to the investigator, expressing her concern about the short notice. Jessica explained that she had not written a statement, would have difficulty getting off work, and felt generally unprepared for such an important meeting.
Jessica ultimately received an email around 11:00pm that night, telling her that the Review Board meeting would be rescheduled for a different day. She was relieved to hear of the change but also frustrated that communication had not been handled better. “It was a small thing that wasn’t a small thing,” she reflects. “I think that what happened was that I just got lost in the shuffle, and no one thought to call me. But I still don’t understand, with how important this issue is, why things like that are not being paid attention to.”
After this unpleasant interaction, the investigator seemed to be trying hard to make things right: she asked Jessica how much notice she would need to get off work for a meeting and answered Jessica’s questions about how the Review Board meeting would work. These seemed like hopeful developments to Jessica, but she was also unsettled by the investigator’s insistence that Jessica did not need to talk about the details of her abuse to the board. The investigator explained that the board would receive a report before the meeting, so the board members would just want to ask Jessica how she was doing today.
“This was a red flag for me,” Jessica recalls. “I wish I would have paid more attention to it then. I remember questioning how I could really trust that. Given that I had no idea what was actually in the report, how could I trust that she was telling my story fairly and accurately? One of my biggest regrets in this process is accepting those instructions and choosing again not to speak the whole of my story. I was trying to be respectful, and still, maybe naively, thought the best of them. I wish that I would have understood that I really did need to ‘fight’ in some ways.”
The Independent Review Board meeting was ultimately rescheduled for December 14, 2018. At this meeting, Jessica read a prepared statement, giving a brief overview of her story, while leaving out the details of the abuse itself. She described the far-reaching effects of this trauma in her life, but she also spoke passionately of her love for the Church and her desire for reconciliation. She told the five board members that she had forgiven the priest who abused her and prayed for him every day. Jessica ended her statement with a plea for action: “I come to you today because I love the Lord and I love his Church. I want to do everything in my power to protect the innocent who seek refuge in her walls and to implore you to do the same.”
Jessica was grateful that the board members treated her with kindness, but she found the whole meeting extremely awkward. “After I read my statement, they kept asking me what I needed or wanted from them, but I had no idea how to answer those questions. Interestingly, they asked me no questions about the abuse, about my treatment with my doctor, no factual information of any kind. But at the end of the meeting, the chairman looked me in the eye and told me that they believed me.”
For the rest of December, Jessica anxiously waited for some kind of communication from the diocese. She had hoped she would hear back from them soon, but Christmas came and went with no contact. As the New Year began, Jessica was still fasting and praying, pleading for the the Holy Spirit to come: “It was such a painful time, but there was peace too, knowing that I was doing what the Lord wanted.” Jessica tried to rest in that assurance as she waited for the phone call.
That call finally came on an evening in late January. Earlier on that same day, Jessica had received terrible news about the sudden death of a close friend. She was still reeling from that information when her phone rang. Jessica picked up the phone and heard the voice of the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator, a woman who had taken on this role back in November.
“I was so nervous when I realized who it was, and what she was calling about,” Jessica remembers. She listened through a blur of confusion and grief as she learned that the Review Board had found her allegation unsubstantiated. “I just remember sitting down at the desk in my office and crying, even while she was telling me. I felt so defeated.”
In this same phone call, the Victim Assistance Coordinator informed Jessica that tomorrow her diocese would be releasing a list of names of priests credibly accused of abuse. The priest that Jessica had named would not be on that list. “I felt like I had been punched twice, first with the news of the Review Board’s finding and then with that news. It was too much. And again it felt like it was a last minute thing, that they needed to call me before the list was published.”
Jessica was so emotionally overwhelmed during the phone call that she could not recall the exact wording of the statement. So, when the Victim Assistance Coordinator emailed Jessica to check in, Jessica asked for clarification and received this explanation: “The IRB did believe that something happened to you but they were not able to substantiate the allegation as they felt there was not enough evidence to make a solid conclusion. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to assist you.”
The Review Board’s findings were not entirely unexpected for Jessica, given the reservations she had already heard expressed by the bishop and the investigator. But it was still somehow hard to believe. “It took a long time for the news to settle in,” Jessica explains. “The decision left a deep wound. I want nothing more than to be reconciled with the Church, but I don’t know how to be united with a Church that doesn’t believe me.”
