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Survivors' Voices: Spiritual Trauma
The more time I spend listening to those have been harmed by Catholic leaders, the more I realize the depth of the spiritual wounds this kind of abuse inflicts. The spiritual trauma is often overlooked, but for many victim-survivors, the impacts on their faith, spiritual practices, and relationship with God are devastating.
I believe all people, but especially those who value spirituality, need to be more aware of this reality. I hope you will listen with an open heart to the voices included below.
To use an analogy: my prayer life used to be like the living room of a full house - warm, welcoming, inviting, the center of the household/my life, filled with comfy couches, a cozy fire, and lots of laughter, warmth, and connection. After the abuse, my prayer life looks more like an abandoned attic - empty, desolate, full of splinters and nails, with a few old boxes sitting around collecting dust and perhaps a few rodents scrabbling around. I used to sit easily and happily for hours in the chapel praying with Scripture passages using imaginative prayer. By the time I left religious life, the words on Jesus’ lips had morphed so that they reflected the Sisters’ words — the Sisters had infiltrated even the most intimate part of my life and corrupted it. Prayer is no longer a safe refuge and I can no longer use imaginative prayer methods without the threat of abusive memories surfacing. Jesus, too, is frequently no longer safe for me. I’ve held on to my faith and identity as a Catholic through sheer grit and determination (and grace, I suppose), but prayer is difficult, my relationship with the Church is marked by suspicion and cynicism, and I struggle to trust that God cares about me or my happiness. The grief and immensity of that loss is, at times, overwhelming.
The spiritual trauma was the worst part. There's a scripture passage speaking about God's providential love that says, "who would give their child a stone when he asked for bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish?" I'd approached my abuser because I needed help with severe scruples. In the aftermath of what happened, I spent a very long time feeling like I'd been handed a snake. That was excruciatingly difficult to reconcile with believing that God loved me. Jesus has done a lot to heal me, though it's still ongoing. At one point, I felt like I had no chance at a personal relationship with Him and maybe He didn't want one, but that maybe my kids had a chance at one. I started taking them to a local adoration chapel for five minutes in between other errands. I expected nothing and felt like nothing happened for a long time, but I gradually noticed I felt more at peace after we had been there. That was the beginning.
I went to confession. The sign on the door said a different priest was inside. I had no idea my abuser was in there. He took this opportunity to tell me I was going to hell. He was angry I had reported him. I left. Another victim saw me and asked if I was okay, because I was white as a sheet. I have no memory of driving home. I shouldn't have been driving because I was so devastated. It took years to work through my terror and go back to confession (and a very patient priest who didn't take it personally if I bolted on him). Still today, I never feel safe in a confessional and avoid ones that use screens.
The impact of the abuse caused me to become angry at God, wondering why God could not stop the abuse from happening to my loved one. Where was God when he was being abused? Later in life, I was on a retreat trying to come to grips with how and when I can share the story of my loved one’s abuse, still very angry spiritually with God. I remember it was a very rainy day. It was then, in a very profound way, that I heard the words “Jesus wept” coming from my dark and broken heart. A small crack of light began to shine within. What a gift the rain was to me that day!
I tried to continue normally in my faith life after the abuse. Abused at age 46, I had a husband and children with whom I went to Mass and other activities in the parish. It was only a short time before my participation became robotic and obligatory. I explicitly remember thinking, "If Father can be such a fake, maybe the Eucharist is a fake too." The abuse destroyed my faith life like a landslide. The destruction started slowly, but it accelerated quickly, and was absolute. Fortunately, over the years I have been able to rebuild. I'm a much more mature Catholic, and I'm grateful for the maturity. My motto now is, "I'm devoutly mediocre." It's based on my past experience trying too hard and trusting too much, and on Thomas Aquinas' teaching in medio stat virtus: virtue lies in between.
The illness-ridden human (priest) who sexually abused me and my friends had less to do with the monster god that developed then took residence alongside my soul, than did the confusing, conflicting teaching and praxis of the Catholic Church. A long journey, beginning within the catholic church and extending into my life unaffiliated with the church, has left me alive, healthy, and educated (the hard way). In the end, the process has gifted me with a bare-bones basic, natural relationship with that beautiful Love-force, whom has been given many different names, descriptions, and definitions by humans. I don't depend on symbolism, ritual, specific and publicly declared moral authorities. Instead, I recognize the Holy within myself and through relationships and experiences. My profession now includes encouraging and empowering others in their spiritual quests.
I think the most painful part of my abuse has been the effect it has had on my spiritual life. I used to have such a rich and beautiful faith, but between my abuser, the Bishop, and several other priests and leaders in the church, they have destroyed my faith. I still long for the connection I once had with God. In the beginning, I was able to feel I still belonged in the church. As time has passed, I feel less and less like I belong. I still try to go to Mass, but since I no longer feel safe in the confessional, I don't feel I can go to communion anymore. So I sit at the back with tears in my eyes as they all receive Jesus, and my shame prevents me from being able to celebrate this beautiful sacrament. I get so highly triggered by religion, and I had hoped to find faith outside of the Catholic church. But I can't. I am Catholic to the core, yet it is too painful to be Catholic. This priest did not only violate my body, but he raped my soul, and I can't seem to find a way to heal from this. I am finding this to be getting worse and worse, and the only comfort I find is being met with compassion from spiritual friends, and walking in nature. Prayer is empty and usually leaves me feeling guilty for not being able to do it well enough. I hope that time will help this heal, but at this point, it is a gaping wound.
Wow. I feel honored, but also saddened, to receive and share these powerful reflections. I will have more for you next week.
If you have experienced any form of abuse by a Catholic leader and would like to share your own thoughts on spiritual trauma or future topics, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
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