Jessica felt unsettled, trying to discern her path forward. She considered talking to a civil lawyer and she worked on a statement to release to the press, but neither of those options felt right to her. She researched church policies and canon law. She spent a lot of time in prayer, asking the Lord to make his will clear. “Is it time to let this go,” she prayed, “or do You still have more for me to do here?”
Things finally became clear to Jessica while she was visiting with an old friend who had a beautiful six year old daughter. Jessica suddenly realized how close her friend lived to the parish where Jessica’s childhood priest was now assigned. She felt compelled to say something, to offer a warning for the safety of this little girl. “I had no way of knowing if my friend would believe what I told her,” Jessica remembers, “but I know that I had to give her the information and let her make her own decision about how to protect her family.” After speaking honestly with her friend, Jessica realized that if her friend deserved this information, every other parent did as well. She became determined to find a way to make sure other parents would be informed.
In February 2019, Jessica composed one more letter to her bishop, a final plea for action. “When I met with you in October, one of the things that you prayed for me was that I would find peace in the knowledge that I had done everything I could to protect other children,” she wrote. “In the weeks following your decision with my case, I find that I cannot yet be at peace. The Lord continues to stir my heart, and so, even in my fear and despite my shame, in my weaknesses, I am compelled to write to you today.”
In this letter, Jessica explained her conviction that parents deserved to know about this investigation, even if the diocese considered Jessica’s allegation unsubstantiated. She wrote of the insidious nature of darkness and secrecy and the sanctifying power of light and truth. She ended with one last appeal: “I am asking you, imploring you, to please release the details of the investigation, including his name, to the members of our Church.” Jessica sent this letter with a prayer, uncertain if she would receive any response.
One week later, Jessica received a phone call from the Victim Assistance Coordinator. “She told me that the bishop had read my letter with concern and agreed that something more needed to be said. She said they were planning a statement, but that she didn’t have a time table yet. She said the bishop would be responding to my letter, but he had not been able to do so yet.”
“It felt like a victory,” she recalls.
That phone call came on a Friday night.
On Monday morning, Jessica received a text from her father, saying he was sorry for what she was going through. Jessica had not been in close communication with her father during this process, so she wasn’t sure what he was referring to; she took his text as simply a general message of support.
On Tuesday, Jessica was scrolling through Facebook late at night, unable to sleep. She scanned an article from the local news and realized, with a jolt, that the story was about her. Apparently, her childhood priest had made an announcement at his parish over the weekend, emphatically denying a “false allegation” made against him. The diocese had also released an official statement, naming the priest and explaining that an allegation had been made against him. This statement explained that a “thorough process” and “extensive interviews” had been conducted and that the Independent Review Board found the allegation “not credible.” The statement concluded with a reminder that Jessica’s childhood priest remained “a priest in good standing” in the diocese.
Talking about this part of the story still brings up a strong emotional reaction for Jessica. “I still don’t know if I have words to describe what that felt like—the statement itself, the way I found out, any of it,” she explains. “I was shocked. And angry. I believed they knew very well what was going to be happening that weekend. And my dad... that might be the part I am most angry about. He didn't even know I had gone back to the Church with my story. There he was, just attending Mass, and then he had to hear them speak about me like that. I’m angry and astounded that they made those statements at Masses. And the tone of the statement for me was a breaking point. Of course, I knew that they would have to deny the allegation. But for me, they went way past denying the allegation. They could have said that it was ‘unsubstantiated,’ the wording they had always used with me. But in the statement they said it was ‘not credible.’ In a bigger view, the whole statement lacked the basic respect that I had expected—I was dealing with people from the Church! It certainly lacked the charity that I had been so careful to cultivate in my heart before taking any step.”
“I was heartbroken,” Jessica remembers. “It was truly a moment that I didn’t know if I could get past. I didn’t know if I could find a way to remain in the Church.”
Of course, Jessica’s story does not end with this painful day back in March. In the final post in this series - Jessica's Story, Part 4: Questions, Answers, and Reflections - we will share what has happened in the months since the diocesan announcement, as well as how Jessica is doing today.
If you have questions about anything you have read in this story or about Jessica’s perspective on any of this, please send them my way. Our hope is to make this final piece feel like a true dialogue, where everyone has an opportunity to get to know Jessica as a real person, not just a character in a story you read online.
Because every survivor is a real person.
With her characteristic generosity of spirit, Jessica is requesting today that readers pray for her bishop and all the diocesan staff members who have been involved in this process. She also asks us to pray for the man who abused her. I can’t even begin to imagine the right words for that prayer, so perhaps it’s best to stick with the prayer of Jesus:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.